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Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla always had faith he’d be an NBA coach

After taking over for Ime Udoka, the 34-year-old has Boston thriving. He talks to Andscape about his Black and Italian roots, the pressure of coaching the legendary franchise and more.

NEW ORLEANS — Jayson Tatum and his Boston Celtics teammates were focused on every word from their interim head coach Joe Mazzulla when he addressed them for the first time in the midst of turmoil. The 34-year-old was just elevated from assistant coach to first-time NBA head coach in the wake of Celtics head coach Ime Udoka being suspended for the entire 2022-23 season for an intimate relationship with a female staff member. By the end of Mazzulla’s straightforward motivational speech, Tatum and the reigning NBA Eastern Conference champions regained confidence that they could survive this wildfire with him on the sideline and get back to basketball.

“The thing I appreciated most was that he wasn’t going to try to be somebody he wasn’t because he was in a new role,” Tatum recently told Andscape. “He was very transparent. He said this was new for him and it was going to be new for everybody.

“It wasn’t something that we were just going to move on and forget about. It was going be tough and a transition that everyone was going to be comfortable talking about.”

The Celtics opened the season with more talk about Udoka’s situation than their prospects of returning to the NBA Finals. But with Mazzulla on the sideline so far, Boston still looks like an NBA championship-caliber team so far and the focus has turned back to its play.

The Celtics sans injured starting center Robert Williams became the NBA’s first team to reach 20 wins after beating the Toronto Raptors on Monday. Tatum and Jaylen Brown are still playing like NBA All-Stars while newcomer Malcolm Brogdon looks like an NBA Sixth Man of the Year candidate. But Mazzulla also deserves credit for his role in Boston’s NBA-best 20-5 start. The NBA showed its respect by naming him the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for October and November after guiding the Celtics to an 18-4 start.

“I am grateful for the award. Winning coach of the month shows how hard our staff works and the trust and buy in we have with the players,” Mazzulla said.

Mazzulla gave Andscape an exclusive interview from his hotel suite the night before the Celtics’ 117-109 road win against the New Orleans Pelicans on Nov. 18. The former West Virginia University star guard talked to Andscape about his mentality after accepting the Celtics head coach job under turmoil, Udoka, the interim tag, the pressure of coaching a franchise with 17 NBA championships, keys to returning to the NBA Finals, coaching Tatum and Brown, studies in sports psychology, words of wisdom from West Virginia men’s basketball head coach Bob Huggins, the state of Black NBA head coaches through the eyes of being Black and Italian and much more in the following Q&A.

Boston Celtics interim head coach Joe Mazzulla (center) during the game against the Miami Heat on Oct. 21 at FTX Arena in Miami. Mazzula helped the Celtics become the first team in the NBA to win 20 games in the 2022 season.

Eric Espada/NBAE via Getty Images

What were your thoughts when knew you were going to be the Celtics new interim head coach?

I’ve always had faith that I was going to be an NBA head coach. I believed in myself, but I didn’t know it was going to happen this fast. I didn’t know it was going to happen in Boston. But I kind of felt it, that it would happen at some point. At least, I had hope that it would.

Did you ever consider declining the Celtics opportunity due to the circumstances surrounding it?

As long as you’re where you’re supposed to be, you can’t really control how that opportunity comes. And so, for me personally, I’ve always tried to eliminate emotion because it’s fleeting and it distracts you. There’s passion. If you eliminate emotion, you get to the truth of what everything is. And so, when this came up it was like, it is what it is. There’s nothing I can do about it. The only thing I can control is how I just go.

Just because I know that for my wife and I and my family, we’re supposed to be here. For us, our faith is really important, and we felt like we followed God’s plan to a T as to where he wanted us to be. And it wasn’t even a thought. And you don’t have time [to contemplate].

Did you call Ime before you took the job to check in, to gauge his thoughts?

We talked a couple times just to check in on each other. But I think once everything happened, it was kind of like we’re not allowed to communicate. But when [the suspension] first went down, definitely had a couple conversations checking on him, seeing how he was, but other than that, no.

The Celtics have a strong championship-laden history with some great head coaches. Does that add pressure?

There’s no real pressure. To me, you just have a responsibility. I have a responsibility to [Celtics president of basketball operations] Brad [Stevens], to the Celtics, to the tradition, to the players, to the organization, the owners, to just do whatever you got to do to give this team and this organization the best chance to win another banner. And you just can’t stop until that happens. To me, it’s just a responsibility. And when I’m in moments of that, the only thing I can focus on is how do I execute. How do I just execute the next situation that I’m in?

Where does your confident mentality come from?

It’s developed over time. I think my dad and my mom, they had a huge influence on me as far as my mental preparation. As far as what’s your mindset on a daily basis, how do you navigate the world around you. And as a [basketball] player [at West Virginia], I wasn’t great. I thought I was a tough kid, but I didn’t have true mental toughness. I didn’t handle adversity well. I didn’t have great self-awareness. I didn’t have great self-management. I couldn’t self-regulate a lot. And so, when I got into coaching, I made a huge investment into that emotional intelligence and that mental preparation and how you navigate everything that’s going on around you. So, that’s helped.

How did you invest in emotional intelligence?

Just reading. I graduated with a degree in sports psychology. So it was that. It was just studying leadership, studying emotional intelligence, surrounding myself around people that had those traits. And there’s a few people in my life that have been very influential in helping me with that. And so, I think a combination of my faith and my emotional intelligence, studying it helped me just prepare for different situations. Because you never know what situation you’re going to be in, but you can prepare for it.”

Who are some of those people that helped prepare you for this?

Obviously, my wife. She’s a lot tougher than I am. She’s one. Huggs [West Virginia men’s basketball head coach Bob Huggins] is another one, with just the way he coached us. There’s a guy named Russ Rausch who has a company called Vision Pursue that is huge on mental performance. And then, a lot of spiritual advisers that way have just led me to increasing my faith, my spirituality, how I go about, and just growing myself every day.

You’re the son of late Rhode Island high school basketball coach Dan Mazzulla, who played at Bryant University and professionally in Chile. Your father died of cancer in April 2020. Do you think about what it would have meant for him to see you become a Celtics head coach?

Yeah, I do a lot. I don’t necessarily think about how he would react. I think about what he would say to me on a daily basis. Whether there’s a moment of, ‘I’m tired.’ Or did you work hard enough. Or the balance of your family. So, I do dwell on just him and how he has molded me for life and this situation. Going through his death really helped me. And I thought it was an honor to go through that process.

You just see a guy that gave his whole life to you, to the people around you, to a community, and you see him at his weakest state still fighting. And you got to let him know it’s OK. And through that you see what leadership, you see what servanthood, you see what life is really all about. And so, that’s just something I dwell on the most.

What words of wisdom did you get on coaching the Celtics from Huggins?

Don’t f— it up. That’s it. Just don’t screw it up and that was it.

Boston Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla (left) and Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (right) look on during a game against the Charlotte Hornets at TD Garden on Nov. 28 in Boston.

Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

You walk into that first practice for your first meeting with the players, what was your message?

I wanted the guys to know that I had been there before. I wanted them to know that even though I was their backbench coach, and I was relatively quiet and behind the scenes that I had been paying attention to how good they were as people and as players and to everything that we had gone through in my three years here. And I wanted them to know that I knew them and getting to know them as people and players was important.

I also wanted them to know that this isn’t a time for us to be vulnerable from a basketball standpoint. There’s a lot going on and people are feeling things a lot different, but the one thing that we can do together is when we’re on the court or in the building, we can focus on one thing together. And a huge thing was that we don’t have to allow this to affect what we’re trying to accomplish on a basketball [court].

That doesn’t mean that you’re not going to have a tough day because you may not know what’s going on or you may not like the circumstances. That all is a part of it and it’s OK. You should feel that way, but can we come together and just in this time, just focus on one thing together?

How have the Celtics players responded to you?

Everything is them. Their resilience and their character, who they are as people, they’re just resilient people. And the leadership between Al [Horford] and JT [Tatum] and [Marcus] Smart and JB [Brown] and then, the humility of D-White [Derrick White] and Malcolm and Sam [Hauser] and everybody. It’s really all of them. Their leadership, their humility, their focus. They know where they want to get to, and they know what it takes to get there.

Can you talk about the responsibility of being a coach here?

Some of that stuff, I can’t really do anything about it. People are going to pay attention to whoever the head coach of the Boston Celtics is. They’re not paying attention to me, they’re paying attention to the head coach. And so, for right now, that’s me. And so, we have to look at it from that perspective, that whoever’s in this seat is going to get the good and the bad. And so, but the other piece of responsibility is the detail. The attention to detail you got to have every day to put yourself in the best possible situation is important. And not getting caught up in all the other stuff. The other stuff will come.

What is the key to communication for you right now with the players?

Honesty and listening. I tell the guys all the time, this is a collaboration. A lot of these guys have been in the league a long time and they know the league. They know the ups and downs, they know the scouting reports, they know tendencies. So, it’s listening. It’s asking questions. What do you see? What do you want? What’s important? Where do you think we can be better? And then, it’s finding small areas of, ‘OK, this is how we need to do it.’ So, I think listening is important and I think just being as honest as you can without emotion.

It goes back to you don’t have to be emotional through this season, through this process, through coaching, through leadership. It’s what are we doing well? Where can we get better? What are the facts? What are the facts whether it’s one game, 10 games, five games, what are the facts? What’s going on around us?

Has the dust settled where the players can concentrate on just basketball now and not the Udoka situation?

They’re people. They’re humans, right? I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s going to go away. I know the guys are resilient enough to where they can handle it. And as long as we’re honest with each other, as long as we create an environment of, ‘Yo, if you just need a day to vent, then do it. And so, every day, you never know. I don’t want to rush that. I don’t want to put the guys in a situation where they feel like they have to feel a certain type of way.

Previous to joining the Celtics as an assistant coach in 2019, you had experience as an assistant coach in the NBA G League from 2011 to 2016. You were also a head coach at Division II Fairmont State from 2017 to 2019, earning a 43-17 record and NCAA Division II tournament appearance. While you were not a head coach on the NBA level previously, what did your take from head coaching experience in college that is aiding you now?

My first year, I had no idea what I was doing. I was just figuring it out. You don’t know, you don’t know. So, the first year, you have a bunch of ideas. I didn’t know how to teach. I didn’t really know how to build a system, build a preseason, build an in-season, your in-game management. You just need to go through all that stuff. And so, Year 1 was fun, but it was stressful because you want to try to get it right. There’s a significant difference in Year 2 to Year 1 as far as how you process information, how you build systems, how you build the curriculum. That stuff just kind of gets better and better.

Here’s where we were through preseason last year, here’s where we need to be this year and kind of figure out how to do that. And this time around, it’s not that much different. If you eliminate all the glamour, all the stuff that you don’t make up, right, the NBA is a league. It’s just a basketball league. The Celtics, if you take away all that, it’s just basketball, leadership, and management. And so, the same kind of systems, conversations, environment that you’re cultivating at the division, at any level, is the same that you have to do here. There are just more people paying attention.

After the 2019-20 NBA season, there were only four African American head coaches in the predominantly Black league. With you, there are a record 16 Black NBA coaches. What are your thoughts on that progress and the state of Black coaches in the NBA as a mixed-race Black and Italian man?

It’s one part and it’s not the whole me. So, my identity and who I am as a person is important and knowing who I am is important. And I think being a part of that is important for society. It’s important for the league. It’s important for the players. It’s important for people to understand that it doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from, you can get to where you want to go. That fundamental principle is extremely important. And so, being a part of that is huge. But I don’t want to be just defined by that. That’s also important to me.

My faith is just as important as my race, if not more important. But I understand that in order to reach different people, you have to be your whole self and you can’t put yourself in a box. And so, I want to be able to reach Black people, Christians, non-Christian. Whoever it is, I want to be able to be an opportunity for that person.

How much pride do you have in being Black and Italian?

I was engrossed in both. So, we grew up predominantly in Rhode Island, where it’s an Italian area, but my mom is from Los Angeles. And so, I would spend my summers in LA. And so, you got to see both sides of it. The goods and the not-so-goods, so to speak. And so, during that time, that’s where I’ve developed an identity. You go through it like, ‘OK, what am I?’

And people try to put you in a box of like, ‘Oh, you’re this. You’re that.’ And it’s like, ‘OK. Well, yeah. That’s part of me and I want to help.’ But where I’ve developed is like, ‘OK, this is who I am, and this is how I can be well rounded.’

From Bill Russell to K.C. Jones to M.L. Carr to Doc Rivers to Ime Udoka and now you as head coach, the Celtics drafting the first black player in Chuck Cooper, to having the NBA’s first black star and head coach in Russell, it’s fair to say that no franchise has opened the door for Black people more than the Celtics. What is your familiarity with that kind of history?

I’m very familiar with that. That’s a part of me. It’s a piece of who I am and it’s important to understand that and it’s important because that is a platform that people are looking at. It’s a platform that I can have a positive impact on. So, I’m fully aware of that and the importance of that. That’s where some of the responsibility comes from, right? When you say I have responsibility as a coach, it’s not just about the basketball piece, it’s about representing Boston. It’s about representing the Black coaches that came before. It’s about representing all the coaches that came before. So, all that fits into just you have a responsibility.

In terms of the Black history of the Celtics too, with the head coaches, I don’t know that there’s been another franchise that has had a bigger impact. And I’m going to give Ime his respect as a head coach because he did lead the Celtics to the NBA Finals last season. Absolutely. He’s a good coach. Good.

What did you learn from Ime as a head coach?

Ime had great poise. He had a lot of experience, and he was very patient. Very. There were times when I was an assistant like, ‘Man.’ We went through that tough stretch at the beginning of the [last season] and he was just right here. And his ability to be patient through those times and empower the players and he had a crazy knack to just remember everything that happened in the game. And so, working for [former Celtics head coach] Brad [Stevens] for two years, I got to see the systematic, the preparation, one side of it and I don’t think I would be as good or comfortable in the position I’m in now if I didn’t get both. If I had Ime for a year, but I didn’t get Brad, I would be incomplete and vice versa. And so, being able to get both sides of the NBA, so to speak, has helped me be more comfortable in this spot.

Boston Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla (left) and guard Marcus Smart (right) look on during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Oct. 28 at the TD Garden in Boston.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Whether you’re the interim or not, you’re always the interim. It goes back to what is the truth. The truth of the matter is it’s just a name. And whether I have a five-year deal or a one-year deal, I can be gone at any time.

What will it take for this team to win the title? What has to happen for this to be on all cylinders and for it to be a different result this time?

The guys have a clear understanding of what makes this team great. And you have to be able to remember that no matter what. And you can’t lose sight of what makes us great, what makes us who we are. And when things don’t go our way, because they will at some point during the season, how quickly can we get back to being who we are.

The NBA is extremely fragile. You could have the locker room; you could have everything, and you could lose it in two or three games. And so, do we have the ability to just stay right here, knowing what makes us great? And then, how long can we stay that way? All great teams, they figure out why they’re great, they stay there longer than other teams and when they’re not there, they get back to it quick.

What’s the key to coaching your two NBA stars Tatum and Brown?

Listening. Got to listen. I don’t know how it is around the league, but with these players are very lucky because they have high character and they’re very smart and they want to win, and they’ve been through a lot. And so, all the B.S. is cut out. It’s like, ‘How do we win a championship? How do we do it together?’ And along the way, you should have individual success. You can’t have team success without individual success. And so, no matter who it is, whether it’s Smart, Al, you can’t ask somebody to give something to the team without becoming better as an individual. And so, it’s important that you say, ‘Hey, first and foremost, we want you to be the best player you can. And then, see how that fits into what will make us the best team.’

How is your daily walk with your Christian faith?

It’s helped me shed perspective. The interim perspective. My daily walk tells you, you’re an interim, regardless. Anything could be taken away from you. I’ve seen it firsthand. My dad’s seen it firsthand, in life where something could be taken away from you, just like that. And so, the humility that you got to walk with, the awareness you walk with and the responsibility that you have to other people, just helping other people get to where they want to go.

There was within a three-day window where Brad offered me the job and three days later my dad was diagnosed with glioblastoma. And so, at that point, you have to learn how to accept a dream and a nightmare at the same time. And so, it’s a coincidence that I have this hoodie that says, ‘Good.’ There’s something good in everything. And so, you have to have the perspective. That’s why I have the perspective of, ‘All right, so what? Good.’

And so, how do you balance getting a dream and a nightmare at the same time? And that’s the epitome of life.

Why did you want to major in sports psychology?

With both my parents, it was always mindset with them. And so, I was always intrigued by how we interpret things. And so, what separates people. Kobe [Bryant] and all the great players, at some point, what separates them is their mindset. How they interpret information, how they interpret their environment, how they respond to their environment. And when you look at greatness, to me, that’s the deciding factor, is their mindset. And I just always had a knack for that. Partially, because I wasn’t good at it, partially because I knew I wanted to get into an environment where psychology was the difference maker.

For us, the NBA is like, if you don’t have an awareness to what’s going on around you and you don’t know how to respond to what’s going on around you, it can eat you alive just as much as it can help you. And my background, as you know before is, I didn’t always have the self-regulation and the self-management and self-awareness. And so, I felt like majoring in what was going to help me become a better person. I love sports psychology.

Do you ponder about what needs to be done to remove the interim head coach tag for you?

I honestly could care less. Whether you’re the interim or not, you’re always the interim. It goes back to what is the truth. The truth of the matter is it’s just a name. And whether I have a five-year deal or a one-year deal, I can be gone at any time. And so, it doesn’t really matter. And so, the second, if they take it off, I’m still the interim. And so, it’s just more about am I fulfilling my responsibility.

And in a time of just uncertainty, I’m blessed, because this storied franchise asked me to help lead it. Not do it myself, they’ve asked me to help and that is important. And however long that lasts, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing right now. And if they take it away, guess what? I’m that much closer to getting fired.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.