Celtics Players Say They Were ‘Shocked’ by Coach’s Suspension
CANTON, Mass. — Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics said he was preparing for the start of training camp last week when he learned that Ime Udoka, the team’s head coach, could have been facing a lengthy suspension. But Tatum was not privy to any inside information, he said. So, how did he learn the news?
“On Twitter,” he said. “Like everybody else.”
Tatum was among the Celtics players who, on Monday, spoke publicly for the first time since the team announced Thursday that it had suspended Udoka for the 2022-23 N.B.A. season for unspecified “violations of team policies.” One by one, the players appeared on a dais for the team’s media day and, facing a bank of cameras and reporters, said they knew little about what had led to Udoka’s punishment.
Marcus Smart: “It’s been hell for us. Just caught by surprise. No one really knows anything, so we’re just in the wind like everybody else. Last couple of days have been confusing.”
Jaylen Brown: “Nobody really has any of the information.”
Grant Williams: “I don’t know the facts.”
For the players, Udoka’s absence — along with the secretive nature of the investigation into his misconduct — has been a troubling development as they try to reorient themselves for another crack at a championship run after losing to Golden State in the N.B.A. finals last season.
One person briefed on the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly about it said Udoka had an inappropriate relationship with a female team employee. Another person who had been briefed said that Udoka’s violations involved one woman.
“As far as initial reactions, I think we were all shocked at what was going on — a little confused,” Brown said. “But a lot of the information wasn’t being shared with us, or with members of the team, so I can’t really comment on it.”
A Celtics spokesman declined to say how many violations there were.
In a news conference last week, Wyc Grousbeck, the team’s majority owner, cited “privacy reasons” in declining to elaborate on the nature of Udoka’s misconduct. The Celtics’ decision to suspend Udoka came after a monthslong investigation by an independent law firm, Grousbeck said.
On Monday, Tatum, Brown and Smart were among the team’s high-profile players who indicated that they did not know about the investigation while it was happening. In fact, Smart said, Udoka had recently visited him and a couple of teammates in Los Angeles. Smart was asked if anything about Udoka’s behavior struck him as unusual while he was in California.
“Not to me,” he said. “I think that’s why we got so caught off guard, because it just seemed so normal.”
Vague reports about Udoka’s situation emerged on social media Wednesday. At a team meeting the following day, few details were shared with players, Tatum said.
“There wasn’t any more information that we found out than the things you guys heard,” Tatum said, adding: “It’s hard for me to answer if things were handled the right way or if they weren’t because, I guess for a lot of reasons, I don’t know all the details. I just don’t know.”
Tatum and Brown, the team’s top two scorers last season, both said they had not spoken with Udoka since he was suspended. “It’s a lot to process,” Tatum said.
Joe Mazzulla, 34, whom the Celtics hired as an assistant in 2019, will be the team’s interim head coach this season. Brad Stevens, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations and Udoka’s predecessor, said last week that Mazzulla was the best choice for the role “by a long shot.” Mazzulla, who played college basketball at West Virginia, was previously the head coach at Fairmont State, a Division II college in West Virginia.
As a college player, Mazzulla twice pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct charges, according to multiple news reports at the time — first, when he was accused of scuffling with police at a Pittsburgh Pirates game, and later after he was accused of grabbing a woman at a bar.
“Listen, I’ve made mistakes,” Mazzulla said Monday. “I’m not perfect. I’ve hurt people, and I’ve had to use the situations I put myself in as a younger man to learn from and become a better person. That’s what I’ve tried to focus on: How can I re-create my identity as a person? How can I rely on my faith? And how can I just have a positive impact on the people around me?”
Brown, who was the subject of trade rumors in the off-season after Kevin Durant asked to be moved from the Nets, was among the players who offered Mazzulla a public vote of confidence.
“I believe in Joe,” Brown said. “Joe believes in me. I’ve had conversations with him. I don’t think he sees a limit on my game. I think he’s coming in excited, so I’m optimistic.”
Malcolm Brogdon, a veteran guard who was traded to the Celtics from the Indiana Pacers in July, said he was struck by Mazzulla’s self-discipline. Over the summer, Brogdon said, Mazzulla often beat the players to the team’s training center to lift weights each morning.
One day, Mazzulla noticed that Brogdon was using a balloon to do breathing exercises. Mazzulla told Brogdon that he was a fan of breathing exercises, too.
“He started explaining the theories behind them and the psychology of it,” Brogdon said. “So he’s a guy that’s paying attention to everything.”
Still, Mazzulla acknowledged some of the realities of the situation: that people throughout the Celtics organization need time to “feel and heal,” that he never anticipated being in this position and that he likely will need to learn on the job.
The players, too, seem aware of the challenges ahead of them.
“Everything that we started to build,” Smart said, “is starting over in a sense.”