July 19, 2024

Joe Mazzulla takes to Boston’s streets as city embraces him for delivering Banner 18

BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla needed to get closer.

Leading the Boston Celtics’ championship parade on the first duck boat Friday, he did everything he could to hype the crowd. Pointing, flexing, slamming the roof of the boat: He was amped in a way he rarely shows on the court.

But it wasn’t enough. So he jumped off the boat to take the streets by foot. Finally, a chance to connect with — or scream at — his people face to face.

This isn’t just a coach achieving his dream of winning an NBA title. This is a New England kid who manifested this moment through improbable circumstances. Mazzulla has gone from “Second Row Joe” to a Boston icon in the blink of an eye. The governor of Rhode Island announced Friday was “Joe Mazzulla Day” in his home state. The fans cheered every time Mazzulla pumped his fist at them at the parade.

A year ago, many of them wanted him gone. Forcing a Game 7 against the Miami Heat might be the main reason they didn’t get their wish. Mazzulla won the fans over not just by delivering a title but by being himself.

“You got to earn the right to show your personality as a coach,” Mazzulla told The Athletic in February. “You can’t just come out and just do whatever the hell you want.”

Now that the team was in lockstep, the community started to appreciate his plentiful quirks and unique perspective. The sarcasm that used to rub people the wrong way started to endear him to a fan base that embraces being brash and different.

“We finally got a coach that I feel like the city really stands behind in a different way. I think he’s perfect for the city,” said Dorchester rapper Cousin Stizz, who was at the parade.

Across Mazzulla’s chest was a black-and-white photo of Red Auerbach and Bill Russell celebrating a title of their own, a reminder of Mazzulla’s place in a long line of Celtics champions. After winning the NBA Finals, Mazzulla made sure to recognize all the Celtics who came before him. He wanted to show an appreciation for the footsteps he was walking in.

“I think the most important thing, something that’s really been going through my mind throughout this process, is you can’t lose sight of the people that came before us,” Mazzulla said. “And I want to make sure every person that’s worked for the Celtics, that’s played for the Celtics that didn’t win, knows that their work and what they have done has not gone unnoticed or it doesn’t play a part in where we are at today.”

After the Celtics returned from their post-finals Miami trip, Mazzulla took the Larry O’Brien trophy on a tour through the North End as fans screamed and chased after him. He visited his favorite restaurants, showing the trophy to the places in the community he calls home. Though he always deferred to his players when it came to taking credit for the team’s success, Mazzulla looked at home walking the streets of Boston with his prize in tow.

When his duck boat started to make the first turn off Causeway Street, there was a brief pause. He took that as an opportunity to likely break several municipal codes and jump on top of the roof and scream. He even inspired his young son, Emmanuel, to check out the view from up there, to the crowd’s delight.

Watching Mazzulla captain the parade was a special moment for Celtics fan Jack Bienvenue. You might remember him as the “Tattoo Kid” who had Banner 18 etched onto his arm before the 2022 playoffs.

“Everyone’s rooting for me, but the general public, it took them a lot longer to come around because haters gonna hate,” he said before the Golden State Warriors beat the Celtics in the 2022 finals.

That experience helped him appreciate Mazzulla’s unique rise as Celtics coach.

“I will run through a brick wall for that guy. Screw anyone who says they wouldn’t,” Bienvenue said at the parade. “He’s the exact kind of coach Boston needs. He may be a little different, but he’s Boston different.”

Mazzulla’s proclivities make him stand out from coaches of the past. Auerbach had his cigars. Doc Rivers loved his golf. Mazzulla regularly reveals something new that confounds the public.

“My favorite thing was him (on a podcast) saying that he doesn’t go through revolving doors because you’re a sitting duck,” Stizz said. “I’ve stopped going through revolving doors because of that.”

Boston has gotten to know him well enough to understand how his distinct worldview helped build a champion. He’s different, but that’s the team’s slogan this season: Different here.

That’s why, when Bienvenue’s tattoo finally came true, he didn’t want to just clean it up. Just like Mazzulla, these past few years have been an important part of his story. So he crossed out the “2” with red ink, to resemble a teacher marking a test, and drew a “4” with an asterisk.

Jack Bienvenue shows off his updated tattoo at the Celtics parade. (Jared Weiss / The Athletic)

“I was never considering lasering off the two and just putting a four,” Bienvenue said. “That would just be pointless at that point and destroy the whole story of everything.”

Some coaches like to become the distraction to take the focus off their players. When Mazzulla took the job under difficult circumstances, he insisted he was there to support the players as they tried to find a new identity under a new coach. But as Mazzulla started to show more and more of himself this season, his team got better and better. It wasn’t because the players needed him to take the heat off them but because his team and city now appreciate his authenticity.

Mazzulla didn’t feel like he could show his true self during his debut season because nobody would understand it. But he’s the real Joe, and the parade cemented why he was the right guy for the job all along.

“There’s a certain mentality and mindset it takes to win here,” Bienvenue said. “Joe encapsulates that better than anyone.”

(Top photo: Scott Eisen / Getty Images)