Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck and president of hoops operations Brad Stevens aren’t normally tongue-tied, but they were left grasping for words for the better part of half an hour as they met members of the media last Friday. They had a lot to say, no doubt, but the sensitivities involved in the year-long suspension of head coach Ime Udoka compelled them to exercise caution. They said the franchise got wind of the bench tactician’s transgressions early in summer, with the results of the probe that was launched in response prompting the penalty.
To be sure, the Celtics have reason to tread lightly despite the gravity of the offense — or offenses, depending on the source of speculation longtime habitues of the pro league have been forced to turn to in the absence of information. After all, the public’s need to know is outweighed by the respect naturally accorded the privacy of those involved. It wasn’t simply that Udoka had an “improper” relationship with a female member of the staff; it was that he made “unwanted comments” and “unwelcome advances” toward her, hence the investigation. In other words, legal and moral issues complicate matters to the point where reputations are at stake.
The inquiry by an independent law firm, Grousbeck said, led him to ban Udoka through the 2022-23 season, as well as mete “a significant financial penalty.” Certainly, the repercussions on the court cannot be underscored enough. The Celtics were fresh off a Finals stint, and looked to improve on it with an intact roster galvanized by the leadership of their first-year coach. Instead, they will be facing the new season with the seemingly overmatched Joe Mazzulla at the helm. Which, in a nutshell, means they’ll be hard pressed to even stay put.
Given how serious the allegations are, it’s fair to argue that the Celtics will be looking to permanently extricate themselves from Udoka, his popularity with the players and effectiveness in the hot seat notwithstanding. How much of the stink will eventually come out is anybody’s guess. Don’t count on him being out of a job for long, though; the annals of sports are littered with examples of second, even third, chances — deserved or otherwise. He doesn’t even need to look far to see how Jason Kidd and Chauncey Billups are thriving despite excess baggage.
In the presser, Stevens turned emotional as he spoke of the unfortunate fallout. “We have a lot of talented women in our organization and I thought yesterday was really hard on them…” in the face of social media hounds aiming to identify the victim, or victims, as the case may be. “We have a responsibility in our organization to support them since a lot of people unfairly were dragged into that.” Meanwhile, Grousbeck argued that the punishment “felt right, but there’s no clear guidelines for any of this.” Indeed, and how the Celtics respond in the immediate and medium terms will show how much they truly care about justice.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.