Winter 2023

Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla learning from Christ's leadership: 'God has given us all unique gifts'

In his first year as an NBA head coach, Joe Mazzulla led the Boston Celtics to within one game of a second straight trip to the NBA Finals and their most regular-season wins in 15 years (57). With new additions Jrue Holliday and Kristaps Porzingis joining stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston is expected to be among the title favorites again this season.

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Mazzulla was named Boston’s interim coach in September 2022 after Ime Udoka was suspended for the season. The Celtics started 18-4, and Mazzulla was named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for October/November.

Boston ultimately earned the No. 2 seed with a 57-25 record and rallied from a 3-0 deficit against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals to force a Game 7, which it lost on its home floor. But the strong season led Mazzulla, who played in a Final Four during his college career at West Virginia and joined the Celtics as an assistant in 2019, to receive an endorsement from team president Brad Stevens after the season.

During his rapid rise through the coaching ranks, the 35-year-old has leaned on his faith in God. He recently joined the Sports Spectrum Podcast to discuss his faith journey and his approach to leadership, which he tries to model after Jesus.

“The part of Him that I kind of resonate the most with is His leadership style and who He was just as a person. … Regardless of anything else, there’s a reason why 2,023 years later that there’s still people talking about Him. He did something right,” Mazzulla said on the podcast. “Just learning from those leadership values is fun.”

Mazzulla grew up going to church but strayed away from his faith in college. A serious injury suffered at West Virginia and the uncertainty of his basketball career after graduation led him to reevaluate his identity and lean into his faith.

In recent years, Mazzulla has spent a lot of time studying concepts like grace and mercy. The competitive world of basketball he has lived in most of his life made it difficult for Mazzulla to fully grasp accepting something without being able to earn or “win” it.

“I really had to understand grace, and when I had the ability to understand grace, I understood surrender,” he said on the podcast. “When I understood surrender, I understood the balance of pride and humility, where it plays into my heart and where it plays into my relationship with Christ.”

His competitive nature drew him to the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is his favorite book of the Bible because of its duality and the way it relates to his profession.

“I feel like that’s the natural competitive space that we live in is that book,” he said on the podcast. “It matters. You have to do it. It’s so important. But then it doesn’t matter anymore.”

Mazzulla referenced his faith multiple times while speaking to the media last season, including a moving answer to a question about how he was trying to avoid getting consumed by the conference finals. He shared in his answer that he went to visit three girls under the age of 21 with terminal cancer.

“You always hear people, you know, give glory to God and say ‘thank You’ when they’re holding a trophy,” he said. “But you never really hear it in times like this. And so, for me, it’s an opportunity to just sit right where I’m at and just be faithful.”

As the Celtics begin their season Wednesday night against the New York Knicks, Mazzulla remains focused on using his platform to bless those around him and make the most of the gifts God has given him.

“God has given us all unique gifts, abilities, opportunities, and how do we use those for the better of people around us?” he said on the podcast. “How do we use what God has given us to move your organization forward, move the world forward, just try to leave it a little better than you found it?”

Wednesday’s game tips off at 7 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on ESPN.

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