2024 NBA Finals: Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla's unwillingness to discuss race a complicated issue

BOSTON — Race is one of the defining issues in this country, and it's not easy to talk about, but when one avoids it, it adds fuel to an already complicated fire.

For the first time since 1975, the NBA Finals has a Black head coach on each sideline, with Dallas’ Jason Kidd facing off against Boston’s Joe Mazzulla. Al Attles (Golden State) and K.C. Jones (Washington) did it last in a series the Warriors won 4-0.

Kidd and NBA commissioner Adam Silver both talked about the importance of the accomplishment and the symbolism it can represent for the forever-long struggle of Black coaches in these leadership positions and what it means to them personally.

Mazzulla, who’s mixed race, preferred to sidestep it, giving deference to his religion more than his racial identity.

“I wonder how many of those have been Christian coaches,” Mazzulla said when asked Saturday, essentially, if two Black coaches in the NBA Finals meant anything to him.

There was stunned silence in the room because it felt like an awkward answer, at the very least. Shockingly, and this may come as a surprise to the Celtics coach, it is possible to be both Black and Christian.

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - JUNE 05: Boston Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla speaks to the media during the 2024 NBA Finals Media Day at TD Garden on June 05, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Boston Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla didn't seem too impressed that two Black coaches are facing off in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1975. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

He didn’t expound on it, he didn’t elaborate what it meant for him to be a Christian in this spot. He brought religion to the party but didn’t choose to explore the conversation.

It could be viewed as using that device to halt any discussion on the topic at hand, just an abrupt stop. And to be fair, there wasn’t a follow-up question, just the awkward silence — which could’ve been Mazzulla’s desired effect.

Mazzulla doesn’t mind jostling with the media, at times coming across very thin-skinned when being challenged. He doesn’t seem pressed by the awkward silence, and perhaps he likes embracing the weird in everything that comes with this professional sports ecosystem.

And he has referenced his faith when asked about things like the royal family coming to a Celtics game, so, at least publicly, he puts it out front and wears it proudly, for whatever it’s worth.

His relationship with his own racial identity is personal, but his answer certainly opens the door for more questions.

Especially because it’s Boston and the NBA’s labor force is overwhelmingly Black.

Boston’s relationship with Black athletes has been checkered, dating back to its treatment of Bill Russell. Once, vandals broke into his home, and Russell found feces on his walls and bed.

In the early '90s, Celtics guard Dee Brown was pulled over in nearby Wellesley, with his fiancée in the passenger seat — under the guise of the police looking for a bank robber, they claimed. And guns were drawn on Brown.

Today, you’ll hear things in the stands that make you a little uncomfortable, even if nothing directly racial is said. Oftentimes, it’s just a feeling.

This didn’t feel like a denouncement of Mazzulla’s Blackness, so to speak. It wasn’t quite the “I’m not Black, I’m OJ” moment; it just leaves room for interpretation.

“My faith is just as important as my race, if not more important,” Mazzulla told Andscape’s Marc Spears over a year ago. “In order to reach different people you have to be your whole self, and you can’t put yourself in a box.”

Boston has a sensitivity with race, and other blocs love to avoid any mention of race at all, so there’s a risk of Mazzulla’s words on this grand stage being co-opted in ways he didn’t intend. Not just for the religious right, but the bad actors who love jumping on statements like that to quiet conversations.

It happened to Jonathan Isaac in the Orlando bubble four years ago, when he used religion as a shield against the discussion of police brutality on Black folks.

Many will champion Mazzulla's response as a way to shift the discussion away from even the celebration of progress, if this moment is indeed a symbol of how far Black coaches have come in the NBA when a few years ago, the numbers dipped to the point of embarrassment (four Black head coaches following the 2019-20 season).

Before this recent cycle, there were 14 Black head coaches, and four of the top five Eastern Conference teams were led by Black coaches. J.B. Bickerstaff and Darvin Ham were let go recently after playoff berths, while Brooklyn fired Jacque Vaughn and Washington fired Wes Unseld Jr. during the season.

So while extremely competitive, and thanks to the Monty Williams stimulus package, extremely rewarding financially, Black coaches are usually last hired, first fired.

“I think there is significance to having two Black head coaches in the Finals and, frankly, I wish there wasn’t,” Silver said Friday afternoon at a Boys & Girls Club dedication in Dorchester. “I think we've made tremendous progress there.”

Silver also hopes that with increased women on staffs, it's a matter of time before a franchise selects a woman to lead one.

"I think people should take note of the fact that there are two African American head coaches," Silver said. "On one hand, I want them to take note of it. But at the same time, I don't want that to take away from the merit system that we have in terms of coaching. And that not to take away from the fact that they are head-coaching these teams, of course, not because they're African American, but because they're tremendous coaches.”

Mazzulla is an excellent coach, finishing in the upper echelon of Coach of the Year voting, including on this voter’s ballot. Who knows what box he checks off when the question of race/ethnicity comes up? But in this world, he’s counted as a Black coach.

He doesn’t have to like it, or be disingenuous about it, either. It was a moment when Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith were the two Black coaches in the Super Bowl in 2007, and it’s a moment here.

It isn’t Mazzulla’s fault the history is the history. But he should at least be aware of it. Ignoring race in these matters isn't progress, because it can infer that seeing someone as Black means something negative. Colorblindness is impossible, and seeing someone's Blackness or the Black experience as a positive could be the ultimate sign of progress.

“It’s always a discussion, because it doesn’t happen a lot,” Kidd told Yahoo Sports with a laugh Saturday afternoon. “In '75, I was 2 years old. Joe wasn’t born. So I think for that to take place is huge. It just shows how far we've come, but we also have still a ways to go. I think it means something that we just have to continue to keep building on it.”

Silver looks at the pipeline of Black assistant coaches, which means there’s more opportunity when openings come about. Kidd, while finding sideline stability in Dallas, knows what it’s like to be fired, even with a winning record in the middle of a season.

“It starts with ownership more than anything. We need to talk about ownership and higher positions,” Kidd said. “So when you look at ownership and general managers, that’s where it starts. Being able to have people who can say, ‘We’re gonna build this. We’re not gonna fire someone after one or two seasons.’ That means there’s a plan. It starts higher up, not with the coaches.”

Kidd talked about the additional responsibility coaches have, and for Black coaches it’s an added burden that's often bigger than basketball.

“Coaches have a responsibility to put their best foot forward to win, but also I think sometimes what's not looked upon is what happens off the court,” Kidd said. “To develop better men as they go forward. And I think Pop [Gregg Popovich] said that in his Hall of Fame speech ... we’re always measured on wins and losses, but the beauty of the whole thing about coaching is them coming back to see you after they're done playing. You know, that's something I think is not measured into, you know, hiring and firing.”

Jaylen Brown doesn’t shy away from the discussion when it comes up. And although he’s well aware of Boston’s history, he committed to the franchise and is invested in the community.

He’s fearless on the topic and seems endlessly curious — it seems very clear he and Mazzulla have different experiences, different perspectives and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Mazzulla has the right to embrace his religion, lean on it to help in his professional and personal walk. He has the right to look in the mirror and not see a Black man first, but a Christian man with strong beliefs.

But if he’s pulled over in Boston, the police will see his last name on his license, but before they find out anything else about him, they’ll see a Black man first.