Just moments before the Celtics tipped off their season on Wednesday night, emergency services received reports of an active shooter in a bowling alley in Lewiston, Maine, located about 40 minutes north of the Maine Celtics’ training facility.
The tragic event led to eighteen deaths and thirteen injuries, starting at the bowling alley and then moving to a nearby bar. It was the deadliest mass shooting since the Uvalde school shooting in May of 2022. Authorities have been searching for the suspected shooter, 40-year-old Robert Card, leading to lockdowns in communities across the state.
Yesterday, during a post-practice interview, reporters asked head coach Joe Mazzulla a series of questions about the first win of the season — about turnovers, offensive rebounds, shooting variance, the team’s physicality. Just as the interview concluded, Mazzulla shifted the conversation.
“I’m a little frustrated,” Mazzulla said. “Not you guys, in particular, but the media in general picks and chooses when you want to ask about certain things that are going on in our society. We should always have to talk about when something is going wrong in the world.”
It wasn’t the first time Mazzulla has brought up a social issue or tragedy unprompted. A few weeks ago, ahead of the Celtics’ preseason debut, Mazzulla expressed his thoughts about the war taking place between Israel and Hamas in the Middle East.
Unprompted, coach Joe Mazzulla brings up what’s going on in Israel at the end of his pregame presser. pic.twitter.com/obuJ2Aq7kG— Noa Dalzell (@NoaDalzellNBA) October 8, 2023
“For us, the same thing as the Israel/Palestine situation — the Maine situation is very important,” Mazzulla said yesterday. “We have to talk about those things. I was really hoping someone would ask that, but I spent time in Portland, Maine, 37 miles from where it’s at. You see people go through difficult situations that they didn’t ask for. It’s really hard.”
Following the tragedy, operations at the Maine Celtics’ offices were temporarily halted. Several Maine communities were advised to shelter in place.
“It’s easy two weeks ago to look at a situation that’s really far from us [Israel/Palestine] and say, ‘oh, we don’t do that.’ And then something like this happens,” Mazzulla said, noting that he viewed discussing both distant and local issues as worth raising.
Mazzulla said his desire to bring light to tragic events was, in part, shaped by his time in the NBA bubble in Orlando in 2021, during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. Players and coaches alike shone light on the issues of police brutality and racism at large, with Jaylen Brown, in particular, taking a leadership role in these conversations.
“It’s important at least to acknowledge the stuff that’s going on, because we do have a platform, especially coming out of the bubble year, where you saw the impact that the NBA had, you saw the impact that the players had, that the coaches had,” Mazzulla said. “I was still young in the league and I didn’t really understand the impact that you can have, so watching the players, especially our guys, stand up for that and go through that and see the coaches do it, it was like hey, we got a bigger platform here.”
The debate over whether sports teams should engage with societal issues continues, but for Mazzulla, there’s a clear moral obligation.
“Sometimes this [basketball] needs to be an escape,” Mazzulla said. “But if it happens to you, you can’t escape it. Can we create a level of empathy and understanding that this is a world where something like that can happen? Yes, we want to create an environment where we feel that psychological safety, but we can’t lose sight of being numb to the fact that once we step out of this building, we’re no longer protected by that, so how do we navigate in a world like that?”
Mazzulla also made a call to individual responsibility. “At the end of the day, there’s never one way to fix a problem,” he said. “For me personally, it’s how I treat people on an individual basis. I’m not perfect, but I try to be respectful, and can you just pass that forward? Everybody has a role in society in terms of what they do. If we can just do that and keep other people in mind, it’ll go a long way.”
As of Friday morning, the shooter remains at large. At the same time, the Celtics are gearing up for their upcoming home game against Miami, a matchup that may seem inconsequential in the community at large.
Mazzulla is not alone in his desire to contextualize basketball within more pressing global issues. Sacramento Kings coach Mike Brown spent his post-game presser on Wednesday diminishing the significance of his team’s Opening Night win.
“I don’t even want to talk basketball,” Brown said. “We played a game. It was fun. Obviously, we won, but if we can’t do anything to fix this, it’s over. It’s over for our country for this to happen time after time.”
Coach Mike Brown on the mass shooting in Maine:— Laura Burkhardt (@LauraAnnSTL) October 26, 2023
“I don’t even want to talk basketball. We played a game. It was fun. Obviously, we won, but if we can’t do anything to fix this, it’s over. It’s over for our country for this to happen time after time.”pic.twitter.com/Qrl1ckIIhp
Like Brown, Mazzulla wants to be sure the tragic shooting in Lewiston, Maine remains at the forefront of dialogue.
“We have a really important job in society to really try and make the world a better place,” Mazzulla said. “It’s getting really hard, but we can’t be discouraged. I’m just praying for all the people who are there.”