Who is Joe Mazzulla?
A week ago, virtually no one in Boston knew the answer to this question.
Today New England sports fans know that the 34-year-old Mazzulla is the new head coach of the Boston Celtics — a team that came within two games of winning the NBA championship just four months ago.
Mazzulla is the 19th head coach of the Green Team, following legends like Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, Tommy Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Rick Pitino (gulp), and Doc Rivers.
And yet we know almost nothing about the guy.
Mazzulla conducted his first practice at the Auerbach Center Tuesday and took a few minutes to talk about himself after enduring his first post-practice media session.
Is it difficult to be an NBA head coach when you were never an NBA player?
“I have great players and great people around me, so it’s just allowing me to be who I am,” he answered. “I’ve been here four years and I’ve built relationships. I don’t think the guys care where I’m from, or that they care that I played. I think they care because I care about them.
“I’m 0-0, so no one’s mad at me yet.”
He was born in Johnston, R.I., to a Sicilian father (Daniel Mazzulla Jr.) and a Black mother (Latresa).His dad and grandfather both spent their working lives in service to the Johnston Parks and Recreation Department. Dan Mazzulla Jr., who died of a brain tumor in 2020, is in the Bryant College Hall of Fame and played five seasons of semi-pro basketball in Chile. Latresa lives in California.
“I played against Joe’s old man back in the 1970s,” recalled Leo Papile, who invented the Boston Amateur Basketball Club and worked 16 years as Celtics scouting director and personnel director. “Danny Mazzulla was a Johnston, R.I., street legend.
“He was not a guy you’d want to be arguing with in a bar at 2 in the morning. That would just not end up good for you. He was like Jim Loscutoff and he was a hell of a player. We had a fistfight when we were playing against each other in a semi-pro game in North Providence in ’73, but we later became really good friends. He was a really good guy.”
Learning his game from his dad on the courts of Johnston, Joe Mazzulla attended Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick (Class of 2006), where the Hawks won state titles in his final three seasons. He played his summer ball for the Rhode Island Breakers, an elite youth amateur team.
“We [BABC] would have loved to have had Joe,” said Papile. “But he was too loyal. We didn’t even bother to ask. Joe would have never left his guys.”
Anthony Gurley, who won Massachusetts state titles at Newton North before playing at Wake Forest and UMass, remembers playing BABC games against Mazzulla.
“Joe was a great competitor,” said Gurley. “Lefthanded. Smooth. A fierce competitor. He was very smart and never afraid to take the big shot. He was just a confident, hard worker.
“I lost track of him, and then a couple of years ago, I was watching the Celtics on TV and I was like, ‘Hey, I know that guy. That’s Joe from the Breakers.’ It’s cool to see somebody like that get into a role like he has now.”
Mazzulla went to the “FleetCenter” to watch the Celtics a few times during his youth (no Larry Bird games, no Michael Jordan games), but like most kids from Rhode Island he grew up rooting for the Providence Friars.
“We had season tickets to Providence games,” remembered Mazzulla. “Section 108. I got to see Mike Brown, God Shammgod, Donnie McGrath. But they didn’t recruit me out of high school. URI did because Jimmy Baron was there and I played with Jimmy in high school.”
Mazzulla wound up at West Virginia, which turned out to be an eventful five years.
The good: The Mountaineers won the NIT in his freshman season. New coach Bob Huggins came on board for Mazzulla’s sophomore season and took them all the way to the Final Four in 2010. Mazzulla had a big role in UWV’s 7-point upset victory over Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
The bad: Mazzulla made it to the police blotter more than once at West Virginia, including a domestic battery charge after an incident in a Morgantown bar in 2009.
“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,” Mazzulla said when his arrest record was raised at Monday’s Media Day.
Today he lives in West Newton with his wife, Camai, stepson Michael, and son Emmanuel.
“I’m not the same person that I was,” he said.
And he has a job no one could have imagined in 2006 when he was making big shots for Hendricken, or in 2009, when he served a suspension for one of his college arrests, or in 2019 when he was coaching Division 2 Fairmont State in West Virginia.
His two seasons at tiny Fairmont represent the totality of Mazzulla’s head coaching experience. As recently as last spring, he was still sitting in the back row of the Celtic coaching choir, not even worthy of the main bench where the players and important coaches sit.
Now he is in Red’s seat.
“He’s like the third quarterback on the depth chart in the NFL,” said Papile. “He’s listening all day long and he’s getting the game plan. As a point guard, he was really cerebral. He never made a mistake and didn’t allow his minions to make a mistake.
“Joe was a guy that would study himself out of a losing streak. He’s not a showy, Hollywood-type guy. He just can’t wait to get back in the gym with his guys.
“Whether he’s playing La Salle Academy or the Lakers, I don’t think it matters. Joe could have been a junior varsity coach at Hendricken. He’s figured out what it takes to be a good basketball team. Now he’s going to have a chance to do that on a big stage.”
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