Former Celtics star Rajon Rondo’s phone started buzzing around 3 a.m. one day a few months ago, and he was surprised to see an incoming call from former teammate Paul Pierce. Given the hour, it was fair to wonder whether something was wrong. But when Rondo answered the phone, all he heard was excitement.
“They want us back,” Pierce told him.
The Hall of Famer was referring to the Celtics, the franchise he and Rondo helped guide to the 2007-08 NBA championship.
When Joe Mazzulla took over as interim coach days before the start of last season following Ime Udoka’s suspension, everything was a whirlwind. But Mazzulla has become more comfortable in his second year, willing and eager to put his imprint on the organization in unique ways.
This summer, Mazzulla thought about how often NBA players return to their college campuses for offseason workouts or big games. He loved that family feel and was hoping to recreate it in some form in Boston.
“Sometimes, it doesn’t happen because you don’t ask people to,” Mazzulla said. “So, sometimes it’s important to create that environment of, ‘Hey, you’re welcome any time.’ “
Mazzulla told Celtics vice president of media and alumni relations Jeff Twiss and director of team operations Kara Keena that he wanted to formulate a homecoming plan. Yes, former players had always been welcome around the franchise. But Mazzulla wanted more.
“He said, ‘Let’s take some real action and get these guys back,’ ” Twiss said.
They crafted an email, and after Twiss updated the alumni database as best he could, they sent a blast out to about 225 former Celtics. It included players from 1960s championship teams as well as those who have been gone for just a few months, such as Marcus Smart and Robert Williams.
The enthusiasm on the thread was evident quickly, with excited reply-all messages popping up from Celtics from various eras, from Evan Turner to Jerry Sichting.
Mazzulla also took a more hands-on approach. He did not play in the NBA, and until last season had never even been a lead assistant, so his list of personal contacts was not extensive. But within days of hiring Sam Cassell as an assistant coach last summer, Mazzulla enlisted the backup point guard from the Celtics’ 2007-08 title team to become a conduit.
“Joe wants this to be a huge family,” Cassell said. “The tradition is there, but he just wants this to be a huge family.”
When Cassell went to Los Angeles over the summer to work with Jayson Tatum, he invited Pierce. Before long, videos of the sessions involving a former Celtics superstar and a current one were generating buzz and nostalgia on social media.
At training camp in October, the results of Mazzulla’s push were visible. Eight-time NBA champion Satch Sanders and two-time champ Mal Graham stopped by the practice facility to chat with Mazzulla and sit in on a session. Sam Vincent, who spent his first two pro seasons in Boston and was a reserve on the 1985-86 championship team, paid a visit.
“I think the Celtics are trying to be a leader in the space in terms of connecting guys and keeping them a part of these new teams,” Vincent said. “When an organization appreciates what the former guys have meant to the club and the community, it just goes a long way. I think it’s special.”
Pierce said that during his playing career it was impactful when he saw franchise legends such as John Havlicek, Bill Russell, and Bob Cousy at a game. Now he is the one in position to impart nuggets of wisdom, or even just throw some bounce passes to shooters during a workout.
“It kind of continues the brotherhood,” Pierce said. “It’s all part of our culture and that is something that the Celtics have always been about.”
Pierce and Rondo each came to Boston for extended visits and a more immersive experience. They helped out at practices, sat in on coaches’ meetings, and had one-on-one chats with players.
“You see former players in town in other places and they’re up in the rafters, but here they’re on the court,” Cassell said. “Joe wants guys to come back, eat breakfast with us, eat lunch with us, go to meetings and be a part of this.”
The reunions are helpful to Mazzulla, too. He has been a head coach for a little more than a year and is still trying to gather information wherever he can. He has asked the former Celtics about their experiences playing for different coaches. He has wondered what worked well and what did not, and stored intelligence that might eventually benefit the current squad.
“We can learn a lot from what those guys did to move the organization and the tradition and the legacy forward,” Mazzulla said. “I think that’s important. Guys always want to go back to where they had memories, where they had great times, where they did good things. It’s like, why don’t we create that here where guys can come back and we share that experience together?”