CANTON — Joe Mazzulla took his seat behind the microphone at Celtics Media Day Monday, looked up to a rather large assemblage of reporters and …
No opening statement, no introduction of himself as the newest (interim) head coach of the Celtics, no preamble to his first official news conference as the organization’s choice to replace suspended predecessor Ime Udoka.
Mazzulla just waited for the questions to begin, an approach that may have been reminiscent of a nondescript midweek practice than the most anticipated Celtics news conference in recent memory, but one that seemed to fit the profile of the young man suddenly thrust into this unexpected, white-hot spotlight.
Every meteoric rise has the potential for an equally spectacular crash, which is why Mazzulla is going to need every bit of the calm, measured demeanor he showed Monday for any chance of navigating this organization out of one of the strangest, most confusing eras in team history.
In the wake of Udoka’s season-long suspension for rules violations regarding workplace relationships, this is a franchise in crisis. And it turns to a 34-year-old with no NBA head coaching experience, no Division 1 college head coaching experience, no NBA assistant head coach experience, and no NBA playing résumé of his own to lead the way out.
“The message is first to give people space and time, not just for players but everyone,” Mazzulla said. “It’s an unfortunate situation for everyone involved. We have to give people the time and space to feel, give them the time and space to heal. That’s key; we can’t rush anything.”
It’s the right message, but it’s just impossible to know whether Mazzulla will prove to be the right messenger. For every declaration of trust and every endorsement of his skill — testimonials that started with boss Brad Stevens and continued Monday from every player who sat down at that same table — there is no overstating the enormous challenge Mazzulla faces in stepping in for Udoka.
This is a franchise with championship goals, with a deep, talented roster that came within two wins of a title last season, one that had a well-liked coach who installed a relentless defense, a coach who seemed poised to be on the bench for the better part of the next decade.
At least until his poor decisions cost him a job, earned him a suspension, and opened the door for his little-known assistant to take his place.
Here comes Mazzulla, who is two years younger than his veteran forward Al Horford. Here comes Mazzulla, with a résumé that features only two years of head coaching experience, both at Fairmont State, a Division 2 school in West Virginia. Here comes Mazzulla, into this deeply passionate sports landscape with a fan base expecting nothing less than a return trip to the Finals, and all the scrutiny that comes with that. Here comes Mazzulla, with a locker room of players whose comments Monday make it clear they are hurting, confused, somewhat in shock, and generally unsure of what just happened.
Here comes Mazzulla, who has to repair that emotional whiplash, not only for the players but for the franchise, too, and who, oh yeah, also has to coach the players.
But it is there, with a reputation for dogged attention to detail, an admirable balance of discipline and fairness, and a solid body of evidence from guiding the summer league team, that Mazzulla seems most solidly situated.
Just listen to the players:
Jaylen Brown: “I’m optimistic. I believe in Joe. Joe believes in me. I’ve had conversations with him. I don’t think he sees a limit on my game.”
Marcus Smart: “I feel great about it. It’s just another guy who understands us as players, as individuals, who’s been here through our bad times and good times. We’re excited, we’re proud that it’s Joe, someone who’s familiar with us instead of somebody new and trying to get re-familiar with them.”
Jayson Tatum: “He’s somebody we’re comfortable with. He’s been here the last three years. Same person in just a different position now. Someone we’re familiar with and have a lot of respect for.”
Horford: “He’s somebody that we all respect and we’re going to be rallying behind him and we’re going to really put in the time and the work to get this done.”
Grant Williams: “I don’t think anyone in this organization does not respect Joe. He’s had that presence since he’s been a coach here.”
Derrick White: “Joe was a big part of the coaching staff last year, especially for me personally, always talking to me about defensive assignments, philosophies. I think it’s just going to carry over.”
Payton Pritchard: “Joe’s an extremely hard worker, he coached us in summer league when I played. I think he’s going to be an unbelievable coach. He’s intelligent, he knows the game, has the right amount of pushing players but also understanding. I think he’s going to be great.”
Sam Hauser: “I liked playing for Joe. I think he is a hard-nosed type of coach. He says it how it is but he also really cares about you as a person, not just as a basketball player but off the court.”
Or this from one of the newest Celtics, Malcolm Brogdon, who needed but a few trips to the early-morning weight room to realize he’d found a kindred spirit.
“He’s honestly an incredibly impressive guy, only 34 years old, incredibly disciplined,” the guard said. “The first thing I saw was him in with me lifting every morning — I’m first in there. He’s a guy that’s so detail-oriented and I am like-minded, I care about the small things.
“I do these breathing exercises with this balloon, and when he saw that he said, ‘I do them, too.’ He’s a guy that’s paying attention to everything, incredibly locked in and intelligent. I’ve heard it from the players — the players respect and love him, his ability to put together scouts, it’s brilliant. He’s gotten that reputation around the league as well.
“I think he’s a guy that’s ready for this opportunity and is going to thrive in it.”
He’d better be. Because he’s walking into quite a storm.