BOSTON — Wyc Grousbeck brought notes to Friday’s press conference at the Auerbach Center, a stark change from the Celtics owner’s usual unscripted approach but a reflection of the magnitude of the situation. Brad Stevens fought through emotions normally unseen.
Together, the two Celtics officials tried to explain an unprecedented and franchise-altering decision, the stunning season-long suspension of coach Ime Udoka for what the team described as “violations of team policies.”
“A difficult time to be speaking to you all,” Grousbeck began. It’s a time of concern and reflection and action.”
Over the nearly 30-minute press conference, little detail was revealed on what exactly transpired that led to Udoka’s suspension. The coach, according to multiple reports, had an improper intimate relationship with a female member of the team staff, which breaks the franchise’s code of conduct. But citing privacy reasons, Grousbeck and Stevens didn’t offer any additional details on what occurred.
Grousbeck said the Celtics learned at some point this summer that there was a “situation,” at which point they hired a “respected” law firm to conduct a thorough investigation. The decision came to a conclusion on Thursday, and they’re confident it’s the right one.
“I personally feel that this is well warranted and appropriate, backed by substantial research and evidence and facts, and so I’m standing by the decision and Ime has accepted it,” Grousbeck said.
“I’m not going to comment on the investigation, but we found there was enough there to take action.”
Grousbeck said that no one else in the organization is facing penalty or reprimand. Udoka’s suspension comes with a “very significant” financial penalty and will conclude next June 30. The Celtics said in Thursday’s announcement that a decision on Udoka’s future will be made at a later date. There’s no guarantee that Udoka coaches the Celtics again, and no clarity was offered on Friday on what would need to happen between now and next summer for the C’s to revisit his status.
“We haven’t made any decision about going forward or what the criteria might be,” Grousbeck said. “So, I don’t have any substantive answer to that.”
Grousbeck said that Udoka committed multiple violations that led to the suspension. Asked why Udoka’s transgressions were enough to warrant a season-long suspension but not rise to the level of a fireable offense, Grousbeck didn’t elaborate.
“This felt right, but there’s no clear guidelines for any of this,” he said. “This is really conscience and gut feel and being here 20 years and I’m responsible for the decision, ultimately. Although, it 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, but it was clear that something substantial needed to be done, in my view, and it was.”
Grousbeck said that he and Stevens have met with Celtics players, and the news was naturally met with uneasiness. Three months ago, Udoka led them to the NBA Finals in his first season, and they’re returning this season as the favorite to win the championship. Now, suddenly, they have to defend their Eastern Conference championship without their head coach.
“I would say in general, they are very concerned about this,” Grousbeck said of the players. “It’s not a welcome development.
“But they also, I felt, have energy and focus and commitment and drive to really accomplish great things hopefully this season. So that’s the commitment I’m feeling from the players and I bet, based on last year and based on everything we know about them, I think that we will be fulfilled.”
Grousbeck said that he doesn’t believe Udoka’s actions speak to a wider organizational issue.
“We think our culture is very strong,” Grousbeck said. “We’re very proud of it, but this has shaken it, maybe. I don’t think there’s a wider issue than what we’ve spent several months uncovering and then deciding what to do about. I don’t think it goes more broadly, but that’s our current thinking.”
Stevens confirmed that 34-year-old Joe Mazzulla, who he hired as an assistant coach in 2019, will be the Celtics’ interim coach in Udoka’s absence this season.
As training camp begins next Tuesday, Mazzulla — who has no prior NBA head coaching experience — will be tasked with leading a group that has high expectations into uncharted waters. But the consequences of Udoka’s suspension run deeper than what unfolds on the court this season.
“I am concerned about the situation and its impact on everybody in the Celtics’ organization, and I do hope this represents the beginning of a new chapter and a chance to turn the page and move forward with things, to some extent, resolved,” Grousbeck said. “And I am personally very confident in the people we have here, starting with my partner in basketball, Brad Stevens, and the staff and the roster and the training staff and the front office and the business office of the Celtics. We’re going to stand together as a family as we move forward.”