In the summer of 2008, the Boston Celtics were celebrating their 17th championship and preparing to contend for another title run.
Three thousand miles across the country, a teenager from Washington state was being told he had to leave home to attend prep school in Nevada against his wishes.
It was impossible for him to know at the time his dedication and focus in Las Vegas would lead him to be one of the key pieces to the Celtics future five years later.
The move will help your career path to the NBA, Avery Bradley was told. But he didn't want to hear it.
Bradley had already moved from Washington to Texas and back. He wanted to finish out his senior year of high school with his friends and teammates at Bellarmine Preparatory School in Tacoma. Besides, colleges had already started to recruit him. The young guard was just fine where he was, he thought.
His mother and his AAU coach had other plans. They were looking beyond the immediate future and saw a new school as part of the bigger picture in Bradley's road to the pros. His grades kept him qualified to play, but they needed work and didn't stand out on a transcript. Plus, they wanted him to stay zoned in and not get sidetracked by the distractions around him.
You're going to Findlay Prep, Bradley was informed. The decision was not up for discussion.
"It was rough," Bradley told CSNNE.com. "I remember I came home from a Nike trip and my mom told me I had to leave. It's hard not being able to go to school with kids you grew up with, having to move to a different state, and not only that, move away from your family being that young."
He continued, "The reasoning behind that was so I could grow up and mature. I was so unfocused at home, hanging out with my friends. I was just really, really unfocused, just not going down the right path. My parents got divorced when I was young, so my dad wasn't around. It was just us -- me, my mom, my sister. I didn't have a curfew or anything like that, so I needed something to keep me focused so I could worry about going to college and get on track.
"Findlay was the best way. It helped me become a mature person. I was completely different than I am now. Like I had anger, I'm telling you -- I was a completely different person. When I went back home from Vegas, people were like, 'You're so mature now. You act so different.' It's just because I had to grow up fast."
Former Findlay basketball head coach Michael Peck was excited when he received the call from Bradley's AAU coach, Garry Ward. He knew of Bradley's talent and welcomed him to the team. First Peck had to review his academic marks, though, and then the rest was up to Bradley to make the move.
"We said absolutely, Avery's somebody we'd love to have," said Peck, now the head coach of the Idaho Stampede (NBA Development League). "Let's first see how far off academically he is, because we're not just fix anything that's beyond help. And he was close. He was a little bit under water but close enough to where we said, you know what? I think with the one-on-one student-teacher attention that he'll get here and his focus without the distractions of his life back there, I think he can do it. We felt very strong and confident that we could provide what he needed, so we went ahead and said let's do it. They said, 'Let us talk to him because obviously he's not as eager to pursue it, but he will after we spell it out to him.' "
Bradley arrived on campus nearly a week after the rest of his teammates in August of 2008. He had been participating in a Nike event, and by the time he got there the rest of the players were waiting to see the athletic guard.
"I didn't know him at first," said former Findlay teammate and current San Antonio Spurs guard Cory Joseph. "So as soon as he landed, we all got together said we're going to take him to the gym and see what he has. That was a bad decision (laughs). He's a great player."
Though initially opposed to the idea of attending Findlay, Bradley put aside any teenage angst and approached the program with a professional demeanor. The coaches knew the first time they met Bradley on campus, he understood why he was there. He had a job to do and there was no doubt he was going to accomplish it.
"Avery was a quiet, very serious individual," said Peck. "He was a very task-oriented person -- 'Tell me what I need to know and what the list of to-do's is here immediately, and let me just start tackling them now.' "
Todd Simon, Findlay's former assistant coach and current head coach, immediately noticed a maturity level uncommon to teens of Bradley's age.
"He was conscious of what was going on," said Simon. "You could tell he had a bigger view of things and people in general. He was very serious and very driven about his work. He knew exactly what he was here to do, academically and basketball wise what his objectives were. He handled it like a mature adult. Never pushed the limits, never had an issue with anybody, he was just real solid. You could tell the drive that he had superseded everything else a normal teenager would put as a priority."
Bradley moved into the team dorm, a five-bedroom home shared by coach Simon and the entire squad. Simon remembers hearing a knock on his door every night he and his wife had prepared a meal for the team. It was Bradley dropping by to express his gratitude.
"He was always so kind and thankful for everything," said Simon. "He never had the sense of entitlement."
Bradley shared a room with Joseph, who had moved from Canada, and the two began navigating through the responsibilities of adulthood together as teenagers.
The players were assigned chores, from mopping the floor to taking out the garbage. Each pair of roommates was also designated a night to use the laundry machines. If they wanted food in addition to the daily lunches and dinners provided by the school, they could become masters of the kitchen on their own.
"We did our own laundry, it was terrible," Bradley recalled with a laugh. "We had the sand detergent, the powder -- I don't buy that anymore, I buy the liquid. We messed up clothes, used to do darks and lights together, we didn't care. I would cook pasta for me and Cory, no joke. We would get the frozen meatballs, put them in the microwave, that's what we used to do."
Echoed Joseph, "It was hard for everybody living there. You're young, in high school, to leave your family and friends, you have to grow up fast. We're in there trying to cook and we might have an upset stomach by the end of the night (laughs)."
Along with the responsibilities, the players were also given the option of how they wanted to spend their weekends in September and October before the start of the season. The team practiced Monday through Friday afternoon and were given the rest of the weekend off since they would have little free time once the schedule kicked in.
Although Bradley was getting acclimated to his new surroundings, he still made frequent trips back to Washington to see his friends and family.
"Avery went home probably as much as any player we've had go home," said Peck. "It wasn't every weekend but rarely was he here two weekends in a row, especially those first two months."
The basketball-free weekends were not offered to tempt the players to return home and leave the program. Rather, Peck believed the students would realize the benefits of Findlay once they saw their life, old versus new. A nearly week-long trip during Christmas also gave them a chance to reflect. Players often came back feeling more independent, accomplished, and confident in their basketball future.
"I wasn't worried," said Peck, "Because I knew when Avery went back, he'd take a look around, especially once he'd go back and play pickup with his old high school teammates -- these guys don't even compare to my teammates I'm going against every day. I wouldn't get any better."
As often as he left for the weekends, Bradley returned each time to Nevada. Seeing his teammates leave their homes in other states (some in other countries) made him feel like they were all in the same situation together.
He also saw his season at Findlay as a chance to disprove one criticism he had been told in Washington. There, skeptics said Bradley's former teammate and close friend Abdul Gaddy (currently a guard on the University of Washington Huskies) made him the player he was. Being on a new team gave him the opportunity to establish himself as his own player.
"When I got by myself they were like, 'OK, this kid can play,' " Bradley remembered.
Once back at school, Bradley had to balance his time between hitting the court and hitting the books. The staff gave him a clear picture of his current grades -- a handful of Cs and a B weren't going to cut it; he needed As and Bs. The school offered hours of test prep and the teachers were willing to help, but Bradley had to achieve the marks on his own.
"'That part of it, 'Avery, you've got to do the work,' " Peck recalled saying. "That's exactly what he did. He really approached his time with us like, I've got business to conduct and accomplish before I leave at the end of May, early June. That's what he did since day one, and the results and the proof are in the pudding."
Success came easier on the court. Bradley made it look so easy at times, though, there were moments early on when he felt his teammates were not always on board with the attention he was receiving. Early feelings of jealousy made him question whether or not he wanted to stay at Findlay. Calls to home quickly reminded him he had been through tougher situations, and he was at the school for a reason.
"It was hard for me when I first got there," said Bradley. "Everybody wants to get (college) scholarships after school, so you had your teammates being jealous. Me being ranked high, my teammates were jealous of me. You're playing in all the big tournaments and you might not have a good game but you might still get MVP and teammates got jealous, so it was hard. It helped me grow up a lot, though. It definitely made me a better person."
In spite of those feelings, Bradley always put on his game face. Both Peck and Joseph said Bradley never let those sentiments show on the court. Instead, he continued to fight to help his team win all the way to a perfect 33-0 season and the 2009 national championship.
"Avery was great," said Peck. "Because he's so quiet, probably a little bit of him was paranoid that he felt that way. But let's face it, you can be jealous or envious or not agree with that ranking, but at the end of the day when Avery's handing you your butt in practice and is producing and getting the results on both ends of the floor, even the guys that want to admit it the least know deep down inside, this kid is better than me. That's not saying that I'm a bad player, he's just on a different level. It's not like he just got on another streak for two weeks that he got hot; it was over the course of 33 games, night in and night out, practice every day. He won every contest. He won every sprint. He never changed."
Bradley averaged 19.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 2.9 steals per game during as a senior. ESPN's RISE Magazine ranked him the top high school player in the country, and he also earned McDonald's All-American honors. The coaches viewed Bradley as the team's leader, and even when he wasn't the game's top scorer, he often earned awards over others.
"He was the alpha male," said Peck. "Guys knew it and they basically accepted it and rolled with it. That doesn't always mean that Avery's going to be the leading scorer, but he is our leader. We need Avery to be on the floor and he can contribute in so many different ways and different areas of the stat sheet. Sometimes D.J. Richardson was our leading scorer, sometimes Cory was, but Avery's still the guy. That doesn't mean Avery's not good anymore. That's part of being a great player, letting Scottie Pippen score 27 while Michael (Jordan) scores 24."
Bradley left Findlay a different player than he arrived. He chose to play college basketball at the University of Texas and moved on to the next level with a new mentality.
"As a player, he was good when he got to us," said Peck. "I think he was better when he left us because I think he was exposed more from a national perspective. He played against everybody everywhere so he was prepared. I think he realized that and felt a sense of confidence and kind of like a hunger, almost like predator."
Bradley played one season at Texas and entered the 2010 NBA Draft, where the Celtics selected him with the 19th overall pick. Three years later, he is considered one of the most promising defensive guards of the future and his return from double shoulder surgery is a critical as the Celtics look to turn around their season.
For a player who was hesitant to attend Findlay Prep, he has left a lasting mark there.
"I made a comment to somebody yesterday and said, 'Avery shook everyone's hand in the room like he meant it,' " said Simon. "And it wasn't like he just went through the motions because he tried to show off. He literally would go to the gym and anyone that came there, he'd look them in the eye and shake their hand, and he meant it. That always stood out."
Peck still references Bradley's toughness when trying to motivate and drive his players fighting for a shot in the NBA.
"I say, 'I understand why our guys were first rounders at Findlay,' " said Peck. "Avery Bradley used to take whatever we threw at him, he chewed it up, spit it out, and said what's next? What do you got? He didn't piss and moan and complain. He did whatever it was and he went out to win it, whether it was a sprint, a two-mile run, a drill, a shooting contest, whatever. He looked at you like, I believe and I'm in. Everybody around me has told me this is what I need to do, so I'm one hundred percent in. What's next?"
Now back on the court, Bradley will continue to show what's next, game after game. While he is still shaping his future in the league, he can look back on how his past impacted where he is today.
"Sometimes I think about it (if I didn't go to Findlay)," said Bradley. "I went to a real prestigious school in Washington. I probably still would have got a scholarship somewhere, but my basketball skills probably wouldn't be where they got. I probably wouldn't have become the number one player, I probably wouldn't have been a McDonald's All-American, a lot of things. I don't know where I would've been. Findlay was the best move for me."