As Celtics playoff run continues, Gomes looks back on coaching Coach Mazzulla

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It didn’t take long for Jamal Gomes to decide that he wanted 14- year old Joe Mazzulla on his team.

“It didn’t take long to figure out what type of person and what type of athlete that young man was going to be,” Gomes said. “What made Joey special was his ability just to make everybody better around him.”

Gomes, Bishop Hendricken’s head coach since 2000, has won 14 state championships at the helm of the Hawks. His first three came with Mazzulla as the team’s starting point guard.

Seeing Mazzulla become the head coach of the Boston Celtics, leading them to an NBA-best 64-18 record this past year, has been an incredible experience for his former coach.

It hasn’t surprised Gomes, though.

“He’s won at every level consistently, both as a player and a coach,” Gomes said. “I’m not surprised at where he is and what he’s doing.”

It’s something that Mazzulla told Gomes was his goal when he was head coach of NCAA Division II Fairmont State, in Fairmont, West Virginia, less than a decade ago.

Mazzulla’s rise in the NBA coaching wasn’t exactly a linear path. Three years after Mazzulla officially joined the Celtics as an assistant in 2019, previous Celtics head coach Ime Udoka was found to have had an improper relationship with a staff member, which led to the Celtics suspending him before ultimately releasing him from his contract. Mazzulla, at only 34 years old, was thrust into the role of interim head coach just days before the Celtics’ 2022 training camp was about to begin.

Having to deal with the fallout of the Udoka situation, as well as not having more time to implement his coaching philosophy before the season, is something that Gomes knew would be a tough task.

Like watching a son

“I called him, like ‘Joe, you OK? I just want to make sure you’re doing alright. If there’s anything you need, just let me know,’” Gomes said. “He calls back a couple of days later, says ‘Coach, I’m sorry to call you back so late. It’s been a crazy week.’”

 Mazzulla would ask Gomes to watch his first practice with the Celtics, and asked him to sit at his desk in one of his first staff meetings.

After that practice, Gomes said that he was almost in tears driving home.

“For me, it was like watching my son achieve at the highest level, and to see what he did that day, I was just so proud of it,” Gomes said. “I watched him run a practice like he was a ten-year NBA veteran.”

Mazzulla’s coaching style, Gomes said, is something that many people have said it similar to his own, remarking that Mazzulla’s brother- Utah Jazz assistant coach Justin Mazzulla- said that he saw a lot of Gomes’ coaching style in his brother.

Gomes said, it takes around four years for a coach to build a culture around their team. In his second year, Mazzulla has done some incredible work doing so- and Gomes said he’s still going to learn more over the next couple of years.

“I tell young coaches all the time that it takes that time to develop what you want to develop, bring in the players you want to bring in,” Gomes said. “He’s still going to be learning, but I think he’s in a much more comfortable position, and he’s much more confident. That takes time.”

Mazzulla is still the youngest head coach in the NBA at 35 years old. Uniquely, he’s the only coach in the league younger than one of his players- 37-year-old veteran Al Horford.

Seeing that success at such a young age, though, is something that Gomes credits to Mazzulla’s maturity.

“He knew who he was and who he wanted to be at a young age,” Gomes said.

Running in the family

The Mazzulla name was one that was already familiar to those in the Rhode Island high school basketball world by Joe’s freshman year.

Dan Mazzulla, Joe’s father, was a Johnston coaching legend, having coached both boys’ and girls’ basketball in the town since the 1980s. Johnston’s indoor recreation center is now dedicated to him.

Having Dan put his trust in Gomes, at that time still early in his coaching career, meant a lot to him.

“I was blown away by it, because as a young coach, I hadn’t proven anything yet,” Gomes said. “We had had a couple of tough seasons, but he decided to send his son here.”

Dan never got to see his son’s head coaching dreams fulfilled. In 2020, he passed away after a battle with cancer.

Gomes, though, knows that his old friend would be very proud of his son.

“Dan would be proud, although I think he would downplay it a lot,” Gomes said. “I think Dan would continue to be tough on Joe like he was back when he was in high school and in college, but he would be very proud of him.”

Winning on Warwick Ave.

Throughout Mazzulla’s high school career, the Hawks won the state title in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

What sticks out in Gomes’s mind, though, is the meetings he would have with Mazzulla, getting to know him better and giving him advice as he grew up.

Mazzulla, Gomes said, was very mature from a young age. Still, he remembers having individual talks with him to make sure that he stayed focused and built his character.

“It wasn’t a 45-degree angle to the top with Joe,” Gomes said. “I can remember having many conversations with him, as I’ve had with many of our players over the years. They’re growing, they’re maturing, they’re learning how to be young men and how to start to navigate through life. It wasn’t always easy, but I think that’s what really makes it so special to see where he is now.”

Two weeks before the state championship in Mazzulla’s senior year, he was involved in a serious car crash that left him briefly hospitalized.

“I left and went over to his house- he had just gotten home,” Gomes said. “We start thinking about his recovery process, and I remember leaving that day, and he said ‘Coach- I’ll be back.’”

Gomes said that without Mazzulla, the rest of Hendricken’s team put together one of the best games he’d ever been a part of against North Kingstown in the state quarterfinals.

Mazzulla made it back in time for the state semifinal, although he was clearly hurting during the game and had to play limited minutes. During the state championship game, though, he fought through the pain, delivering a near-triple double and the game-winning basket to beat Cranston West 71-69.

“We weren’t sure if he was going to play the game- talk about a warrior and battling and pushing through adversity,” Gomes said. “It was just a testament to who he was and the level of competitor in his character and the toughness that is within him.”

That period of time has a special significance to Gomes, and seeing the players from his early teams succeed in life, no matter where it takes them, is something that he values deeply.

“I really learned how to be a coach right around the timeframe when Joe was here,” Gomes said. “For me, it’s full circle.”

 

Potential history for Hendricken

Mazzulla, though, isn’t the only former Hawk to have gone from Warwick Ave. to the first seat on an NBA bench.

Michael Malone- who was at Hendricken from 1984 through 1986- is one of the longest-tenured head coaches in the league, having been with the Denver Nuggets since 2015. Last year, he coached them to their first title in franchise history.

Currently, the Nuggets and Celtics are generally considered the favorites in their respective conferences to reach the NBA Finals. If it happens, Bishop Hendricken High School would reach an unprecedented achievement- two former students coaching against each other in the Finals.

Malone and Mazzulla have another thing in common - well-respected fathers in the coaching business. Brendan Malone, Michael’s father, was head coach of the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers, and won two titles as an assistant coach for the Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s. While Michael was in high school, Brendan was coaching the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team.

To Gomes, two esteemed coaches putting their trust in Hendricken’s program showed a strong trust in the culture of the school and its basketball program.

“We don’t compare ourselves to other schools- that’s not who we are,” Gomes said. “We just try to be the best that we can be. I feel that we do a very good job of bringing the best out of our young men that come here, and I think families see that in the product that we produce.”

Gomes never knew Malone, who left Hendricken to go to a prep school the year before Gomes’ freshman year. Still, he said it was special that the school has produced four NBA coaches- Malone, both Mazzullas and Jimmy Baron, a shooting coach with the San Antonio Spurs.

The Celtics carry the burden of high expectations this year, as a franchise with seventeen championship banners hanging in the TD Garden and a roster that’s regarded as one of the most talented and well-rounded in the NBA’s recent memory.

If there’s anyone that Gomes thinks can handle that pressure, though, it’s the kid who first walked into Hendricken’s gym 22 years ago.

“All the great coaches deal with it on a day-by-day basis,” Gomes said. “I’m confident that he’ll bring the team to where they need to be this year.”

There are two more things that Gomes wants Mazzulla to know, as well.

“The first message I want to send him is how much I love him and how proud I am of him, who he is and what he’s doing,” Gomes said. “My second message to him is as long as he brings the best out of everyone around him, he’s going to be successful no matter what.”