HOUSTON -- In the early morning of January 20, 2009, after watching South Carolina State and Howard play a MEAC regular season game, I slept for two hours, grabbed my stuffed basketball, and made my way through the spaghetti tangle of Beltways and Metro lines to be on the Washington Mall to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States. I am not a partisan-politics man. Since coming eligible to vote, I've punched ballots for Perot, Clinton, even George W. Bush. But I went door-to-door for Obama in New Hampshire; that's the level of emotional investment that was paying off.
I don't have a side in the Red-Blue War; my party is the Macrocosm Party. I vote against, and gravitate away from, all those who operate as reactionary centers-of-the-universe. I've learned over the years that folks like that generally don't have a good grasp on things. To be a true leader, to maintain the kind of Big Picture perspective needed to rule fairly and effectively, one needs calm and cool confidence, time for reflection and deep breaths, quiet transcendence over loud pettiness.
I remember the exact moment when Barack Obama gained my vote.
It wasn't because he had the same songs on his iPod that I did. "Hope," for me, was the idea that intelligent, reasonable and calm leaders were going to control this fledgling century, and that tiny people grinding tiny axes would not. And it just so happened that on the very same day Obama gained his job, I lost mine. His general demeanor was such an inspiration to me during that time. Chill the f___ out, I got this.
Over the ensuing two years, my heart's been broken -- just like those of millions of others. I don't blame the man himself. He didn't fail me, reality did. I know that President Obama hasn't been able to surround himself with very many people in Washington who think like him, because hope requires more audacity than most people are capable of. And so there have been compromises and sell-outs and wrong turns and unnecessary violence, and now we're here.
Towards the end of the Bush XLIII years, which I am microscopically responsible for (two words: John Kerry), there was a hope-fueled backlash of inspiration for us Big Picture men, those of us who value the synapse-crack over the knee-jerk. It spilled over into popular culture as well.
Don Draper from "Mad Men" was the perfect fictional character for an overeducated, disaffected, disillusioned niche audience during those years. He was far more useful in 2008 than he could have ever been in 1964. He was the ultimate cool guy, always in control of every situation, effortlessly slipping between boardrooms and bohemia. His calm was his strength and the source of his mojo, and women threw themselves at him.
Don Draper was the Big Picture.
But "Mad Men" is scripted entertainment, and it requires long story arcs to maintain audience interest. It was inevitable, then, that fissures would appear in Don Draper's exterior. His life unraveled and came undone, and he became just as little-picture as anyone else. The lesson was this: cool was just a shell.
So as the third digit of Gregorian years shifted to "one," we Big Picture people started running out of heroes, even fictional ones.
For those of us (and there are very few of us) who hang around college basketball in an sweeping overview capacity, head coaches act as program figureheads and primary points of contact. Any time a writer needs a quote for a story, they go to the man in charge, because that's where the buck stops and the authority lies.
When Brad Stevens ascended from assistant to bench boss after Todd Lickliter left for Iowa, he didn't act very different than any other young coach in his situation: part of his new inherited job was to deal with reporter questions on a regular basis, and he needed some time to adjust to the public relations side of his new role.
The first time I interviewed Coach Stevens was in late December 2007, following that return BracketBuster game with Southern Illinois, a team that had also gone to the Sweet Sixteen the previous season. That game ended on an A.J. Graves buzzer-beater. In the dingy old SIU Arena tunnels, he told me about what was different from the Lickliter era and what was the same. He eagerly and excitedly talked about his players and their tendencies. I still have a digital copy of this in my archives, and it's 20 minutes long.
I only asked him three or four questions.
In the 2009 offseason, after Butler went out in the NCAA first round against LSU in an 8/9 game, something changed about Brad Stevens. All of a sudden, you couldn't get an exclusive quote out of him anymore. The same answers were delivered in a measured monotone to everyone, and it was like he was on stock-answer autopilot. Media people who were closer to the league than I, sports information directors and beat writers and such, noticed it too.
One theory was that he'd had a brain transfusion with Brad Brownell, who at the Wright State at the time. Brownell is a fantastic coach, as evidenced by the fact that Clemson hired him away for a lot more money, but there's no column in the standings for slam-bang interviews. Head coaches don't get hired and fired based on how many "media good guy" awards they get.
Which is exactly the point. Coach Stevens learned to recognize the basic transaction, and to provide responses that are courteous and forthright and always placed the school and program in the best possible light. That saved time and effort could be spent on making the team better, planning for the next game, and having enough left over for family and friends. He'd become a true Big Picture thinker.
Two seasons ago, I talked to Stephens for a Basketball Times story. I asked my questions, he gave his answers. Once I hesitated, he asked, "You got what you need?"
Yes, sir. Thank you.
I've really made it a point not to bother Brad Stevens. He's doing work. I don't have the audience size to warrant an intrusion, and I also pretty much know what I'd get. ("I didn't know what we were going to talk about this year," he said just now during mandatory media availability. "I felt like we covered it all last year.") But mostly, I keep my distance because we always must keep our heroes safe.
To me, Brad Stevens is new proof that quiet and cool Macrocosm Men can still lead on their own terms. Chill the f___ out, I got this. This is not the kind of inspiration that makes me pump my fists and scream happy obscenities; more of a smiling, nodding acknowledgement that the future might be won after all.