CANTON — As the Celtics’ investigation into the workplace misconduct of coach Ime Udoka unfolded over the past two months, it was confined to a few select people at the top of the organization.
Jayson Tatum said he first heard about the situation when ESPN broke the news on Twitter late Wednesday night that Udoka was facing a significant punishment. Guard Marcus Smart said that when Udoka visited him in Los Angeles during the summer, there was no indication that anything was amiss.
And even when the team’s brass met with the players on Thursday to confirm Udoka would be suspended for one season due to multiple violations of team policy, the details shared were sparse.
So when the Celtics took turns sitting in front of a microphone at a small table in a small room during media day on Monday afternoon, they sounded unsure how to feel, because they were still not totally sure what was going on.
“It’s been hell for us,” Smart said. “Caught by surprise. Nobody really knows anything. We’re just in the wind like everybody else, so these last couple of days have been confusing.”
According to league sources, Udoka was suspended due to an improper, consensual relationship with a subordinate within the organization. The Celtics said that Udoka’s future with the team — beyond the suspension, which ends June 30 — will be determined at a later date.
On Monday, Celtics players said they were stunned by the revelation and sounded disappointed to lose the coach who guided them to the brink of an NBA championship last season. But they also appeared uncertain about how to react, because beyond being aware of the suspension, they know very little.
“It’s hard for me to answer if things were handled the right way or if they weren’t because, for a lot of reasons, I don’t know a lot of details,” Tatum said. “I just don’t know.”
That sentiment was echoed by several players. Smart said the Celtics were “in a state of shock” during Thursday’s meeting, and they seemed almost too stunned to ask questions.
“As a player, you’d like to know,” Smart said. “But that’s none of our business and it’s their lives, the people that are involved. It’s between them and we should respect that privacy and we understand, just like we want our privacy respected. Although as a player, yeah, you’d like to know. But like I said, it’s not an obligation.”
Added forward Jaylen Brown: “I think it’s going to be something we have to address as a group, which we started that process of doing. Not a lot of information is being shared, so there’s a lot of confusion going around, a lot of speculation going around, which makes it difficult on the guys that have been here and the guys that are here now. "
The players agreed they must move forward and ensure this distraction does not derail their season, which remains filled with high expectations. Despite this recent turmoil, Boston remains the favorite to win the NBA title this season.
Now, it will begin the pursuit under interim coach Joe Mazzulla, a 34-year-old who coached Division II Fairmont State in 2019 and was the Celtics’ fourth assistant last year. Mazzulla has been thrust into the spotlight with little warning, but the fact that president of basketball operations Brad Stevens turned to him rather than a veteran NBA coach speaks to the franchise’s confidence.
“I think in moments like this you have to stay empathetic, you have to stay poised, and you have to stay focused on what’s the most important thing,” Mazzulla said. “And the most important thing for me is just making sure that the players and myself are on the same page. Making sure that we’re focused on the expectations that we have for this season from a basketball standpoint and how we move forward together building trust, building relationships. I think that’s key.”
Mazzulla briefly addressed being arrested and charged with domestic battery after allegedly putting his hands on the neck of a woman at a Morgantown bar while he played for West Virginia in 2009.
“Listen, I’ve made mistakes,” he said. “I’m not perfect. I’ve hurt people, and I’ve had to use the situations I put myself in as a younger man to learn from and to become a better person. That’s what I’ve tried to focus on. How can I recreate my identity as a person? How can I rely on my faith? And how can I have a positive impact on the people around me? And I’ve always had good people around me . . . I can’t talk about the specifics [of the incident], but what I can talk about is I’m not the same person that I was.”
Stevens, on Friday, said he thoroughly vetted Mazzulla’s background before hiring him as an assistant in 2019. The Celtics are confident Mazzulla can maintain the momentum that was built last year, and they developed a comfort level working with him over the last three seasons.
“He’s built relationships with us, so we love Joe,” Smart said. “We’re excited to be able to work with him and this opportunity he has. So, we’re all new. He’s new to this. We’re new to him being in this position, so we’re all going to learn together and grow together.”