On an Opening Night kicking off a season-long celebration commemorating Bill Russell’s life, it was also the modest start of Joe Mazzulla’s head coaching career. Russell helped author 690 wins and 11 championships in his illustrious career and for Mazzulla, the festivities put everything in focus.
“The Bill Russell ceremony brought a lot of gratitude and brought a lot of perspective to what it means to coach the Celtics and to be a Celtic,” Mazzulla said after Boston’s 126-117 win over the visiting 76ers.
Mazzulla has been with the Celtics for three years, the only coach that worked for both Brad Stevens and Ime Udoka. And while he became the interim head coach under inauspicious circumstances, the local kid from neighboring Rhode Island has impressed in training camp and now after his first win.
“Joe is tough as nails,” Jaylen Brown said after the game. “Even in the midst of everything, in the midst of all the turmoil, you could look into his eyes and see he was ready.”
Mazzulla has certainly earned the trust he’s built with the players and he’s seemingly picked up a thing or two from his two predecessors. Even after the Sixers built an eight-point lead in the second quarter, he didn’t call a timeout, trusting his players to learn from their mistakes and execute. That’s straight out of Brad Stevens’ notebook. Later in the game, he paired Noah Vonleh with Al Horford in a double big backcourt to shore up the defense. That comes from Udoka.
But even with all corporate knowledge he’s amassed in his time on the Boston bench, it’s his humility that seems to have built a mutual respect between him and his players.
“He’s very honest that he doesn’t know everything,” Tatum said after he and Brown combined for 70 points in the season opener. “He wants us to help him out as much as he’s helping us out.”
“I’m grateful for the relationship we have,” Mazzulla said. “These guys have been through a lot together and they’re great players. It’s just a matter of working together. I appreciate their trust, their buy-in. They come up with a lot of good stuff as well and we just kind of figure it out.”
On Tuesday night, they did figure it out, beating a fierce rival and a whole Philly team that many consider the conference favorites. And after the game, the Celtics celebrated Mazzulla’s first win.
Russell once said, “the most important part of winning is joy. You can win without joy, but winning that’s joyless is like eating in a four-star restaurant when you’re not hungry. Joy is a current of energy in your body, like chlorophyll or sunlight, that fills you up and makes you naturally want to do your best.”
If that isn’t the picture of joy, I don’t know what is.