Damon Stoudamire awoke last Friday, walked around his house to gather his thoughts, then headed to the Celtics practice facility for another day of work.
Yet it wasn’t a normal Friday. Stoudamire’s close friend, Celtics coach Ime Udoka, had just been handed a one-year suspension for a violation of team rules stemming from a relationship with a staff member. He was gone.
Stoudamire and the rest of the Celtics coaching staff, most of whom were brought in by Udoka, were working with players even as team majority governor Wyc Grousbeck and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens were explaining to the media why Udoka was suspended.
The show goes on. Besides Udoka, the Celtics staff stayed intact. Stoudamire, Ben Sullivan, and Aaron Miles remain as assistant coaches. The situation is difficult for Stoudamire, who has known Udoka for decades, from the Portland days.
“It’s just been crazy, man, that’s really all I can say,” said Stoudamire. “It’s a difficult situation.”
Stoudamire did not want to comment on the specifics of the suspension. But he did reiterate his dedication to the Celtics and his love for his job.
“It’s difficult for everybody, obviously,” he said. “We’re all processing everything to hopefully get to a decompressing state, if that’s ever the case. I believe this: Guys owe it to themselves. When I say guys — the players, coaching staff, upstairs — we all owe it to each other to come in here and put our best foot forward and stay professional.
“Nothing has changed in the room in what the expectations and the goals are. That’s the biggest thing. We’ve got to be prepared from that standpoint, mentally more than anything, because I think physically things will be there. We’ll get to that point.”
Stoudamire thought he had seen it all in the NBA. He played 13 years, winning Rookie of the Year in 1995-96 with Toronto. He was Isaiah Thomas before Isaiah Thomas — a lefthanded scoring machine with quickness and the ability to score over bigger defenders.
Yet his career was marred in Portland by marijuana use at a time when the NBA and America considered it a hard-core drug. He resuscitated his career, dived into coaching, and was head coach at the University of the Pacific before joining the Celtics in July 2021.
“I’ve been through a lot. I’ve seen a lot,” he said. “I think this is my 18th NBA training camp. I’ve made my way in this league by just being a good dude.
“I love being here and I love my job. I love my job and I want to see these dudes be as successful as they could be and I want to be a part of it. Guys are hungry and guys are ready. We can’t skip steps to it. We all got a sour taste in our mouths about what happened last year and we want to redeem ourselves.”
Redemption has been the main theme early in training camp under interim head coach Joe Mazzulla. His players may not remember, but Stoudamire was one win away from an NBA Finals in 2000, playing for a loaded Trail Blazers team that had the Lakers — with Kobe and Shaq — down in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Western finals.
The Blazers collapsed, getting outscored, 31-13, in the fourth quarter and losing by 5. Portland hasn’t made it that far since. Stoudamire can relate to the Celtics players about falling short.
“The worst setback of my career, losing Game 7 to the Lakers, no doubt,” he said. “I’ll never get over it, because the NBA was wide open at that time and obviously the Lakers went on to win three [championships] in a row.
“They broke our team up in another year, so it just went another way. That was the best team that I had played on in the NBA.”
Stoudamire said the Celtics have the talent to return to the Finals and win. He has a close relationship with Mazzulla, who will be largely responsible for pushing the team to the next level. The admiration Stoudamire has for the 34-year-old new coach is apparent.
“Me and Joe have a great relationship anyway,” he said. “We always talked a lot and always shared thoughts, ideas, and different things.
“Talking to him, getting everybody adjusted to a new voice, it’s not strange other than the fact he’s moved over. We’ve heard his voice. We know Joe. He’s a bright basketball mind. He knows the game and he’s going to be successful. And I think we all know and we’ve got to rally around him and make sure we do everything to help him so we all succeed.
“Is it a little different? No doubt. Nothing’s changed with our agenda in terms of trying to win it all.”
Stoudamire said he never considered stepping down; he loves his job too much. He loves the players. He loves the challenge of trying to win a championship with a group that’s young and eager.
“We’ve got a great group of dudes to be around, and I like our chances,” he said. “That’s what Joe has been emphasizing in practice is we’re not going to skip steps. We’re back to the basics.”
The adjustment to life without Udoka remains difficult. Many in the organization were understandably shocked by the development, stunned that the coach’s behavior had reached an inappropriate level. But the games go on. The Celtics have their preseason opener Sunday and need preparation.
“It is a process through and through, and the thing that we have now, we’ve built a base here,” Stoudamire said. “All of the parties are still here except Ime and I think we need to align those things up.
“We’re going to figure this thing out and we’ve made a concerted effort from a coaching staff perspective and from a players perspective. That’s been the motto since the day I got here. We feel like if we put in the proper work, we’ll have as good of a chance as anybody.”