'It's been hell for us': Ime Udoka put Boston Celtics in no-win situation
BOSTON — After the Boston Celtics launched an investigation into their head coach and before he was suspended for the 2022-23 NBA season as a result of their findings, Ime Udoka met with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and "a couple" of his teammates in Los Angeles to discuss their championship pursuit.
"That's why it seems so off guard to us," Smart said, "because everything seemed so normal."
No NBA coach has ever been expelled so abruptly before a season that carried such high expectations, and we have no idea how Celtics players will respond to the sudden change at the top of their coaching staff. They don't know, either. The one thing we can say with some certainty is that they are shell-shocked, and the person most responsible for building the trust that led them to the 2022 NBA Finals has broken it.
And how did they find out? "S***, on Twitter, like everybody else," said rising Celtics star Jayson Tatum.
"I found out the same as everyone else," added teammate Grant Williams.
Everyone else found out on Wednesday night, when in the span of two hours, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski first reported the suspension was coming and The Athletic's Shams Charania provided a rudimentary explanation: "Udoka had an improper and consensual relationship with a female member of the team staff."
We have since come to learn there is more, possibly much more, to Udoka's suspension. Speaking as vaguely as he could for "privacy reasons," Celtics managing partner Wyc Grousbeck on Friday said they learned of the allegations against Udoka "sometime over the summer" and hired a law firm to conduct the investigation, which upon completion on Wednesday revealed "multiple violations" of team policies.
The Celtics did not expect the story to leak so soon after they learned the extent of Udoka's transgressions. By Thursday, Charania's report had removed "consensual" from his description of the relationship and added, "sources said that the woman recently accused Udoka of making unwanted comments toward her."
Details about Udoka's alleged actions are running rampant in league circles. At least two former NBA players turned analysts have alluded to more serious allegations after learning the "truth" and "facts," and they are just two of many who portend to know more about the investigation than the Celtics have revealed.
Which is why it is hard to believe Celtics players are not as informed, but that is the position they are taking.
"If you read the statement and you watch the press conference, apparently there are a lot of things that they can't speak about, so I think I'm kind of in the same boat," said Tatum. "I don't know, so it's hard for me to answer if things were handled the right way or if they weren't, because I don't know all the details."
"Not a lot of information has been shared, so there's a lot of confusion going around, a lot of speculation going around, which makes it difficult on the guys who have been here and the guys who are here now," said Tatum's co-star, Jaylen Brown. "I guess what we do is do our jobs, and that's what we're here for."
Both Tatum and Brown said they have not spoken to Udoka since the investigation concluded.
"It's been hell for us," added the veteran Smart. "Just caught by surprise. Nobody really knows anything, so we're just in the wind like everybody else. The last couple days, as far as this, it's been confusing."
It's almost as if they were prepared to share the same sentiment, if only to buy time before they get a more complete picture — or the media gets it first. When they veered from the script, it became uncomfortable.
"Nobody died, so I didn't lose anything," said Smart. "I still love Ime, personally and as a coach. It's just something unfortunate that happened to him. It doesn't take away from what he did as a coach."
Let's be clear: By all accounts, this is not something that happened to Udoka. This is something he did, and he left his players to answer for it. Only, they either do not know the extent of his misdeeds, or they would rather not be tasked with revealing more details without violating the privacy of those involved.
You can be certain they are asking the same questions we are.
"From what we know, it's hard to make a decision based upon whether it's consensual or not in the workplace, whatever's going on, which we've known has happened before in the workplace, but I guess there's more to it possibly, which we don't know," said Brown. "I don't know. I don't have all the details."
But they would like to have them.
"You would like it to be known, but at the same time, that's none of our business," said Smart. "It's their lives, it's the people who's involved, it's between them. We should protect that privacy, and we understand, just like we want our privacy to be respected. As a player, you'd like to know, but it's not an obligation."
The suspension itself is not even clearly defined. It's more indefinite than anything, since Thursday's news release noted, "A decision about [Udoka's] future with the Celtics beyond this season will be made at a later date," and Grousbeck reiterated that stance on Friday, adding there is no criteria yet for his return.
Asked if Udoka would be welcomed back next season if he fulfills his suspension, Brown said, "I'm not sure. I think it's going to need to be something that we address as a group. We've started that process."
The sum total of what the Celtics are willing to share certainly suggests Udoka will never coach them again. Regardless, they were blindsided by this days before they were set to meet the media for the first time this season, and that is an unwelcome development for a team that is committed to returning to the Finals.
"It's a lot to process. Unexpected," said Tatum. "Especially coming into this season, you feel a certain way, coming off last year, that you're excited, and trying to do all these things. It's just a lot, if I'm being honest. Along with everybody else, I'm still trying to process it all, knowing that we start practice [on Tuesday]."
This is a team that didn't jell until midway through last season, thanks in large part to Udoka's leadership. A major focus this season was to hit the ground running and ensure chemistry is stronger come playoff time.
"We have all these expectations," said Al Horford, the eldest of the Celtics. "We have this new season coming about. We spent the whole summer, and all I could think about was like, 'Man, I can't wait until this point, the first practice, getting after it and starting to build this back up.' It's a big challenge, and last year it took us time to get it going. This year, we're hoping we're in a much better position from the beginning."
"We've got to start from Day 1 like everyone else," said Tatum. "It's a process, and we can't skip steps."
Quite the ask of 34-year-old interim head coach Joe Mazzulla, who received rave reviews from his players on Friday, many of whom have worked with him for his three seasons as an assistant. No matter how much Mazzulla insists in the wake of Udoka's exit, "There's not much to change at all," he is now tasked with balancing his debut as an NBA head coach with the league's biggest distraction and not skipping a step to a title — all with less than a week of preparation. His players will either rally or fracture around him.
"This situation has affected everybody," said Mazzulla. "It's affected everyone, and we need to be as patient as we can in giving people time to feel and heal. ... You can't rush trust, you can't rush healing, you can't rush any of that, so just being present for whoever needs us to be present for is key."
No rush, except the season starts now, and the Celtics have more questions than answers.
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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach