While refusing to divulge specifics about the decision to suspend Ime Udoka for an improper relationship with a female employee, Boston Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck and president Brad Stevens said Friday that a lengthy investigation into their coach’s behavior had taken a toll on the organization and that Udoka’s season-long suspension was justified.
Boston’s leadership held a news conference one day after announcing that Udoka, who guided the Celtics to the 2022 NBA Finals in his first year as coach, would be suspended for the entire 2022-23 season because of “violations of team rules.” Celtics assistant Joe Mazzulla will serve as interim coach during Udoka’s suspension.
Grousbeck said that the Celtics became aware of “a potential situation” earlier this summer and contracted with a law firm to conduct an independent investigation, which took some “twists and turns” before concluding this week. Though the Celtics did not disclose specifics of Udoka’s conduct or the identities of any other employees who might have been involved, Grousbeck said that Udoka was the only person facing discipline and that he will be subject to a “very significant financial penalty” in conjunction with his suspension, which will run through June 30, 2023.
Grousbeck declined to explain Boston’s “deliberations” on whether to suspend or fire Udoka, saying that he made the decision by “conscience and gut feel” while reiterating the franchise’s position that a decision about the coach’s future beyond this season would be “made at a later date.” There is no recent precedent for an NBA coach being suspended for a full season, and it’s unclear whether Udoka will be able to return to his post.
“We have strong values at the Celtics and we are doing our very best to uphold them here,” Grousbeck said. “We have reflected as a group with outside advisers, a diverse group, in fact, in deciding what to do. I take ultimate responsibility. I personally feel this [suspension] is well warranted and appropriate, backed by substantial research, evidence and facts. I’m standing by the decision and Ime has accepted it.”
Udoka apologized Thursday to “our players, fans, the entire Celtics organization, and my family for letting them down.”
The 34-year-old Mazzulla has been with the Celtics since 2019 after a previous stint with the team’s G League affiliate in Maine, and he will be the NBA’s youngest coach this season. Grousbeck cited Mazzulla’s “energy and passion” as factors in his appointment, while Stevens said that the Rhode Island native was the “best choice … by a long shot” to guide the defending Eastern Conference champions on a title chase.
“It’s not an easy timing for [Mazzulla] or the rest of the staff,” Stevens said. “He’s an exceptionally sharp and talented person. I believe strongly in him and his ability to lead people, his ability to galvanize a room and get behind them, and his ability to organize and understand all that comes with running a team through the season.”
The Celtics had a “brief” conversation about Stevens returning to the bench, according to Grousbeck. But Stevens, who posted a 353-282 (.557) record as coach from 2013 to 2021, said that he had “absolutely not” considered the idea, adding that the Celtics could still make an addition to their coaching staff this season. Boston lost well-regarded assistant Will Hardy when he was hired to coach the Utah Jazz in June.
“I’m going to be there for [Mazzulla] without stepping on his toes,” Stevens said. “He doesn’t need much. I believe in that strongly. Sometimes you just need somebody who has been there next to you. Hopefully I can be that for him.”
While attending West Virginia University in 2009, Mazzulla was arrested on charges of domestic battery and suspended from the basketball team. Stevens said that the Celtics had vetted that incident “really thoroughly” and concluded that it had “shaped [Mazzulla] into who he is today, in a really good way.”
“I believe strongly in Joe’s substantiveness as a person,” Stevens said. He’s been very open with me how those moments have impacted him in every which way. You can see that for a long time. We’ve had years to get to know him. … He’s 100 percent accountable.”
Boston begins training camp on Tuesday as one of the NBA’s leading title favorites after a 51-31 campaign that produced the organization’s first trip to the Finals since 2010. The Celtics return Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Al Horford, among other key pieces from last year’s team and acquired guard Malcolm Brogdon from the Indiana Pacers in a July trade. However, center Robert Williams III and forward Danilo Gallinari will be sidelined to start the season with knee injuries.
Grousbeck admitted that the team’s players were “very concerned” about Udoka’s status given the timing of his suspension and the private nature of the investigation. Beyond the roster, Grousbeck and Stevens expressed support for the Celtics’ female employees and regret that some of them were subjected to online speculation about their possible involvement with Udoka once word of his pending suspension began leaking late Wednesday. The Celtics didn’t announce Udoka’s suspension until late Thursday evening.
“It’s been a hard time,” Stevens said. “We have a lot of talented women in our organization. I thought [Thursday] was really hard on them. Nobody can control Twitter speculation, rampant bulls---. We as an organization have a responsibility to make sure we’re there to support them now. A lot of people were dragged unfairly into that.”
Udoka was once viewed as a stabilizing piece capable of bringing together a talented roster that underperformed in Stevens’s last season, but his sudden and unexpected absence now presents a major test for the Celtics.
“We think our culture is very strong and we’re proud of it,” Grousbeck said. “This has shaken it, maybe. I don’t think there’s a wider [cultural] issue. … We need to uphold ‘Celtic Pride,’ and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”