HOUSTON — The Celtics defeated the Hawks Saturday night and were headed to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport Sunday when assistant coach Damon Stoudamire was given a very good reason to stay behind.
Georgia Tech officials wanted to meet with him about their vacancy that was created when men’s basketball coach Josh Pastner was fired the previous day, and they wanted to move quickly. The Celtics’ team charter went on to Houston without Stoudamire, who spent most of Sunday and part of Monday meeting the university’s decision-makers before accepting a five-year contract.
It probably would have made sense for him to stay in Atlanta. The Division 1 transfer portal is heating up, and coaches are back on the road recruiting high school prospects. But the past two seasons with the Celtics had meant too much to Stoudamire for this to end so abruptly.
So on Monday night, there he was, back on Boston’s bench for one last game. It was hardly a perfect ending. The Celtics lost to the lowly Rockets, 111-109. But for Stoudamire, the experiences that preceded it were all that really mattered.
“I wanted to be around the team tonight,” Stoudamire said Monday, standing in a quiet corner in the bowels of the Toyota Center. “I wanted to be around the fellas. I just wanted to enjoy it.
“I had a great time here, and I didn’t know what to expect when I came to Boston. But walking out the door I’ve got nothing but great memories. This is one of the best times I’ve ever had.”
Stoudamire flew back to Atlanta Monday night to prepare for his introductory press conference Tuesday morning. He is leaving a team that remains a favorite to win the NBA title three months from now and joining one that just finished a 15-18 college season.
Stoudamire believes that Georgia Tech’s history, name recognition, and location in a high school basketball hotbed will make the rebuild swift. Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, an Atlanta native, said Monday that he’ll help Stoudamire recruit if he needs him.
But at his core, Stoudamire is a coach, and the challenge was too attractive to pass up.
“I think this is an opportunity for me to just see where I stand,” he said. “I always want an opportunity on this stage to test who I am, not only as a coach, but test my character, perseverance, and toughness.
“When you’re running your own ship and you’re the head guy, there’s a different responsibility that comes with that. So I look forward to getting back into that mode again.”
Stoudamire had a 13-year NBA career as a player before stints as an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies, the University of Memphis, and the University of Arizona. He was named head coach at Pacific in 2016, and in 2021 he was one of the first Celtics assistants hired by Ime Udoka, his longtime friend and fellow Portland native.
It was a joy for Stoudamire to help Udoka guide the Celtics to the brink of an NBA title last year. And it crushed him this season when Udoka was suspended and subsequently dismissed for having an improper relationship with a subordinate female employee within the organization.
There were questions about whether Stoudamire and other coaches with extensive ties to Udoka might leave before the season, but Stoudamire took the lead in another way.
“What I wanted to do and what I tried to do from the time we found out everything that was going on was, I wanted to help with the healing by making it clear I’m going to be OK,” he said. “During the process if you see that I’m going to be OK and I can handle it, I think that takes some pressure off everybody else.”
Stoudamire has never won an NBA title as a player or coach, but he said the hardest part about leaving will be losing bonds he built over the past two seasons. He has been part of so many different teams, and he tried to stress to these young Celtics that their connection is uncommon.
“Winning is the endgame, but there’s different ways to go about pursuing it, and I really learned a lot being around this staff,” Stoudamire said. “When you’re coming somewhere every day and being around a group of people you really enjoy being around, and the camaraderie that we created with the players, staff, and front office, you can’t beat that. It doesn’t happen a lot. I’m really going to miss that.”
And that is why, on the same day Stoudamire accepted the biggest job of his career, he was back on a plane to spend one last night with the basketball team he is now leaving behind.