SALT LAKE CITY — What’s apparent about Joe Mazzulla being named permanent head coach of the Celtics is the team is ready to move forward from the Ime Udoka mess, if they haven’t already.
Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Mazzulla were each seated approximately 15 feet from each other at the University of Utah practice facility addressing the media before Sunday’s All-Star Game. And while Tatum and Brown were both pleased Mazzulla had the interim tag lifted Thursday, they made it clear they’ve adjusted to the new regime.
Mazzulla now has security and peace of mind, and ironically while every other player and All-Star coach had a microphone attached for easier hearing, Mazzulla’s dais didn’t; and the whisper-quiet but rapid speaker offered his thoughts on various basketball and non-basketball issues, engaging the wave of media members.
Mazzulla would coach against John Wooden if he could face any coach past or present. Mazzulla loves hip-hop music and prefers to listen to Drake. Mazzulla is a Manchester City fan.
Without the interim tag, without the Udoka shadow hovering over him, Mazzulla was able to be himself, and that meant deflecting all credit for the team’s 42-17 start and No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference to the players.
“Their buy-in, their trust, their character,” Mazzulla said. “Who they are as people. How hungry they are to want to win. As a coach, if you don’t have the right players and the right people, you’re nothing. I’m grateful to have them. I’m grateful that we have a great locker room.”
Mazzulla is a man comfortable in his own skin and carries his own philosophy. He trusts his players. He doesn’t prefer to call timeouts even at times when they’re desperately needed. He approaches his job with a seriousness and focus that has impressed the organization greatly.
“Just be myself but at the same time have a couple of things you really believe in,” he said. “And don’t waver from those and because I’ve been in the organization for some time, I kind of knew what buttons to push, who to lean on in certain situations and really relying on the guys.”
Tatum and Brown said they fully supported the move although both said they grew attached to Udoka. Tatum said he’s spoken with Udoka occasionally during the season as his former coach provides encouragement. Brown said he hasn’t spoken with Udoka since his suspension. Grant Williams told the Globe he spoke with Udoka about a month ago and will reach out again now that the issue has been settled.
Tatum said he maintains a close relationship with Udoka, who he said had a major impact on his career in that one season.
“It’s been a tough situation for everybody involved. He’s somebody I’ve talked to throughout the season, periodically just reaching out,” he said. “Whatever happened, happened and that didn’t have anything to do with me. But that can’t take away the relationship that we have and the impact that he had on me for that one reason. I love Coach K [Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski]. I love Brad [Stevens, now Celtics president of basketball operations]. I love Joe. I love all those guys. It was just a different kind of relationship I had with Ime. Probably the most favorite coach I’ve had and that’s not a knock on anybody. I’ve got a great relationship with Joe. I love everything he’s doing. I’m extremely happy for him. Brad helped me navigate the NBA. I was 19. He helped watch me grow and put me in the right spots. So I have a different perspective and respect for each coach that I’ve had at different times of my life.”
Williams, who was voted vice president of the NBA Players Association Saturday, expressed conflicting emotions about the situation.
“I feel extremely excited for Joe,” Williams told the Globe. “He’s a phenomenal person, a phenomenal coach. He’s done a phenomenal job with us this year and in the organization for the last four years. Guys have tremendous respect for him and I know the organization and across the league he has respect as well.
“When it comes to Ime, it’s one of those difficult decisions that had to be made. As a player who played under him, I will always have tremendous respect for him as a person and as a man and his ability to not only coach a basketball team; he’s a phenomenal coach in his own right. It’s disappointing he’s going to be gone but hopefully he’ll have a successful venture in the future and we’ll get to see him again. Although it may not be the Celtics, we’ll keep in touch and we’ll do the best to support him along the process as well.”
Said Tatum of Mazzulla: “Forget the coach, he’s a great guy and great person and that really matters. We got the best record, right? He got some good players on his team and it’s like being in a relationship. He helps us and we help him and we’re in this together.”
Brown also expressed excitement for Mazzulla but also support for Udoka in his quest to coach again. Many players are obviously carrying mixed emotions about the situation. They still hold fondness for Udoka for what he accomplished last season but are influenced and impressed with Mazzulla’s style and philosophy.
“Since the start of the season it’s kind of been a whirlwind of emotions,” he said. “We’ve been able to reconcile and win games despite that loss of the presence of Ime Udoka. He was great in our locker room. He was a leader in our locker room. He held it down. He brought us together defensively, helped us get over that hump and get to the Finals. I want to see him back on his feet. I said it before and I’ll say it again.
“I don’t feel bad for saying that. I want to see Ime back on his feet. Obviously it won’t be in a Boston uniform. I want to see all partners win. I think the Celtics are doing fine. I would like to see Ime do fine.”
Mazzulla has the full support of Brown.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Brown said of Mazzulla’s promotion. “I think it’s dope for Joe. He kind of had something hanging over his head, so this lessens some of the anxiety, to be able to have some comfort and sleep a little better at night. But if you ask him, nothing changes on the court. He’s still going to come to work prepared to do the job and we know what the ultimate goal is. I’m happy for Joe and his family.”