Regardless of the emergency circumstances, this is where Damon Stoudamire wants to be, an NBA head coach, leading his own team. That was the primary goal when he accepted an opportunity to join Ime Udoka’s staff last summer.
And Stoudamire remained with the Celtics despite Udoka, his close friend from their basketball days in Portland, being suspended and essentially banished from the team. The fresh and strong bond created with interim coach Joe Mazzulla made him a perfect candidate to replace Mazzulla Tuesday against the Rockets.
Mazzulla spent his pregame media session struggling to keep his eyes open, the result of irritation. Roughly 15 minutes before opening tip, Stoudamire found out he would be the head coach, moving over to that next chair for at least one night.
The Celtics played without any glitches, putting away a young, hungry and talented Rockets club, 126-102, at TD Garden with a combined 77 points from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Stoudamire didn’t have much time to prepare because Mazzulla was intent on coaching until his eye condition worsened. So in front of his mother, Liz Washington, and son Damon Jr., who attended the game, Stoudamire was thrust into the spotlight.
“We pretty much knew what we wanted to do,” Stoudamire said. “Honestly, it’s a collaborative effort. Everybody plays their part in situations like this. And it’s been like this pretty much all season. For me, it was just a matter of going out there and truly not messing it up.
Stoudamire is loaded with basketball credentials. He was a state player of the year in Oregon, All-American at Arizona and NBA Rookie of the Year with the Toronto Raptors. And for those youngsters who may not remember the 49-year-old Stoudamire as a player, he was Isaiah Thomas before Isaiah Thomas.
He has been a college assistant and NBA assistant and finally received a head coaching at the University of the Pacific, where was spent five seasons before joining Udoka in Boston.
“Fortunately for me, I’ve been under the microscope a long time,” he said. “For me, a great opportunity [tonight] but at the same time too humbled about the opportunity. I’ve sat in this seat before, not in the NBA but I know what comes with it. I’m just trying to make sure I’m doing the right thing and getting the guys ready to play.”
The transition to Mazzulla wasn’t easy for the remainder of Udoka’s staff, all of whom stayed with the club. Stoudamire watched his close friend essentially lose his job for his off-court behavior, but Stoudamire decided to stay because he enjoyed the work and relished the situation of helping a team return to the Finals.
At the same hour president of basketball operations Brad Stevens and majority governor Wyc Grousbeck were announcing the Udoka suspension in late September, Stoudamire and the rest of the coaching staff were hard at work at the practice facility preparing for training camp. They made the decision to move on because there was work left to be done here.
“Joe is a great dude,” Stoudamire said. “I got to know him a lot last year and our friendship has just continued as we’ve moved forward this season.”
It was that bond that encouraged Stevens not to hire another veteran assistant coach to join the staff. One component Stevens rarely had on his coaching staffs during his eight-year tenure was a grizzled former NBA player who had been through the wars, lived the NBA life and experienced the highs and lows.
The players didn’t really have anyone who could relate to them. Stoudamire helped popularize basketball in Canada, was a defensive stop away from an NBA Finals appearance in Portland, and became a veteran leader during the growth of the Memphis Grizzlies.
He could have potentially taken over for Udoka as interim coach but was bumped up to a top assistant and has bonded immensely with the players.
“He’s been great; I think somebody’s that played in the league, played at a high level and he just keeps everything balanced, keeps everything in perspective,” Tatum said. “He played in the league a long time and he knows what it’s like to be on a road trip; he knows what it’s like to be on back-to-backs; he knows what it’s like to be in a good stretch of winning games or in a slump. Just having that older perspective, he knows what he’s talking about.
“It’s very valuable just [to have] somebody who’s done what we’re doing in the locker room.”
The Celtics struggled with the Rockets for the first 24 minutes but restored order and pulled away in the second half. There were no glitches with Stoudamire taking over. The offense flowed. The Celtics got key defensive stops against the rising duo of Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green. There was no sense of panic or anxiety. Stoudamire looked as if he belonged here because he does.
“We’ve got a great team. We’ve got guys who know how to play and they make it easy for you,” he said. “The most I took in was at the end but I just wanted to sit down with the rest of the fellas. It was fun being around this and enjoying this victory with them.”