Jamal Gomes was getting ready to go to sleep Monday night when his 17-year-old daughter, Madison, bounded into his room hoping to share a big announcement.
“Dad, can you believe it?” she asked. “One of your players is going to be the All-Star coach for Team Giannis.”
Gomes, who coached the Celtics’ Joe Mazzulla at Bishop Hendricken High in Warwick, R.I., had already seen the news, but there was time for another smile. He told his daughter how he was so proud of and happy for Mazzulla, and pointed out that he reached this point with hard work.
The 76ers’ loss to the Magic on Monday night ensured that the Celtics would have the best record in the Eastern Conference prior to Sunday’s cutoff, meaning Mazzulla and his staff will guide the team captained by Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo at the Feb. 19 All-Star Game in Salt Lake City.
Although it is based on team success, it’s still a substantial achievement for Mazzulla, who was named interim coach in September following Ime Udoka’s suspension for violations of organizational policies. Mazzulla stepped in with little notice and limited preparation and has helped guide Boston to the best record in the NBA.
“And he’s doing things the right way,” Gomes said. “What he’s done with the team this year as a first-year head coach in the NBA, and helping to keep them connected and working hard and improving is incredible. Obviously there have been some ups and downs as there are anywhere, but he’s been able to help them maintain a level of competitiveness that’s among the best in the NBA.”
Mazzulla played point guard for Gomes at Hendricken before graduating in 2006. Even though nearly 17 years have passed, he remains a well-known figure within the school. And Gomes makes sure of it.
“I brag about Joe all the time to my guys,” he said. “I try to teach the guys here, ‘Listen, when you come to a school like Bishop Hendricken, you’re coming here to achieve great things.’ So I use Joe as an example of that.”
Mazzulla was outwardly — and predictably — unimpressed by this achievement. When asked Tuesday morning what it meant to him to coach an All-Star team, his face remained straighter than a free throw line.
“Nothing,” he deadpanned.
After a brief pause, he acknowledged that he was happy for the rest of the coaching staff and his players, and that it was a good indicator of their success. But when pressed about his own reactions, he made it clear several times that it did not mean much.
“[When I found out], I was just, like, ‘Whatever,’ ” Mazzulla said. “I was at dinner with my wife and a few friends, so I had more important things going on at the time.”
When Mazzulla’s reaction was relayed to Celtics guard Marcus Smart about an hour later, he smiled and used an expletive to express that he was not buying Mazzulla’s indifference.
“He’s definitely pumped about it,” Smart said. “I mean, first time being a head coach and you go to coach the All-Star Game? I don’t see how you’d not be excited. But that’s just Joe. He does a good job of hiding his enthusiasm for certain things, and other times, he lets you know. But we’re just extremely proud of Joe and everything and how he and the rest of this team and coaching staff have responded to everything we’ve been through this season. We tip our hat off to those guys.”
Mazzulla took a winding route to this point. He was an assistant coach at Division 2 Glenville State and Fairmont State for a total of five seasons before spending a year as an assistant with Boston’s G League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws, in 2016.
Then he returned to Fairmont State as head coach for two seasons, and in 2019 he was named a Celtics assistant.
Mazzulla was the lone member of Brad Stevens’s coaching staff who was retained when Udoka was hired in the summer of 2021. Last summer, he interviewed for the Jazz’s head coaching opening that ultimately went to Celtics assistant Will Hardy. Then he was promoted to the top job on Boston’s bench after Udoka was suspended in September.
Now, he is guiding a Celtics team that is considered the favorite to win the NBA championship in June, and in three weeks he will coach in the All-Star Game.
“It’s special, but I’m not surprised, not in the least,” Gomes said. “And I tell Joe all the time that the best is yet to come for him. He’s just getting started.”