When a door on the sixth floor of the Auerbach Center swung open Friday morning, Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck was holding several sheets of paper as he took a seat at a dais alongside president of basketball operations Brad Stevens. Grousbeck said he’d never read prepared notes at a press conference before, but he felt he needed them in this case.
Grousbeck then began a five-minute opening statement in which he discussed the organization’s decision to suspend head coach Ime Udoka one season for undisclosed violations of team policies. A league source has told the Globe that Udoka had an improper consensual relationship with a female member of the organization.
Grousbeck said the Celtics became aware of alleged incidents involving Udoka this summer, and that a law firm was hired to launch a lengthy investigation that concluded Wednesday, the same day news of the situation was leaked to the media. Grousbeck insisted that it did not come from within the organization.
“Obviously, a difficult time to be speaking to you all,” he said. “It’s a time of concern and reflection and action. We have strong values at the Celtics and we are doing our very best to uphold them.”
Grousbeck said that over the past few weeks the team’s leadership spent “every waking hour” combing through the investigation and determining the proper punishment, and he believes they decided on the right one.
“I personally feel that this is well-warranted and appropriate, backed by substantial research and evidence and facts,” he said, “and so I’m standing by the decision, and Ime has accepted it.”
Grousbeck and Stevens both declined to go into details about Udoka’s case, but Grousbeck said that the suspension will last until June 30, 2023, and that Udoka will forfeit a sizable portion of his salary while he is out. He said the team will revisit Udoka’s future with them at a later date.
When asked whether the incidents involving Udoka could signal a larger cultural problem within the franchise, Grousbeck said he was confident that it was an isolated incident and not indicative of something larger.
“I personally don’t believe that they’re a deeper signal,” he said. “But I will be personally talking to members of the organization to make sure that that’s the case. This feels very much to me like this was one of a kind. This is my personal belief, but I’ll have to verify that.”
Stevens confirmed that assistant coach Joe Mazzulla will take over as the interim head coach. Mazzulla dealt with off-court issues of his own during his playing career at West Virginia, most notably when he was arrested and charged with domestic battery after allegedly putting his hand on the neck of a woman at a Morgantown bar in April 2009. He returned to the Mountaineers basketball team that fall.
Stevens said that he thoroughly vetted Mazzulla’s background when he was hired as a Celtics assistant in 2019.
“I believe strongly in Joe’s substantiveness as a person,” he said. “I believe strongly, and he’ll tell you, he’s been very open with me about how those moments impacted him in every which way, and you can see it in the way he carries himself. You could see that for a long time.
“We’ve had years to get to know him. He’s been with us for three years, and you probably have seen articles that were written around that time that I’m sure I read three years ago when I hired him as an assistant.
“But I believe strongly that that probably shaped him into who he is today in a really, really good way. But he’ll be the first to tell you, he’s 110 percent accountable for that, and I’ll be the first to tell you that I believe in him.”
Stevens coached the Celtics from 2013-21 before replacing Danny Ainge as president of basketball operations in May 2021, and is widely considered one of the game’s brightest tacticians. It would have been logical for him to reclaim his former role on an interim basis, but he stressed that Mazzulla was “the best choice to do that, by a long shot.”
When Stevens was asked whether there were talks about him returning as head coach, he replied, “Absolutely not.” Then Grousbeck acknowledged that there was a brief discussion about the possibility, prompting Stevens to elaborate.
“There’s a lot of factors in play of why I wouldn’t necessarily even want to do that,” Stevens said. “But I do think that, and I’ve told Joe this, I’m going to be there for him without stepping on his toes as much as he needs. But he doesn’t need much.”
Stevens and Grousbeck met with the Celtics players about Udoka’s situation and said there were difficult discussions. The players rallied around Udoka as he guided them to the NBA Finals in his first year as a coach last season, and this departure was sudden.
“To think that guys on the team or coaches or anybody else in the organization can just walk back out on the court and everything is fine is not the way it is,” Stevens said. “I just think that this is a really, really tough situation, but we are going to be forward-focused with addressing what we need to address to get everybody ready to go on Tuesday to start a new season.”