Boston Celtics

‘Mazzulla' docuseries: How C's coach developed his competitive spirit

Joe Mazzulla opens up about his competitiveness and personal growth, which he credits to his late father.

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Days before the 2022-23 NBA season, Joe Mazzulla unexpectedly was promoted from assistant to head coach of the Boston Celtics. Suddenly, without any prior head coaching experience, he found himself leading one of the most iconic franchises in sports.

Mazzulla embraced the challenge and thrived under the unique circumstances. Knowing what we know now about the 35-year-old's mindset, that shouldn't come as much of a surprise. His intense competitive spirit has rubbed off on his players and staff, helping Boston maintain its status as one of the NBA's most feared teams.

Mazzulla's competitiveness has been displayed during games and his entertaining press conferences. We've seen him attempt to block opposing players' shots and double down on unorthodox coaching decisions. Although his approach occasionally leaves some scratching their heads, it's part of why the Celtics are the favorites to win it all heading into the 2024 NBA playoffs.

Over the last year, NBC Sports Boston's video crew spent time with Mazzulla to learn more about how he developed his mindset. In the first clip from our "Mazzulla" docuseries, which you can watch in the video player above, he opened up about his competitive drive.

"I've always said I have an unhealthy relationship with competition," Mazzulla said. "I think this year and a half I've grown to figure out competitiveness isn't just wanting to win really, really bad. It's having an understanding of what the environment needs and giving that, and then being ready to be flexible in the next thing."

In his hometown of Johnston, Rhode Island, Mazzulla brought us to Rainone Gym, where pickup games helped him fall in love with the game of basketball.

"My dad had a key, so any time I wanted to come," Mazzulla said. "And I remember from like 12 years on, all the way up until college I would come and play pickup with all the police officers, my uncles, and that's where I learned how not to make excuses, toughness, and they didn't take it easy on me. I probably wouldn't have gotten into basketball if it wasn't for this gym."

His father, Dan Mazzulla, helped to instill that toughness.

"Me and him would come here for hours and I just wouldn't be allowed to leave until I was done working out," the C's coach said. "And at the end, we would play 1-on-1 in the paint, me versus him, and there was no rules. And so we would just play until someone was dead, bleeding, and it was just like, you're gonna learn how to just get through stuff."

Dan Mazzulla died in April 2020 after battling brain cancer. Joe admitted it took four years to grieve his father's passing.

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"By the time the (2023) playoffs came, I was really grieving him," he said. "What's funny is Game 7 of (the Eastern Conference Finals against) Miami was his birthday, so that was an interesting moment. So it took like four years to actually slow down and see it, because I think life just happened so fast. We had the Bubble, we had the pandemic, things were going on, so I didn't really have time to really go through it, so to speak.

"It was really the playoff series, because that was like the biggest challenge I've had since he wasn't there. So that was a whole process of just growth in general. Growth as a person, growth as a coach, growth as a family. I've said before our marriage got closer, so that two months or however long it was was the two months I give the most credit to my growth in a long time."

Mazzulla hopes to pass on the lessons he learned from his father, and his competitive mindset, to his own children.

"To me, the things that I want to pass on to my kids are my faith, mindset, competitive nature," he said. "It's not that things are going to go your way. It's not money. But if I can give them faith, if I can give them a competitive mindset, if I can give them the mindset and the ability to be able to go through life and handle things when they don't go your way, I think that's a legacy. That's more long-lasting.

"And that's what my dad really worked to give my family. And I think that's kind of what my goal is. And it's the same in the gym and in the facility, like, can you create something long-lasting?"

Mazzulla knows bringing Banner 18 to Boston this summer would go a long way toward creating that legacy.

"The Celtics were here before me, they'll be here when I'm done," Mazzulla said. "But in that space, can you leave something there? Obviously, a banner is the number one thing, but even that banner represents all the stuff that you put into it, you know? And like, can we leave something like that?"

Mazzulla and the Celtics will begin their playoff run this Sunday with their opponent to be determined.

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