Joe Mazzulla, the kid from Johnston, introduced as the Celtics interim head coach
By KEVIN McNAMARA
This was earlier this week up at the Red Auerbach Center, the Boston Celtics’ gleaming new basketball practice facility that sits a 3-pointer off the Mass Pike as the city’s skyline comes into view.
Joe Mazzulla is wrapping up his daily meeting with Boston’s basketball media, reporters recording every word. The fact that only two weeks earlier some of those same people didn’t even know what Joe Mazzulla looked like is an unavoidable, almost comical, fact.
Well, we know Joe Mazzulla. Make that Johnston’s Joe Mazzulla. He’s been a name on the Rhode Island basketball scene since he sprouted from his father Dan’s Hoop Lab in the early 2000’s and began a long journey that bounced from R.I. Interscholastic State Championships to a Big East Tournament victory at Madison Square Garden, from the Final Four to a coaching spot on Brad Stevens’ Celtics bench.
And now Mazzulla’s unbelievable, incomprehensible basketball magic carpet ride is set for its biggest turn yet. When the Celtics tip off their season in a few weeks, the 34-year old kid from Johnston will be in the head coach’s chair. The head coach of the Celtics, just like Doc Rivers, K.C. Jones, Tommy Heinsohn and, of course, Auerbach himself.
“I look at it as a blessing and an opportunity,” Mazzulla said. “It’s not something I deserve but it’s something I have and you have to make the most of it. That’s how I look at it.”
The circumstances of Mazzulla’s sudden rise to the big chair have been well-chronicled. Ime Udoka violated team policies, according to the Celtics. That’s called putting lipstick on a pig. What he really did was blow an opportunity of a lifetime for himself by reportedly having intimate relations with a subordinate in the Celtic front office. He also screwed with the coaching careers of several of his best friends who journeyed from the Portland, Oreg., area to work alongside him but now sit next to Mazzulla as Celtic assistant coaches.
The cloud surrounding Udoka’s removal from the head coaching position will follow this Celtic team through this season but it’s now Mazzulla’s job to keep the ship pointed towards a return to the NBA playoffs. With any luck maybe even a return to the NBA Finals.
That level of winning will bring a host of ‘Who is Joe Mazzulla’ stories but, again, we know Joe. Everyone on the Rhode Island basketball scene knows Joe.
He first appeared as a freshman at Bishop Hendricken, playing for Jamal Gomes. It’s not often a freshman can even make the Hendricken varsity, let alone play. But this was Dan Mazzulla’s son so he carried a bit of hoop cache in his backpack when he showed up to the Catholic boy’s school.
Dan Mazzulla was a star himself back in the day. He was an All-Stater in the mid-1970s for very good Johnston teams that rolled through the Suburban state playoffs. He enjoyed a Hall of Famer career at Bryant College, played some pro ball in Chile and then returned to Johnston and set up shop at the Rainone Gym as Johnston’s Parks & Recreation Director.
At a burly 6-foot-5, and with broad shoulders, Dan Mazzulla didn’t come across as the warmest guy. And he wasn’t on the basketball court. But he poured his heart into working with the town’s youth, coaching the Panthers’ girls and boys teams over the years. Yet when his two sons (Joe & Justin) caught the basketball bug, he knew that shooting and ballhandling would come. The main focus was making sure they were always among the toughest guys in their youth league games.
Jimmy Baron was Hendricken’s star upperclassman when Joe Mazzulla showed up in the fall of 2002 and he wasn’t sure what to make of the cocky 14-year old.
“First impression was I had heard that this freshman from Johnston could be good, if he makes the team,” Baron said. “When he got there, you could tell he was different. His mind was advanced for his age and he was a little more vocal for a freshman.”
After only a few runs at Ray Pepin gym, Baron knew the kid could play. Aggressive and fast, Joe Mazzulla’s drive and toughness quickly made a mark. “He earned everyone’s respect, especially on the defensive end of the court, and then we were off and running,” Baron said.
The Hawks lost in the state quarterfinals in 2003 but the losing was about to end. The team rolled to a state title in 2004 and Baron graduated to a fabulous career, first playing for his father, Jim, at Rhode Island where he set the school record for 3-pointers and scored over 1,700 career points. A 10-year pro career bouncing around Europe followed.
Now he’s a skills/shooting coach at IMG Academy in Florida and Baron says many of the same lessons he now imparts to elite prospects he first learned at Hendricken from both Gomes and Rob McClanaghan, then an eager, young gym teacher who would unlock the door of Pepin Gym at 6 a.m.
“Joe and myself and D.J. Carcieri would work out at six in the morning with Rob and walk into homeroom with a full sweat, ready for the school day,” Baron recalled. “We were very consistent with our work ethic and just trying to get better.”
The group blossomed. McClanaghan kept busy working out area college stars at the time, including Providence All-American Ryan Gomes. He would go on to become one of the elite trainers in the sport, developing relationships with everyone from Kevin Love to Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry.
“Joe was a tough kid who worked as hard as anyone,” McClanaghan said. “Think about it. He wasn’t all that big but he was very fast and he played with a chip on his shoulder. That took him a long way.”
That chip certainly traveled well. The Hawks won state titles in 2004, ’05 and ’06 with the team’s left-handed point guard winning the Gatorade Player of the Year twice. As a senior, Hendricken carried an undefeated record into the state playoffs but was in trouble. Mazzulla had walked away from a car accident late in the year that left him unconscious and his knee and leg injured. A few MRI’s ultimately cleared a return for the state’s March Madness. In the title game, the Hawks needed their star to give them a lift and he delivered, hitting the winning shot in his final game, a 71-69 win over Cranston West.
That clutch gene, that toughness that helped grow the chip on the shoulder, kept growing. And Mazzulla needed it. When he accepted a scholarship offer from coach John Beilein and enrolled at West Virginia, many observers questioned if he owned Big East-level ability. Even his most ardent fans back in Rhode Island.
But Mazzulla stepped right into the fray. He’d average 18 minutes a game in his four seasons and help three of his teams to more than 25 wins but everything was far from smooth. Belein left for Michigan after the 2007 season and WVU brought home a state legend, big Bob Huggins. The tough, successful coach from Cincinnati looked around his locker room and didn’t even know that he had found a soulmate in Mazzulla.
“Trust me, John Beilein yelled. All coaches yell,” Mazzulla told Connect Bridgeport (W.V.) back in 2014. “John Beilein was a very good coach, but I needed a guy like Huggs to motivate me. He coached me in a fashion that was very similar to the way I was raised. It was no problem for me to adapt to his coaching style.”
As a junior in 2010 everything came together for Mazzulla even though he was returning from major surgery to repair an issue with the growth plate in his left shoulder. He didn’t score a bucket at Madison Square Garden the night Mountaineer fans sang ‘Country Roads’ and cut the nets down for the first and only Big East Tournament title in school history but his six points, seven assists and glue-like defense on Georgetown’s guards were huge.
His impact only grew in the NCAA Tournament, especially after starting point guard Darryl Bryant broke his foot and Mazzulla jumped into the starting five. The climax came in an Elite Eight game at the Carrier Dome against a Kentucky team bursting with future NBA Gazillionaires John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson. Yet the star of stars in a 73-66 West Virginia win was none other than Johnston Joe Mazzulla who rose to the moment and just happened to score a career-high 17 points in his first start of the season.
It didn’t go unnoticed that Huggins, a devout man-2-man coach, deployed a 1-3-1 zone to slay John Calipari’s One-and-Doners. Huggs said he took a recommendation from Mazzulla to make the switch, the guard recalling the chief defense from his one season with Beilein.
Yet it was Mazzulla who owed Huggins. The coach not only stuck with him through the shoulder injury, but also after he was arrested for underage drinking and aggravated assault in 2008 and then, the following year, charged with domestic battery for putting his hands on a female at a Morgantown bar.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to have done it without this group of people, because they’ve been on my side through thick and thin,” he said after the Kentucky win. “They’re probably 95 percent of the reason why I’m here today and we’re here today.”
The Mountaineers lost to Duke in the Final Four but Mazzulla’s leadership helped WVU to 21 wins and another NCAA season as a senior in 2011. Just a few months after graduation, Mazzulla found coaching at two tiny Division Two schools in the hills of West Virginia. First stop was at Glenville State, followed by a move to Fairmont State.
In 2016, Danny Ainge hired Mazzulla to help with the Maine Red Claws, in part due to a recommendation from McClanaghan. The NBA is filled with so-called ‘workout guys’ and Mazzulla filled that role perfectly with his energy and enthusiasm. He left his wife, Camai, and two young children behind in Fairmont for the winter but couldn’t resist a chance at showing the pros what he could do.
“Joe is very direct and not afraid to say anything,” McClanaghan said. “The relationships with the players is everything. They have to have your back. In Joe’s case, they are on board.”
Mazzulla returned to Fairmont for the chance to become a head coach for the first time in 2017 and after a run to the Division Two nationals in 2019, he packed up the family and headed back to the Celtics and a spot on Brad Stevens’ staff in Boston.
By the time Mazzulla returned to New England in the summer of 2019, another part of his life was in crisis. His Dad, a guiding force in his life, was fighting a losing battle against brain cancer. The family’s friends, really the whole Town of Johnston, had come together and formed ‘Team Danny’ to raise funds for cancer patients. But in April of 2020, with the world in a pandemic lock down, Dan Mazzulla died at just 61 years old.
Joe Mazzulla was a faithful Catholic before his father passed, no doubt due in part to his Hendricken roots. But his closest friends now see a focused man of faith who counts priests among his dearest confidants.
Back at the Auerbach Center, Mazzulla is asked what his father would think of this sudden, remarkable turn in his son’s basketball life. A family that grew up enveloped in basketball, right there in Johnston, 60 miles south of TD Garden, now boasts a son charged with leading the Boston Celtics.
Hollywood in sneakers stuff, right?
“He’d be proud,” Mazzulla said. “Ever since he passed I think the most important thing is how can I continue the legacy of what he started and what he taught our family. Work ethic, treating people the right way. That all goes a long way.”
And when the Celtics hit their first losing streak, or lose a tough one at the buzzer, how will one of the least-experienced coaches in NBA history react?
“My Dad always preached mindset and how we handle situations, whether it’s good or bad,” Mazzulla said. “You don’t realize until someone’s gone what they’re teaching you. His ability to teach us how to have the right frame of mind regardless of the circumstances around you just happens to be perfect for what I’m facing right now. That’s going to help me lead.”