BOSTON — Following their suspension of head coach Ime Udoka for the entire 2022-23 NBA season, Boston Celtics managing partner Wyc Grousbeck and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens offered scant factual substance during Friday's news conference, citing "privacy reasons for the people involved."
The Celtics officially suspended Udoka on Thursday night "for violations of team policies." The news came less than 24 hours after The Athletic's Shams Charania reported through anonymous sources that Udoka "had an improper intimate and consensual relationship with a female member of the team staff." Charania clarified in a later report, "the woman recently accused Udoka of making unwanted comments toward her."
Neither Grousbeck nor Stevens commented on any of the specifics. They confirmed that they learned the nature of Udoka's offense "over the summer" and promptly hired an outside law firm to launch "a thorough and impartial investigation" that concluded on Wednesday, when news first began leaking to the media.
"We have a lot of talented women in our organization, and I thought yesterday was really hard on them," Stevens, holding back tears, said of the hours between the news leaks and the suspension. "Nobody can control Twitter speculation and rampant bulls***, but I think that we as an organization have a responsibility to make sure we’re there to support them now, because a lot of people were dragged unfairly into that."
The investigation "heated up over the last couple of weeks" and featured several "twists and turns" before the Celtics felt they had a full account of what Grousbeck described as "multiple violations" by Udoka.
Asked what could have constituted a yearlong suspension, which is set to end June 30, 2023, and not Udoka's firing, Grousbeck said, "This felt right, but there are no clear guidelines for any of this. It’s really conscience and gut feel and being here 20 years. I’m responsible for the decision, ultimately, although I took a lot of advice from partners like Brad and others, and we collectively came to this and got there, but it was not clear what to do. It was clear that something substantial needed to be done, and it was."
The Celtics offered no guarantee that Udoka would return to the bench at the end of his suspension, which "comes with a significant financial penalty," Grousbeck said. The team has not set parameters for Udoka's return. "We’re not going to talk about the long term, because nothing has been decided," Grousbeck added.
Grousbeck said Udoka expressed "acceptance and appreciation for how this is being handled."
"I want to apologize to our players, fans, the entire Celtics organization, and my family for letting them down," Udoka said in a statement on Thursday. "I am sorry for putting the team in this difficult situation, and I accept the team's decision. Out of respect for everyone involved, I will have no further comment."
As for whether the Celtics believe Udoka's behavior constituted sexual harassment, Grousbeck said, "I don’t have the ability to venture into the conclusions of our legal analysis."
Stevens confirmed that assistant Joe Mazzulla will serve as interim head coach in Udoka's absence. "There may be an addition" to the bench, Stevens said, while voicing confidence in the experience of the existing staff, especially Damon Stoudamire and Ben Sullivan, whom Stevens described as "future head coaches."
The Celtics hired Mazzulla in 2019, when he began as an assistant for then-coach Stevens. He assisted Boston's G League affiliate in Maine during the 2016-17 season and spent two seasons as head coach of West Virginia's Fairmont State University, making a Division II NCAA tournament appearance.
As a player at West Virginia University, Mazzulla pleaded guilty to charges of disorderly conduct and public drunkenness for an alleged scuffle with police in 2008. A year later, he reportedly pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct following his arrest on a battery charge for allegedly grabbing a woman by the neck at a bar in Morgantown, West Virginia.
"When we were considering hiring him as an assistant, I vetted the incidents when he was in college really thoroughly," Stevens said. "I believe strongly in Joe’s substantiveness as a person. He’s been very open with me about how those moments impacted him in every which way, and you can see it in the way that he carries himself. ... I believe strongly that shaped him into who he is today in a really, really good way, but he’ll be the first to tell you he’s 110% accountable for that, and I’ll be the first to tell you I believe in him."
Grousbeck said he had a "brief conversation" about the possibility of Stevens returning to the Celtics' bench as head coach. For his part, Stevens said he would "absolutely not" assume that role this season.
“Joe’s the best choice to do that by a long shot," said Stevens.
Udoka coached the Celtics to the 2022 NBA Finals. They enter this season as championship favorites.
– – – – – – –