CHICAGO – Asked about his rare and unexpected stint as Boston’s interim head coach, working the sideline in Brad Stevens‘ absence from the Celtics’ game against the Bulls at United Center Thursday night, assistant Jay Larrañaga said yes, it was difficult.
“Difficult situation for Coach Stevens and people close to him obviously,” Larrañaga told reporters about 90 minutes before tipoff and six hours after learning he would be stepping into Stevens’ role. “So we told him, ‘Don’t worry about what’s going on here. We’ll try to keep the ship going straight.’ ”
Stevens, 39, in his third season with Boston after a successful run at Butler University, reportedly traveled back to Indiana to visit Andrew Smith, a former player in his program who has been battling cancer for two years.
Smith, a 6-foot-11 center, played for the Bulldogs in the 2010 and 2011 Final Fours and averaged 8.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 22.1 minutes in 134 games. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in January 2014.
Larrañaga, also in his third season in Boston, coached the Erie BayHawks in the NBA Development League for two seasons and previously had served as an assistant coach at Cornell University. He played at Bowling Green for his father, Jim Larrañaga, currently the head coach at the University of Miami.
Larrañaga had coached the Celtics entry in summer league but only once before stepped in for Stevens, taking over after his boss was ejected from a game last season against Sacramento.
He had breakfast Thursday with Stevens and was preparing to attend a coaches meeting at noon at the Celtics’ hotel when Stevens called, alerting him to his absence.
“Not a lot of time to stop and think about it once Coach called,” Larrañaga said. “I’m not going to be like Brad, he’s a very special person. I’m going to be my own person. But in terms of just their routine and what they’re used to, I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible.”
Larrañaga said he texted his father about his role. “He told me, ‘Don’t talk to the refs.’ ”
As for any Red Auerbach-type pregame or halftime speeches he’d been saving for just such an occasion, the Celtics assistant said: “I think it’ll be very brief.”
Celtics wing Evan Turner said Stevens’ decision to see Smith might provide added incentive for Boston, which had dropped three of its previous four games. It also told them something about their coach.
“That’s unreal. I think that speaks volumes in general,” Turner said. “Guys are lucky to be able to play for a coach like that. That says a lot about his character.”
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg spent five years at his alma mater, Iowa State, before being hired by Chicago last summer. So he knows about the relationships that college coaches develop with their players, even in the best of circumstances. Smith’s condition, obviously, takes that to another level.
“You do develop such a strong bond with your players,” Hoiberg said. “It’s not just the four years they’re in school with you – it really lasts a lifetime. You continue to have relationships with the guys. They become family members. You’re always going to do everything you can to look out for former players.”