Last season, the Celtics went from scuffling for a playoff spot to coming within two wins of an unlikely NBA championship under first-year coach Ime Udoka. While there was frustration about the loss in the Finals, there was also great hope, optimism, and excitement regarding the future.
But with training camp slated to begin Tuesday, the Celtics are now in turmoil. Udoka on Thursday night received a one-year suspension for violations of team policies, the Celtics announced in a statement, adding a decision about Udoka’s future with the team beyond this season will be made at a later date.
According to a league source, Udoka was suspended for having an improper consensual relationship with a female member of the organization. It is a jarring punishment for the 45-year-old coach, and has put a cloud over the start of this season.
Udoka and his camp released a separate statement that was not included in the Celtics’ official release.
“I want to apologize to our players, fans, the entire Celtics organization, and my family for letting them down. I am sorry for putting the team in this difficult situation, and I accept the team’s decision. Out of respect for everyone involved, I will have no further comment.”
Celtics assistant coach Joe Mazzulla is expected to guide the team in place of Udoka, a league source said.
Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Udoka’s suspension is a stunning development for a Celtics team that stands as the favorite to win the NBA championship. Last season Udoka took a tough, unapologetic approach as he instilled the importance of hard work, trust, and accountability. Now, the operation will roll on without him.
Mazzulla, 34, a Johnston, R.I., native, has ascended quickly through the NBA ranks. He coached at Division 2 Fairmont State before being added to the Celtics coaching staff in 2019 by then president of basketball operations Danny Ainge.
This summer, Mazzulla interviewed for the Utah Jazz’s head coach position, which ultimately went to Celtics assistant Will Hardy. Mazzulla was elevated to a Celtics bench role in place of Hardy soon after.
“I’ve always said this is where I want to be, because being from here and working for the Celtics means a lot more to me,” Mazzulla told the Globe in August. “It’s close to my heart and family. I was just fortunate Brad and Ime agreed I should move up.”
Mazzulla has drawn raves from the Celtics for his approach and professionalism, but he had to overcome an off-court issue of his own while a member of the West Virginia men’s basketball team. In April 2009, Mazzulla was arrested and charged with domestic battery after allegedly putting his hand on the neck of a woman at a Morgantown bar. He was suspended by the Mountaineers, but the season had already concluded, and he returned to the squad at the beginning of the next season.
Mazzulla went on to work as an assistant coach at Glenville State, Fairmont State, and with the Celtics’ G League affiliate in Maine before being hired as Fairmont State’s head coach. Now, he is in position to lead an NBA team with championship dreams and he is two years younger than the starting power forward, Al Horford.
Udoka’s looming suspension continues a tumultuous stretch for the Celtics. Earlier this month, forward Danilo Gallinari, who signed a two-year deal in July and was expected to be a key bench contributor, tore an ACL while playing for Italy in a World Cup qualifier. He is expected to miss the entire season.
Then on Tuesday, the Celtics announced that center Robert Williams, who missed one month after undergoing meniscus surgery last March, would be sidelined 4-6 weeks because of a second left knee surgery.
Despite the setbacks, a league source said, the organization remains confident that it can challenge for its 18th NBA title, even if its steely head coach is gone.
It has already become clear that the path is unlikely to be smooth, however. In late June, a few days after the Finals loss to the Warriors, Udoka was asked about the abrupt end, and where the team could go from there.
“You have a sour taste in your mouth based on how it finished and us not accomplishing the ultimate goal,” Udoka said. “But big picture-wise, we had a lot of progress in certain areas that we can improve on still. But, kind of expedited the process of getting to where we wanted to. Laid the foundation, and have some things we can look forward to going into next year. Can obviously hit the ground running a little bit differently.”
Udoka was undrafted out of Portland State in 2000 and spent four seasons toiling in the basketball minor leagues before playing 316 NBA games over parts of seven years with the Spurs, Trail Blazers, Kings, Knicks, and Lakers.
He worked as an assistant for Spurs Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich for seven seasons and had one-year stops as an assistant with the 76ers and Nets before Stevens, who left his coaching post to replace Ainge as the Celtics’ lead executive in May 2021, hired him to be coach.
When the Celtics’ had a bumpy start and were stuck in 11th place in the Eastern Conference last January, it ignited questions about whether Udoka was ready for the top post.
Then Boston roared through the rest of the season, secured the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and put a scare into Stephen Curry and the Warriors in the Finals. The league-wide perception of Udoka, who finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, quickly shifted, and the Celtics were eager to see what it would look like when he coached a full season with no learning curve. Now, the wait will go on.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.