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SILENCE ABOUT UDOKA’S AFFAIR ONLY FURTHER POISONS THE CELTICS
Choosing privacy over transparency in a scandal likely to derail a title bid, the team is doing a disservice to women in the organization, players on the court and, for that matter, Udoka himself
The lawsuits are waiting for the bicycle couriers. As sure as attorneys have billable hours, and sure as a toxic workplace is forcing Robert Sarver to sell his NBA team in Phoenix, the Boston Celtics are bracing for legal heat. This is what happens when an in-house scandal meets reckless and hurtful social-media rumors in a culture where men are assailable.
People sue. Lawyers drool. Internet creeps smell clickbait.
The action may come from Ime Udoka, the head coach who is serving a one-season suspension — if he isn’t fired altogether — for conducting an intimate affair with a female team employee. It may come from the still-unidentified woman, who reportedly said he made “unwanted comments” that suggest the relationship wasn’t entirely consensual. It may come from other women who work for the Celtics and aren’t comfortable amid a power dynamic where a coach can have an office fling.
But litigation is imminent, a storm that threatens to undermine the future of a championship contender that reached the NBA Finals in June. And as long as owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca heed the advice of their own counsel — releasing no specifics beyond Udoka’s ban for a “volume of violations of team policies” — the Celtics will open defense of their Eastern Conference title next month under a dark cloud that won’t be going away.
That is, unless the owners and basketball operations boss Brad Stevens begin to provide details. A gag order might be a responsible stance at the moment, to protect the families of those at the center of the drama, but at some point very soon, transparency will be more important than privacy. It’s unhealthy to prolong a code of silence in such an explosive circumstance. The team’s female employees, who’ve been subjected to a horrid guessing game on message boards, have a right to reclaim their lives via a public release of inside information that clears their names. Celtics players, who committed to Udoka’s tough-love leadership last season and rode it to a 2-1 Finals lead, have a right to know what exactly led to his discipline and if his sins rose to the level of his punishment. The paying customers, too, deserve the truth in a devoted sports town. Grousbeck and Pagliuca are clumsily mistaken if they think this powderkeg will fade by Opening Night.
So, speak up. And let the legal games begin, because they’re inevitable whether the team comes clean or remains secretive. To move forward, the airing of facts is necessary, especially in a locker room where players are being asked to pivot like robots to interim head coach Joe Mazzulla, a 34-year-old career assistant whose only top-job experience came during a brief college stint at Division II Fairmont State.
“Nobody has any of the information," star forward Jaylen Brown said. “There’s a lot of speculation going on, which makes it difficult for the guys who have been here. … I wish we had more details. From what we know, it’s hard to make a decision based upon whether it’s consensual or not in the workplace or whatever’s going on, which we’ve known that’s happened before in the workplace. But I guess there’s more to it than (that) possibly, which I don’t know. I don’t have the details. It’s not being shared with me.”
“It’s been hell for us. Just caught by surprise. No one really knows anything, so we’re just in the wind like everybody else,” said guard Marcus Smart, the team’s inspirational leader. “Last couple of days have been confusing. As a player, you’d like to know. Literally, no one knows anything. We’re still waiting just like everybody else.”
The lack of public information, despite what the team describes as a months-long investigation by an outside law firm, leaves imaginations to wander. That is a dangerous condition — and unfair to central figures in the affair. Is it possible Udoka has committed transgressions beyond the norm of a romantic office relationship? Have his offenses been exaggerated? All we know are the words he wrote in his only statement last week: “I want to apologize to our players, fans, the entire Celtics organization, and my family for letting them down. I am sorry for putting the team in this difficult situation, and I accept the team’s decision. Out of respect for everyone involved, I will have no further comment.” To prolong the wild speculation game is madness, especially in a league as gossipy and Twitter-driven as the NBA, and it’s hard to believe an organization of this stature didn’t think more deeply about the ramifications before slipping into silence.
“I won’t be able to offer many additional facts or circumstances around what occurred and why the suspension is in place. Privacy reasons for the people involved is the concern,” Grousbeck said in a press conference, his only public comments to date. “Our hands are basically tied once certain things happen. There’s gonna be a consequence, and that’s where we are. … This (suspension) felt right, but there’s no clear guidelines for any of this. This is really a conscious, gut feel and being here 20 years. I’m responsible for the decision, ultimately. It was not clear what to do but it was clear that something substantial needed to be done, and it was.”
Said Stevens, who hired Udoka as his head-coaching successor after he moved upstairs: “Human beings are human beings. It’s going to be the way it is and to think that guys on the team or coaches or anybody else in the organization can just walk back out on the court and everything is fine is not the way it is. I just think that this is a really, really tough situation, but we are going to be forward-focused with addressing what we need to address to get everybody ready to go to start a new season. I believe we will be, but I’m not going to ignore the fact that there are human emotions all over the place.”
The situation needn’t be so furtive. One reason the Sarver mess quickly came to a proper resolution — he is selling the Suns and WNBA’s Mercury —was the league’s commitment to transparency, immediately posting the elaborate findings of its independent investigation into his racist, sexist and misogynistic behavior. The longer the Celtics stay on the down-low, the uglier the fallout grows. Their secrecy isn’t helping female employees in or connected to the organization, such as Amanda Pflugrad, who covers the team for NBC Sports Boston and has seen her name dragged through the speculative sludge.
“I think I’d be doing everyone — and every female — in the Celtics organization a disservice if I didn’t step on this,” Pflugrad said. “The last few days have been very hard in terms of emotions, ranging from heartbreak, sadness, defeat at some times and anger and humiliation. Social media felt that it was completely fine to take innocent people’s names in our organization, and their personal photos, and put them out there for speculation. That damages careers. That damages reputations.
“Every woman in our organization has worked extremely hard to get where she is at, and she deserves and earns everything that she has right now. For things in the Celtics, and what we’re doing moving forward, things do need to change. You need to stand up, support us and hear us.”
The upper-ups are listening. They aren’t being forthcoming. “We have a lot of talented women in our organization and (the situation is) really hard on them,” said Stevens, fighting back tears. “I think that nobody can control Twitter speculation, rampant bullshit. But I do think we as an organization have a responsibility to make sure we’re there to support them now, because a lot of people were dragged unfairly into that.”
Smart is among those thinking about Udoka, too. Without information, you can’t expect Udoka’s players to trust what the organization is saying publicly. “Nobody died. I still love Ime as a person and as a coach,” said Smart, who grew up last season and was named the league’s Defensive Player of the year. “It’s just something unfortunate that has happened to him. It doesn’t take away from what he did as a coach. It doesn’t take away from how he turned this team around, how he led this team to a first finals appearance in a long time. It’s just unfortunate this is where we are at.”
How peculiar that we’re hearing more about Udoka -- and his spurned longtime partner, actress Nia Long — via Shaquille O’Neal than the Celtics brass. Speaking this week on “The Big Podcast with Shaq,” the basketball legend and TNT analyst said he has a unique perspective about affairs. “I was a serial cheater. It would be crazy and blasphemous for me to get up here and say, ‘Boom, boom, bam.’ I can’t do that. I know these guys personally. I know they’re going through a lot because I went through a lot,” he said.
“I just wish that certain parties weren’t involved. I’ve known Nia Long for a long time and I like her. … They’re going through a lot of family stuff. I’m never the guy that’s gonna get up here because of my platform and fake it. I did it. I was the best at it and not proud of it at all. I lost my family doing it. I lost valuable, important years of my children from doing it. … I’m not that guy. I’m real with the situation.”
The golden rule of sports, farcical as it is in this case, dictates that winning soothes adversity. But in a demanding conference — Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Miami, Toronto, even the Nets if Kyrie Irving doesn’t prompt Kevin Durant to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge — the Celtics will struggle mightily to repeat. Jayson Tatum, who emerged as an elite player under Udoka, seemed to acknowledge as much. “Coming off last year, you’re excited and trying to do all these things. It’s just a lot, if I’m being honest,” he said. “I guess, along with everybody else, you’re still trying to process it all. We know what we do best, and that’s play basketball. And I guess it’s not as simple as that.”
Nor will it be easy for Mazzulla, who begins a trial by fire while poised for more shocking developments. It could be Udoka cuts a settlement with the Celtics, sits out the season and succeeds his mentor, soon-to-be-74 Gregg Popovich, as coach of the San Antonio Spurs. If Udoka indeed is finished in Boston, this is Mazzulla’s big NBA audition — in a conference with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and James Harden, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, and Durant, among others. Is he ready to match wits with Erik Spoelstra, Doc Rivers and Mike Budenholzer?
“Feel and heal,” Mazzulla said. “You can’t rush trust. You can’t rush healing. You can’t rush any of that. Regardless of what has happened, we have a great roster and we have a great opportunity. That’s what I have to focus on. I think we have to do this together. I don’t think we need to speed up decisions or speed up identity. I think we have to be patient. We have to rely on the foundations that we’ve built as far as relationships. And the foundations and habits that we’ve built on the basketball court, because they’re successful.”
A Zen approach sounds good in theory. In practice? “This definitely puts your leadership to the test. Not just mine, but all of ours,” Brown said. “We’ll see. Obviously, things haven’t gone the way we expected, but that’s life. The best thing you can do is move on.”
That will be difficult when the organization is locked in a cave, making an unprecedented spectacle even more untenable.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.