Boston Celtics first-year coach living out a dream

Joe Mazzulla was comfortably seated behind the Boston Celtics bench while the team was playing in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. Fast forward to September, and he was going to be the one roaming the Celtics' sidelines.

It remains to be seen if his decisions will be the reason that some NBA picks become bad beats at some point. But Mazzulla, who at 34 years old became the youngest coach to take over a team that reached the NBA Finals since Lawrence Frank in 2003-04, is living the dream of many who get into coaching.

Mazzulla got this opportunity after former Celtics coach Ime Udoka was suspended for the 2022-23 season for having an intimate relationship with a female member of the Celtics’ staff. It was a difficult situation, but the roster was poised to contend for an NBA championship once again.

Mazzulla’s History

Mazzulla played at West Virginia for John Beilein and then Bob Huggins. His college career came with a lot of success. The Mountaineers won the NIT when he was a freshman, reached the Sweet Sixteen as a sophomore, the Final Four in his fourth year, and two other NCAA tournaments.

A lot of college players would sign up for that, even if they were averaging 4.8 points, 2.6 assists, and 2.4 rebounds in 18.3 minutes per game over those five years. Mazzulla, though, was better known for his defense.

Mazzulla is a Rhode Island native who began coaching right after his playing days ended at West Virginia. He was an assistant coach at Glenville State and then Fairmont State – both NCAA Division II schools – from 2011 to 2016.

Then the Celtics hired Mazzulla to be an assistant for the G League’s Maine Red Claws for one season, and then he went back to Fairmont State, where he was 43-17 in three seasons as coach. Brad Stevens hired him to be on the big league club’s staff in 219, and Udoka retained him when he arrived in 2021.

Off The Court Issues?

Mazzulla was arrested twice early in his West Virginia career. In 2008 he was cited for underage drinking and aggravated assault, which he pled guilty to and paid a fine. Then in 2009, Mazzulla was arrested for domestic battery after an incident at a bar, but that was settled out of court.

Stevens, the Celtics' president of basketball operations, said he vetted those incidents before he hired Mazzulla in 2019.

“I believe strongly in Joe’s substantiveness as a person,” Stevens said. “He’s been very open with me about how those moments impacted him in every which way, and you can see it in the way he carries himself. You could see that for a long time.”

NBA Contemporary

Mazzulla interviewed for the Utah Jazz’s coaching position over the summer. But the job went to Will Hardy, who was the youngest coach in the league until Mazzulla was elevated to interim coach. 

The two were both on Udoka’s staff last season, as Hardy was the top assistant. Perhaps he would have been the selection if the results with the Jazz’s job were reversed.

The Months Since

Mazzulla immediately lost a key veteran when free agent signing Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL while playing for Italy in the FIBA World Cup. Still, the Celtics have been the best team in the NBA up until the Milwaukee Bucks went on a 16-game winning streak to build a 2.5-game lead in the Eastern Conference.

The Celtics have had a couple of tough stretches. They started 4-3 but then ripped off nine straight wins. In December, the Celtics lost five of six games before winning 13 of their next 15 games.

Of late, the Celtics have lost four of their last five games, including a double overtime game against the New York Knicks on March 5 and then an overtime game against the Cleveland Cavaliers the next day. The latter was tough because Grant Williams said he would make both free throws to win it in regulation but missed both.

How the Celtics respond will be interesting since it is on the heels of Mazzulla becoming the coach on a permanent basis.