Earlier this month, the Boston Celtics suspended head coach Ime Udoka for the entire 2022-23 season for “violations of team policies.” Udoka had a consensual but improper relationship with a team staff member, who later alleged he made unwanted comments towards her, prompting a team investigation, according to The Athletic.
During a press conference last week, Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens announced that assistant Joe Mazzulla has been elevated to interim head coach for the season. Udoka’s status for beyond this season has not been determined.
During Celtics media day on Monday, we heard from the players and Mazzulla for the first time since the events of the past week. Here are some of the key takeaways from their comments:
Whole team caught off guard
Player after player described a sense of shock when they learned the news. Jayson Tatum explained that he found out on Twitter like everyone else, while Marcus Smart noted Udoka had recently visited him in Los Angeles, which gave him the sense the offseason was moving along as normal.
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Tatum said. “Nobody expected this coming into the season. We were all caught off guard by everything but we gotta try to move forward and play basketball.”
“Initial reaction is we were all shocked what was going on, a little confused,” Jaylen Brown said. “But a lot of that information wasn’t being shared with us or members of the team so we can’t really comment on it.”
“It’s been hell for us,” Smart said. “Just caught by surprise. Nobody really knows anything so we’re just in the wind just like everybody else. The last couple days have been confusing.”
Players still in the dark about the details
When the staff member informed the Celtics that Udoka made unwanted comments toward her, the team opened up an investigation. As a result, there is very little known about what exactly Udoka did. While that is necessary to protect the privacy of everyone involved, the lack of transparency has led to a lot of (sometimes nasty) speculation.
It has also led to some frustration among the players, who aren’t being filled in either. While they understand, the lack of information has not made the situation even more of a challenge heading into training camp.
“It’s gonna be something that we have to address as a group,” Brown said. “We’ve started that process as a group but not a lot of information has been shared. There’s a lot of confusion going around, a lot of speculation going around, which makes it difficult on the guys that’s been here, the guys that are here now. What we do is do our jobs and that’s what we’re here for. Try to put our best foot forward and do what we gotta do.”
“I wish we had more details. From what we know it’s hard to make a decision based on whether it’s consensual or not in the workplace or whatever’s going on. We know that’s happened before in the workplace, but there’s more to it possibly, which we don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t have the details, it’s not being shared with me. It’s hard to really comment on something when you’re not filled in with all the details. I don’t really have a feeling or a comment on my emotions about it because I don’t have the details.”
“The initial reaction was literally a state of shock,” Smart said. “We couldn’t believe what we were hearing and especially at the time we were hearing it right before media day. It’s hitting us from all angles. We’re trying to figure it out just like everybody else. Everybody was at the meeting, we wanted to know and they told us what they knew and we go from there. It’s frustrating from all ends of not knowing, not understanding because you don’t know. So just try to focus on the things you can control.”
Team trying to move forward and focus on basketball
The players’ demeanor, tone and responses made it clear that the situation has been weighing heavily on them. There is never a good time to lose your head coach under controversial and scandalous circumstances, but a few days before training camp begins is among the worst.
Now, in addition to the pressure of being a title contender, the Celtics have to navigate a confusing and difficult off-court situation that will also impact the team on the floor. It’s little surprise they are eager to get back on the court and start practice on Tuesday.
“I don’t know if there’s a perfect answer,” Tatum said. “Honestly, it’s been a lot. Coming off last season looking forward to coming in this year and then all these things transpired. The best thing that can happen is that we just start practice tomorrow and start playing basketball.”
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Mazzulla acknowledges past mistakes
When the Celtics announced Mazzulla would be taking over for Udoka this season, his age and relative inexperience was the first thing everyone noticed. He’s 34 years old — younger than Al Horford — and had only spent three seasons as an assistant. The next topic was his past mistakes, which include a domestic battery charge from his time in college at West Virginia. In 2009, he allegedly put his hands on a woman’s neck at a bar.
Stevens said that he personally vetted Mazzulla when hiring him as an assistant coach and had faith that he was the right person for the job. Still, everyone wanted to hear from Mazzulla himself.
“I’ve made mistakes,” Mazzulla said. “I’m not perfect. I’ve hurt people and I’ve had to use the situations I put myself in as a younger man I’ve had to use to learn from and become a better person. That’s what I’ve tried to focus on. How can I recreate my identity as a person, how can I rely on my faith and how can I have a positive impact on the people around me.
“I’m not the same person that I was. As you grow as a person you’re constantly having to build an identity. I didn’t have an identity at a certain point in my life for whatever reason. It’s how can I develop an identity, how can I find a foundation — which for me is my faith — and then how can I impact people positively around me and that’s something that I really learned throughout my life.”