Boston Celtics head coach, now in NBA finals, treasures his Catholic faith

Joe Mazzulla and Jayson Tatum Head coach of the Boston Celtics Joe Mazzulla (left) and forward Jayson Tatum. | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Boston Celtics are just one game away from clinching their first NBA title since 2008 — and their head coach Joe Mazzulla has already decided what he will do if they win.

“If we win the championship this year, we’re flying to Jerusalem and we’re walking from Jericho to Jerusalem,” Mazzulla said in an NBC Sports Boston docuseries released in May. 

“And it will be kind of like just our reconnect. But we went last year and we stopped right along this mountain side of the Kidron Valley and you could see a path in between the mountains… [and] during the time, the only way that [Jesus] could have gotten from Jericho to Jerusalem was through this valley. And right there I was like, ‘We have to walk that,’” he said.

“Most people go to Disney World or whatever but ... I think [the Holy Land is] the most important place to go back and recenter yourself,” the 35-year-old said.

A devout Catholic, Mazzulla is in his second season as head coach for the Boston franchise. 

Growing up in Rhode Island, he attended the Catholic-affiliated Bishop Hendricken High School, where in 2018 he was inducted into the athletics hall of fame and called “one of the best multi-sport athletes” in school history.

Although he’s a recent head-coaching addition to the league, Mazzulla has been catching the attention of basketball fans for taking his team deep into the NBA playoffs two years in a row.

But some who don’t follow the sport as closely still may recognize Mazzulla from a viral November 2022 postgame interview in which he was asked about the presence of Prince William and Princess Kate Middleton at the TD Garden, the Celtics’ home court.

The reporter asked Mazzulla: “A non-basketball question: Did you get a chance to meet with the royal family and if not how was it having them there in the building?”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph?” Mazzulla responded, with a perplexed look on his face. The reporter responded, chuckling, and clarifying who she was referring to: “The prince and princess of Wales.”

“Oh no, I did not,” Mazzulla said. “I’m only familiar with one royal family. I don’t know too much about that one.”

Outspoken about his Catholic faith

That wasn’t the only time Mazzulla offered a candid response about faith to a question from the media. 

Following Boston’s first win against the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA finals, Mazzulla was asked by a reporter in a press conference about this matchup being the first time since 1975 that two black head coaches have faced off in the championship.

“Given the plight, sometimes, of black coaches in the NBA, do you think this is a significant moment? Do you take pride in this? How do you view this or do you not see it at all?” the reporter asked.

“I wonder how many of those have been Christian coaches?” Mazzulla answered, followed by a long moment of silence. That exchange, too, received heavy media attention. 

In the recent NBC docuseries, Mazzulla — who often dons a small gold cross pinned on his shirt while he coaches — said that he likes to get to the basketball facility around noon and do a “prayer walk,” seeming to reference his arrival time and ritual before games.

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“I like to do a prayer walk around the court at the Garden. I like to be in the Garden when there’s not a lot of people there, just because it’s the Garden. So I get there at like 11-12, do a 20-minute walk around the court and just kind of take in how cold it is. I love that, the smell of it, just the banners obviously, taking all that in,” he said.

Shown during his “prayer walk,” Mazzulla can be seen holding a green and gold wooden rosary.

That rosary was a gift given to him made from the original floor of the now-vanished Boston Garden, Mazzulla said.

“And so it just ties two of the three most important things in my life, [which] is the job that I have for the Celtics, my faith, and the tradition of the Celtics, it’s just a really cool gift,” he said.

“I also love collecting rosary beads just because it tells a story of kind of where you were at,” he said.

Home chapel

In the docuseries, Mazzulla introduces viewers to his private home chapel in which he said he tries to begin and end his days in.

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“So when Camai [his wife] came to look at the place, she walked in this room first and she was like, ‘This is the room for the chapel.’ So I always made a promise that we were going to have that. So it’s important,” he said.

“We try to start our day and end our day in here,” he added. 

The chapel has religious candles, statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, other icons, an altar, kneelers, a holy water font, rosaries, a bookshelf, and a crucifix. 

Mazzulla also pointed to a photo of him and his childhood priest Father Marcel Taillon at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. 

“He’s the guy that blessed the crowd when we were down nine to Minnesota. He’s been my priest since I’ve been in eighth grade, so we’ve known each other now for almost 20 years,” Mazzulla said. Taillon was the former chaplain at Bishop Hendricken High School when Mazzulla attended from 2002 to 2006. 

The crowd blessing occurred on Jan. 10 when the Celtics were facing off with the Minnesota Timberwolves in the fourth quarter. The Celtics were down by nine points with just over four minutes left when Taillon, wearing his clerics, was shown on the jumbotron. Taillon began to bless the crowd and the assembly began to cheer. 

At that moment, “God’s Plan” by the hip-hop artist Drake began to play over the loudspeakers. The Celtics ended the game with a phenomenal comeback, pushing the game into overtime and clinching a win. 

When Mazzulla was appointed to the Celtics’ head coaching position in 2023, the priest said in a Hendricken press release that “Coach Mazzulla is right for the job, not only because of the Celtics’ record but [also] his ability to form the whole person whom he leads.”

“His faith life, his family life, and his deep gratitude for all he has received makes his life a response instead of a job.”

‘I’m not a basketball coach’

Mazzulla, who was a star athlete in college, said in the docuseries that when he was younger, his identity was “in being a basketball player.”

“All my affirmation and everything I was seeking I put into basketball, I put into being a basketball player. And I lost that identity when I got hurt and missed a season. And then I lost it again when I thought I was going to play overseas and I lost the game of basketball and it made me ask myself like who am I?” he said.

“Like who is Joe Mazzulla the basketball player versus Joe Mazzulla the person. And as I got into coaching I had to reinvent myself because my identity had been in something that is fleeting,” he added.

Mazzulla offered similar comments in a pregame interview last year when he was asked how he handles “life-altering world events” while also being a basketball coach and preparing for a game. 

“I’m not a basketball coach,” he responded. “I’m just a person that shows up to work everyday to help people.”

Faith is an ‘anchor’

Prior to Game 3 of the NBA finals, Mazzulla was asked in a press conference how he leans on his faith when coaching.

Mazzulla said his faith is “the most important thing.”

“I think the ability to handle the ebbs and flows, the humility to understand that there’s a plan that’s much bigger than just who you are individually and have an impact on other people and then using the gifts that God has given you to try to impact those people,” he said.

“So it’s my anchor and it’s been the most important thing, and I’ve enjoyed just the challenge of having to stick with that even when it’s difficult at times,” he said.

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