When the Boston Celtics named Joe Mazzulla interim head coach after Ime Udoka was suspended for the 2022-23 season in September, little was expected of the 34-year-old with no prior NBA head coaching experience.
Ever since that moment, the Johnston, Rhode Island, native has been proving his doubters wrong.
The Celtics jumped out to an 18-4 start to the season by the end of November under Mazzulla’s leadership, helping him earn the season’s first Eastern Conference Coach of the Month honors.
He then guided Boston through the grind of the regular season as the team finished second in the Eastern Conference with a regular-season record of 57-25. The performance has the team and its fans eyeing a return to the NBA Finals after last year’s appearance.
Joe Mazzulla is officially the 19th Head Coach in franchise history 👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾 pic.twitter.com/LMcTLS1u0m
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) February 16, 2023
After a first-round playoff series win against the Atlanta Hawks, Mazzulla’s Celtics are now tasked with knocking off their historic rivals, the Philadelphia 76ers, and league MVP Joel Embiid. The Celtics are down, 1-0, in the best-of-seven series, losing Game 1 without Embiid playing. Game 2 is Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET as Boston will try to bounce back.
It’s a monumental task, made even greater by the esteemed history of the franchise and Mazzulla’s lack of coaching experience. Yet he’s insisted since he was first promoted that he feels no pressure — only a responsibility to the Celtics organization and gratitude for where God has led him.
“I know that for my wife and I and my family, we’re supposed to be here,” Mazzulla told Andscape.com in December. “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.”
That faith was on display just a couple of months into his new role. In a postgame press conference on Dec. 2 after Prince William and Kate Middleton attended a Celtics game, Mazzulla was asked if he met the Royal Family.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph?” Mazzulla asked, jokingly. “… I’m only familiar with one royal family.”
This is awesome. pic.twitter.com/ncvAlIaBtB
— John-Henry Westen (@JhWesten) December 2, 2022
Mazzulla’s faith grew by leaps and bounds, he says, after some legal issues he had in college. He was charged with underage drinking and fighting with police in 2008, and in 2009 arrested for domestic battery after allegedly grabbing a woman by the neck.
“I’m not the same person that I was,” Mazzulla told CBS News after being named the interim coach. “As you grow as a person, you’re constantly having to build an identity. I didn’t have one at a certain point in my life for whatever reason. You have to find a foundation, and for me that’s my faith.
“How can I impact people positively around me? That is something that I have learned throughout my life.”
Mazzulla credits a number of spiritual advisors for helping him develop in his faith and re-craft an identity around who God says he is. It’s an identity that once again revealed itself on Jan. 29 as Mazzulla spoke boldly about prayer in response to the brutal death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police officers.
“I’m not a basketball coach, I’m a person who cares about other people” really powerful stuff here pic.twitter.com/6EwY4dnPcy
— Garrett Hickey (@Coach_Hickey5) January 30, 2023
“If you don’t have a compass, it’s very hard to direct yourself,” Mazzulla told CBS News. “You have to learn that on your own sometimes. My identity comes from my faith and my purpose. I got into coaching because I’ve had people pour into me, sacrifice for me, and I want to do that for my players.”
– Al Horford believes his ‘purpose in life is to please God’ as Celtics eye Finals
– SS PODCAST: Celtics’ Al Horford on family, his journey, being bold in his faith
– Celtics chaplain Robert Gray: ‘Take what God gave us and make it better’
– SS PODCAST: Former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo on giving life to Jesus
– ‘Believer’ Steph Curry scores Game 7 record 50 points to advance Warriors
– Steph Curry leaders Warriors to title, earns 1st Finals MVP: ‘God is great’