Making the case for Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla
In 1972, Ray Scott — the NBA’s first Black Coach of the Year — was a young assistant thrust into the head job. He thinks Boston’s coach is heading in the right direction.
BOSTON — The Boston Celtics’ bizarre rollercoaster season is over. There will be no back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals.
In the coming days, Brad Stevens, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations, will make a decision about Joe Mazzulla, Boston’s interim-turned permanent-turned on the hot seat head coach.
Last week, Stevens sent word that he planned to wait until the season ended to comment on Mazzulla’s status. I thought that decision was made in February when Stevens took the interim tag off and named Mazzulla head coach.
But much has happened since then. Mazzulla led the Celtics to 57 regular-season wins. In the playoffs, Boston stumbled past Atlanta in six games and squeaked by Philadelphia in seven. Rather than being seen as an example of NBA parity, the Celtics’ playoff performances were used as an indictment of Mazzulla and sparked a social media feeding frenzy to get rid of him.
The outrage continued as Boston fell into an 0-3 hole to Miami. Then jeers became cheers as Boston tied the series at 3-3, forcing Game 7 at home with the chance to make history: no NBA team has ever overcome a 3-0 deficit.
Instead, Miami made history, routing Boston on Monday to become only the second No. 8 seed to advance to the NBA Finals.
Predictably, calls for Mazzulla’s head have resurfaced with renewed fervor. Publicly, the Celtics organization has said nothing; the frenzy largely exists within the social media universe where memes refer to Mazzulla as “Mafoola” and “Joe Nomoola.”
In an atmosphere where patience is devoured by instant gratification, Stevens hopefully can convince Celtics ownership to ignore fans’ bloodlust in the moment and keep Mazzulla as head coach.
Mazzulla deserves to be embraced by a franchise that began this season entangled in an un-Celtics like scandal involving former head coach Ime Udoka, who was suspended in September 2022 for violating organizational rules by having an intimate relationship with a female team employee.
Days before the season began, the 34-year-old Mazzulla was named interim Celtics head coach. Perfect choice for an image conscious franchise: devout Catholic, a family man with a wife and three beautiful children. Mazzulla should be a keeper, even before we get to his value as the Celtics head basketball coach.
“I think Joe did a great job,” Celtics forward Jason Tatum said after Monday’s loss.
Jaylen Brown, who had a miserable Game 7 said, “I give Joe my respect. Tough situation to be in; he took it head on and ran with it.”
One person who has watched from afar and pulled for Mazzulla is 85-year-old Ray Scott, an NBA pioneer and former head coach.
In 1972, Scott — like Mazzulla — was a 34-year-old first-year NBA head coach. Scott, then an assistant, replaced Earl Lloyd as the Detroit Pistons’ head coach seven games into the 1972 season when Pistons general manager Ed Coil summoned the two men to his hotel suite.
As Scott recalls in his book “The NBA In Black and White,” Coil turned to Lloyd and said, “Earl, you’re out. He turned to Scott and said, “Ray, you’re in.”
In his book, Scott wrote that “Earl was fired as if he was a chauffeur.”
Scott was in shock but Lloyd, the first African American to play in the NBA, told Scott, “Ray, you gotta take this.” At the time, Scott said he was one of only two Black NBA head coaches. Two seasons later, Scott made history by becoming the first African American head coach to be voted NBA Coach of the Year.
More than 50 years later, Scott said that he is pulling for Mazzulla.
“Absolutely. because he’s a young coach and he’s a brother,” Scott said Sunday from his home in Ann Arbor. “I know that pool he’s swimming in. There’s the pool and then there’s the other pool for us [Black head coaches].
“He’s in what they call a must-win. I recognize that he’s swimming in deep water. Every decision he makes is being second-guessed. If he calls a timeout, good. If he calls a timeout, bad. He can’t win.”
Scott and Mazzulla were thrown in the fire, but their circumstances were different. Mazzulla had a solid playing career at West Virginia but did not play in the NBA. He was an assistant coach for 11 years before joining the Celtics in 2022.
Scott played professionally for 14 seasons when he joined the Pistons coaching staff. When he became head coach, Scott virtually had no coaching experience.
“When that happened, my whole coaching philosophy started to come into play, because I had no coaching philosophy because I just came from being a player,” he said.
The teams they inherited and the expectation surrounding the teams were vastly different. The Pistons were perennial, underachievers, and non-title contenders. In contrast, Mazzulla inherited a Rolls Royce team. Entering the season, Boston had expectations of reaching the NBA Finals and for good reason. They reached the Finals last season and came within two games of defeating Golden State.
Scott’s Pistons team had an All-Star caliber player in Curtis Rowe and two future Hall of Fame players: Dave Bing and Bob Lanier.
“Outside of Bing and Roe and Lanier, we didn’t have any players,” Scott said. “You had guys that could go in and play professional basketball, but they’re not going to help us win.”
When Scott he was named head coach in 1972, there were few Black shoulders to stand on. The only other active Black head coach was Al Attles with Golden State.
Scott said that what has not changed about being a head coach from his era to Mazzulla’s is that players win games, great players make plays and win titles. The term “coach” is a misnomer.
“Baseball has it right,” Scott said. “When I am on the bench, I am not a coach; I am a manager. I manage time, I manage the minutes, I manage the personnel, I manage the plays.”
Then and now, Scott said, a coach is only as good as a star player’s willingness to accept coaching. The most difficult aspect of being a young head coach is making suggestions that star players will accept.
Scott said his breakthrough moment came with Bing.
“The reason I was Coach of the Year is because of Bing,” he said. “I went to Dave — this is God’s truth — I said, ‘Dave, you work your a– off. You got to be so exhausted near the end of the game and then you got to take the big shot. I don’t want you doing that. Let’s approach this another way. Let’s make Bob Lanier the focal point in the last five minutes.’ ”
Bing agreed and the Pistons began to win games.
“The important thing is that Dave said, ‘Right on,’ ” Scott said. “He supported me and that’s how we had that great year.
“If Dave said to me, ‘Nah man, I think I need to be the guy,’ I’m done.”
Despite Monday’s loss and the invariable cries that will come for Mazzulla’s head, Scott said that the young coach is heading in the right direction. He was convinced of it after listening to Brown’s comments after Boston’s miraculous Game 6 victory in Miami.
Brown was asked how Mazzulla held up after watching Boston go down three games to none in the series and enduring withering criticism.
“Joe seemed to stay calm,” Brown said. “Joe took all the blame; he tried to die on the sword, but the reality is that we were all in it together and we all had to make adjustments. I had to make adjustments.”
Brown said that Mazzulla pulled him to the side and told him that he needed to impact a game in more ways that just scoring, “whether it’s rebounding, whether it’s a defensive presence.
“Joes been in our ear this whole time. First year, but he’s got a mentality that keeps us in games.”
Scott was impressed by what the young star player said about his young first-year coach.
“How do you walk up to a guy that’s getting you 20, 25 a game and tell him to do other things?” Scott said. “That told me that Joe is a ballsy guy, he’s no shrinking violent. He is a tough kid.
“I knew that Joe was tough, but to have it described publicly was a big thing. I thought all the basketball aficionados walked away after hearing Brown, saying, ‘Boy, that kid’s a good coach.’ ”
That may not be what angry Celtics fans are saying about Joe Mazzulla in the moment. But in the long run, he is the resilient fresh voice the Celtics need. Hopefully, Stevens will convince ownership to ignore the jackals and stick with the plan.