Note: This story has been updated to provide an explanation for the subjects not wearing masks in the accompanying photographs.
The day before the Celtics left for Orlando, Coco Fernandez just knew he was going to hear from Brad Wanamaker.
The Waltham barber had only one player appointment officially on his schedule: A session with Kemba Walker. But Fernandez had a feeling Wanamaker — and probably a few others — would call in hopes of booking a last-minute trim prior to departing for the NBA’s “bubble” campus inside Walt Disney World.
Sure enough, after his workout last Tuesday morning, rookie Grant Williams stopped by Fernandez’s shop, Mobar Cuts. Moments later, fellow rookie Carsen Edwards, sporting his Adidas-branded face mask, walked in, too.
“The fact that Brad Wanamaker hasn’t texted or called yet,” said Fernandez, shaking his head with a smile. “I should have planned on having no lunch.”
Fernandez cuts the hair of 13 out of the 17 Celtics — in addition to Jayson Tatum’s two-year-old son, Deuce, and Wanamaker’s 10-year-old son, Brad Jr.
On this Tuesday, Fernandez buzzed the sides of Williams’s head to perfect his fade and sharpened the corners of his lineup, a style that defines the hairline into a straight line and right angles. Though a few teammates have embraced their longer hair following quarantine, Williams expressed no interest in changing up his style.
“I’d have to take care of it,” Williams said, “and I’m not trying to do that work.”
Because Fernandez and the players spend so much time together outside of the shop, both parties felt comfortable forgoing masks while in the barber chair — as long as no other customers arrived.
“We kind of have that confidence,” Fernandez said. “When normal clients come in, we wear masks, we wear gloves, we sanitize the chairs in between each clients, [and] we take temperatures.”
While Fernandez got to work, Williams and Edwards traded thoughts about the NBA’s unusual attempt to return to play.
How do you pack for a road trip that could last up to three and a half months? Will players really be able to stay inside the “bubble” with no visitors? Once family members are allowed, will anybody join?
The scene has become commonplace for Fernandez, who, over the past four or so years, has forged close bonds with a number of Celtics via his barbering.
Leading up to Summer League last July, Edwards said he went three days telling people, “Bro, I really need a cut.” Nearly everyone recommended the same thing: “Go to Coco.”
Edwards did. A few months later, when he decided it was time to say goodbye to his dreadlocks, his signature look from his final year at Purdue, Fernandez was the one to do it.
Last Tuesday, Edwards left the shop around 3:30 p.m., giving Fernandez two and a half hours to finally eat lunch until Walker showed up. But when 6 p.m. rolled around, Walker strolled in, accompanied by another unplanned customer: two-way player Tremont Waters.
As Fernandez cleaned up Walker’s beard, Waters sat in the adjacent barber chair — six feet away — and playfully badgered his teammate while maintaining a FaceTime conversation with his long-distance girlfriend.
Walker, who opened his home to Waters once mandatory workouts began in Boston on July 1, has become used to it — both the friendly pestering and the calls.
“All day,” Walker said. “All day.”
Even though his hair is the longest it’s been in five years, Walker wasn’t looking to buzz everything off just yet. Instead, he wanted to keep his mini fro and asked for a light taper at the bottom of his temples.
“I’m digging it,” Walker said. “This is my 30-year-old look right here. This is my grown man look.”
When Walker first moved to Boston — before he met Fernandez — he would fly out his barber from Charlotte, where he spent the first eight seasons of his career. That type of treatment is customary in the NBA, where many players take pride in having a fresh cut.
Tatum noted last week that access to barbers within “the bubble” was among the topics the NBA and NBPA discussed while planning for the league’s restart. Six barbers ultimately were invited, and a shop will be set up in each of the three team hotels.
“This sport comes with so much, in terms of appearances, talk show opportunities, partnership opportunities, so you want to be as neatly groomed and as well-groomed as possible,” said CJ McCollum, one of the vice presidents of the Players’ Association. “I think it’s that combination of wanting to look good — like when you get a new haircut or a fresh cut, you feel like a new person.”
And the Celtics rely on Fernandez to help them feel that way. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, he was permitted to cut players’ hair from the barber chair inside the Auerbach Center. But now, access to the practice facility is limited to only essential staff, sending players out to Waltham for biweekly trims at Mobar’s brick-and-mortar location.
Occasionally, other appointments will overlap with those of Celtics, leading to a lot of whispering and staring. Whoa, is that who I think it is? Fernandez jokes some customers have risked ruining their haircuts because they can’t resist looking over at a player’s station. He’s seen several phones sneak out from under the cape in an effort to snipe a photo.
Fernandez, who grew up in Waltham, first became interested in barbering when he started to grow a beard as a teenager. While attending MassBay Community College in Wellesley, he would cut the his classmates’ hair outside of cafeteria. His sights soon shifted to a potential career, and Fernandez decided to leave college and attend barber school full-time. Seven months later, he was trained and certified.
He began by working in local barbershops, but he always maintained an interest in starting his own business. When he was 24, he purchased a white Ford cargo van from a dealership in Natick, gutted the interior, and built a mobile barbershop.
Shortly after he and his wife finished the project, Fernandez, now 29, met Greg Robinson, a close friend of former Celtic Terry Rozier, at a pickup basketball game. Upon learning Fernandez was a barber, Robinson said he and Rozier were in the market for a new one — and asked if Fernandez might be interested.
“I didn’t even know who Terry Rozier was at this time,” Fernandez said.
He agreed to the gig, drove the retrofitted van to their house, and cut their hair. Rozier, then about to start his second season, stayed so quiet that Fernandez left without even knowing if he liked the finished product.
A week later, Fernandez received a call from Trey Davis, a close friend of Marcus Smart, who asked if he could come by and cut their hair. Fernandez agreed, without knowing who exactly “Marcus” was.
“When I show up, it’s Marcus Smart,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Whoa.’”
The nerves were real. Fernandez recognized the importance of the role of a barber to an NBA player, as well as the difficulty level of breaking into that network of clientele.
“If I do one haircut wrong, it could set me back,” he said. “Marcus used to come downstairs in a bathrobe or a furry blanket. He’d tell me, ‘Don’t put the cape on me,’ and he’d sit there and just stare at himself in the mirror with a blank face. So, you don’t know if you’re doing a good job. You don’t know what’s going on.”
Fernandez became closer and closer to Smart through their conversations in the van. Smart started calling for haircuts, even when he didn’t really need one.
“Marcus would call, just so he could hang out in the truck around like 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock in the morning,” Fernandez said. “He’d call and be like, ‘Yo, I need a haircut.’ He didn’t really need a haircut.”
The tighter the relationship, the more comfortable Fernandez felt with cutting hair. He began hanging out with players outside of their appointments, which only further enhanced his connections and boosted his confidence. Eventually his customer base grew. Kadeem Allen, Avery Bradley, Abdel Nader, and Guerschon Yabusele all became regulars.
Word also spread to out-of-town players, which led to Fernandez cutting the hair of players like Buddy Hield, Eric Gordon, and Will Barton.
As you could imagine, there’s no shortage of memorable stories, from Fernandez working in dimly lit hotel rooms to receiving requests for his services as late as 3 a.m.
Ahead of the All-Star break, for example, Walker asked if he could get a cut before leaving for Chicago. So, Fernandez went to TD Garden, with the intention of setting up shop afterward. Little did he know the game against the Los Angeles Clippers, would go into double overtime, leaving him to hurriedly cut Walker’s hair at a stall in the locker room.
“[Assistant general manager] Mike Zarren came up to me and was like, ‘Co, I’ve been around for a lot of this [expletive]. This is a first. I’ll tell you right now,’” Fernandez recalled.
Days like this past Tuesday are special because they encompass all that Fernandez has worked toward — the craft of barbering as well as the camaraderie and loyalty of his customers.
“For me, it’s more than being a barber,” Walker said. “It’s beyond that.”
As expected, Fernandez was right. Wanamaker did eventually call and rolled through late Tuesday evening. After that, he closed up the shop around 9:30 p.m.
Wanamaker’s cut will be Fernandez’s last of the players until the Celtics return from Orlando. But he’s not concerned if the Celtics end up utilizing the other barbers.
“I know not everybody else has the same recipe,” he said. “I’ll be right here waiting.”