Celtics

Here’s what interim Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said about new role after Ime Udoka’s suspension

"You can’t rush trust. You can’t rush healing. You can’t rush any of that."

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Interim head coach Joe Mazzulla of the Boston Celtics takes questions from reporters during Media Day. Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

Joe Mazzulla has been a head coach before, and he learned something that might make him as prepared for his new role with the Celtics as he can be.

Specifically, Mazzulla knows he’s not ready.

After all, how could he be? Last year, Mazzulla was one of just two holdovers from Brad Stevens’ tenure as head coach, learning how to coach under Ime Udoka. Now, after the shocking news that Udoka has been suspended for the season, Mazzulla — who previously coached at NCAA Division II school Fairmont State — has been thrown into a head coaching role on an NBA team that hopes to make another deep postseason run.

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“You’re never really ready,” Mazzulla said on Monday, during his first media appearance as the Celtics’ interim head coach. “I’ve been a head coach before and what I learned from Year 1 to Year 2 from that standpoint was, I wasn’t ready.

“It’s not because I didn’t work at it. It’s not because I didn’t prepare, because there are certain things you have to learn on the job.”

Repeatedly, Mazzulla used his Media Day press conference to stress the importance of giving people in the organization time to heal. When asked about how women on the team’s staff were affected by the situation, he talked about patience and giving people the space they need.

“You can’t rush trust. You can’t rush healing. You can’t rush any of that,” Mazzulla said. “And so just being present for whoever needs us to be present for them, I think, is the key. And being a listener and how can we provide support for everyone are things I’m focused on on how to help.”

In his comments on Friday, Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens praised Mazzulla extensively.

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“[Stevens] had a concussion that day,” Mazzulla quipped.

Mazzulla’s promotion raised some eyebrows given his personal history. In college, Mazzulla was cited for several incidents, including a particularly disturbing arrest after he allegedly grabbed a woman by the throat during an argument in a bar in 2009. Stevens addressed those allegations on Friday, noting that Mazzulla — who has not had any issues over the last 13 years — allowed those moments to shape him in a positive way.

Mazzulla acknowledged that he “hurt people,” and that he had to learn from those situations.

“I’m not the same person that I was,” Mazzulla said. “I think as you grow as a person, you’re constantly having to build and identity, and I didn’t have an identity at a certain point in my life, for whatever reason. I think 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?’

“That’s something I really learned throughout my life.”

As for the Celtics’ on-court product, Mazzulla said he recognizes the importance of building on what the team put together last year during their second-half run, which vaulted them to the No. 2 seed in the East. He added that he doesn’t plan to change much of what Udoka put in place.

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“For the team last year, we were figuring each other out, we were figuring out what the strengths and weaknesses were, as far as players and staff, and once that clicked we were really able to move forward,” Mazzulla said. “The questions we’re going to ask ourselves as a team is what worked well, and what do we need to improve on to get where we want to go.”

Celtics players were stunned by Udoka’s suspension, but they expressed confidence in Mazzulla. Both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown pointed to Mazzulla’s tenure with the team, while Al Horford said the team plans to rally behind Mazzulla during training camp. Newcomer Malcolm Brogdon called Mazzulla “honestly an incredibly impressive guy.”

“The players respect and love him,” Brogdon said. “His ability to put together scouts, I heard against Miami and against a few teams last year in the playoffs were brilliant, and he’s gotten that reputation around the league as well as I’ve talked to people. So I think he’s a guy that’s ready for this opportunity and is going to thrive in it.”

The Celtics certainly hope so. On Monday, at least, Mazzulla seemed to be saying all the right things.

“If I want the Celtics to be successful, if I want our players to be successful, I shouldn’t be focused on what I’m trying to do,” Mazzulla said. “It’s what is best for our players. And so as much as we can focus on that, my question would be why do things have to change?

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“I think that’s kind of where we have to shift our perspective to: What can we focus on from a successful season last year and how can we make it better?”

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