Mazzulla's hometown of Johnston isn't surprised by his success as Celtics head coach

Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla watches the action during Game 1 of the NBA Finals on june 9 against the Dallas Mavericks at TD Garden.
Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla watches the action during Game 1 of the NBA Finals on june 9 against the Dallas Mavericks at TD Garden.

JOHNSTON — What feels like the inevitable was pushed to Monday, and you weren’t about to find anybody here who would dispute otherwise.

Bar 101 was the spot to watch the Boston Celtics attempt to clinch their 18th championship against the Dallas Mavericks. Game 4 of the NBA Finals fell on a Friday night — good food and a perfect location at a major intersection in town guarantees a crowd even on an average evening.

This was different. All six televisions were tuned to basketball, and several tables featured folks either wearing Celtics gear or some variety of green. One of their own — son, brother, cousin, classmate, teammate, someone they knew through someone they knew — has led the Celtics' sideline huddle for the last two seasons.

More: Hendricken's Jamal Gomes beaming with pride over Boston Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla

More: Thought Celtics coach/RI guy Joe Mazzulla was in over his head? How do you like him now?

Joe Mazzulla will take the TD Garden floor in Game 5 just 48 minutes from joining Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, Bill Fitch, K.C. Jones and Doc Rivers among the men who have guided the Celtics to glory. He grew up in the town’s gyms and on the town’s fields chasing his late father, Dan. You could only imagine what their private conversations would have been like since Mazzulla took over for the suspended Ime Udoka prior to the 2022-23 season.

“I’m being honest — I’m not surprised about the success he’s having in that position,” said Joe Acciardo, the longtime football and baseball coach at Johnston High. “Once it was him, I’m really not. And for all the reasons — knowing the family, and as a kid knowing his dad. It makes sense. I could see that.

“I think the toughest part was getting the job.”

Bishop Hendricken's Joe Mazzulla pushes the ball up the court after stealing it from from Cranston West's Matthew Fontaine during a game in February 2006.
Bishop Hendricken's Joe Mazzulla pushes the ball up the court after stealing it from from Cranston West's Matthew Fontaine during a game in February 2006.

Mazzulla’s opportunity came after prior stops with Glenville State, Fairmont State and the Maine Red Claws. He was an assistant with the Celtics from 2019-22 before a surprise promotion — “Second Row Joe,” as some major Boston media outlets sarcastically dubbed him, was given the keys to a roster that included budding superstars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Pretty cheap attempt at humor on the surface, of course. But here’s the truth — it's not something completely outside the tone of what Joe Mazzulla has heard at other times in his life. Dan was fiercely proud of his son in private conversations — landing at West Virginia as a college player instead of receiving a more aggressive recruiting pitch from Providence could trigger him — but sometimes offered more stick than carrot publicly.

Consider this breakfast scene in town not too long before Dan Mazzulla passed away. He was holding court with his brother Anthony, Joe, longtime friend Ray Iasimone and his son, Cam. Joe’s break with Boston — the 2019 hiring by Brad Stevens after previous time in the G League — was celebrated by all five men, but Dan couldn’t resist what was a typical jab.

“He was like, ‘The last coach on the bench — 11 coaches,’ ” Cam Iasimone said. “‘What do they need him for?’”

Dan Mazzulla was more like the 20th century dad from a 1950s-era movie. Validating your feelings? That was the wrong guy, even a few decades later. But here’s what he always made sure to do, something infinitely more valuable than some other fathers who were his peers — he gave his time.

Coach Dan Mazzulla, father of Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla, is shown in 1998 celebrating at the Providence Civic Center with his Johnston High School girls team, including Allegra Deluca (23), after their victory over Scituate in for the Division II championship.
Coach Dan Mazzulla, father of Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla, is shown in 1998 celebrating at the Providence Civic Center with his Johnston High School girls team, including Allegra Deluca (23), after their victory over Scituate in for the Division II championship.

You needed someone to coach his children in basketball, soccer, track and field? It was Dan, a sibling or a close friend. It was a familiar face. It was his own hand or one close enough to touch it, and it’s that level of care Joe has poured into this Celtics team.

Iasimone delved into that community ethos in a documentary he released in April 2023. “Coach — The Legacy of Daniel E. Mazzulla Jr.” was a passion project for the recent University of Rhode Island graduate. Iasimone dug under the surface and found a softer side, something Joe has guarded tightly while focusing on the larger Boston goals at hand.

“I think that’s what makes him open — people who care,” Iasimone said. “And not that media people don’t care, but it’s their job to report. It’s not their job to sit down and really care about what his dad meant to him.”

Want to keep up to date on all the latest action in high school sports? Sign up to get the inside scoop on every pitch, play and score with our High School Sports Insider newsletter sent straight to your inbox every Thursday and Sunday.

Generations of nature and nurture dictated Joe Mazzulla would be proud, determined, sharp, a leader, combative and suspicious. This place with a population just shy of 30,000 people is watching his latest coming out party — a Final Four with the Mountaineers, the spotlight that accompanies the end of the NCAA Tournament, and now this next basketball pinnacle. Wikipedia lists Joe and Dan among two dozen or so noteworthy natives, no small distinction in a part of the state that separated from Providence in the late 1750s.

“If you were with him in Rainone Gym, that’s a different story,” Acciardo said. “The people who are there at the beginning are the people we all know have your back — not the Johnny-come-latelys.

“In this town, we all know the good and bad with each other. You know a guy like that. We love hard and, honestly, we hate hard. But when you’re in that circle, you know who’s got your back.

“It’s just good to know who does have your back and who doesn’t, and he knows.”

bkoch@providencejournal.com

On X: @BillKoch25

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Joe Mazzulla's hometown isn't surpised by his success as Celtics coach

Advertisement