BOSTON — If we learned anything from Friday’s press conference with Boston Celtics manager Wyc Grousbeck and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens say the situation with head coach Ime Udoka is untenable and cannot be swept under the rug with a one-year suspension.
Amid reports of an alleged “inappropriate intimate and consensual relationship with a female member of the team” and allegations of “unwanted comments toward her,” Grousbeck understandably cited “privacy reasons for the individuals involved” as reasons for not confirming or elaborate on some substantive facts surrounding what they described as Udoka’s “multiple violations” of team policies.
Udoka put the Celtics in an impossible situation. They’ve imposed the suspension – one they’re leaving indefinitely, by the way – but they can’t adequately explain why he’s being suspended, so this cloud hangs over a team they entrust an inexperienced 34-year-old assistant to lead the fight.
You can’t hit the pause button on a championship favorite and expect to pick up where you left off.
Joe Mazzulla, who would lead the Celtics just three years into his NBA coaching career in the meantime, could well fulfill Boston’s championship promise, despite the added burden of a “unique” scandal. What then? They fire Udoka after he serves his sentence? And what if Mazulla is overwhelmed?
These are the least of the franchise’s concerns, and yet they threaten the common goal of the entire organization. As Grousbeck said, “the players are very concerned about this. It’s not a welcome development.”
“To think that guys from the team or coaches or anyone else in the organization will walk back onto the field and everything will be fine, that’s just not how it is,” Stevens said, changing course a week before training camp. “This is a very, very difficult situation, but we will be moving forward by tackling everything we need to do to get everyone ready to leave on Tuesday when we start a new season, and I believe we will be, But I’m not going to ignore the fact that there are human emotions involved.”
Those emotions will permeate the entire organization. There is no solution to please everyone. Udoka may take offense at the nature of his sanctions, regardless of how ‘acceptable’ Grousbeck says he has been. Players and coaches and front office workers may agree with him, lose respect for him, or fall somewhere in between. It all pales in comparison to the message this sends to the franchise’s female employees.
The Celtics leadership expressed regret and anger at the “Twitter speculation and rampant bulls***” that “dragged female members of the Celtics unwillingly and inappropriately into the public eye” in the hours between the first reports of Udoka’s violations and the team’s cryptic response to it. Stevens almost came to tears when he said Thursday was “very hard for them”. This is on Udoka, and the Celtics’ inability to properly explain the matter publicly means speculation, as horrific as it may be, is not going to go away.
It’s naive to think that more details won’t leak. The Celtics couldn’t even make it through the night without details of the “thorough and impartial investigation” completed Wednesday reaching the media. Friday’s press conference had barely ended when a former NBA player became a commentator Matt Barnes took to Instagramapologized for coming to Udoka’s defense and veiled references to worse offenses.
“Last night, without knowing all the facts, I spoke about Ime Udoka’s defense,” Barnes said, “and after finding out the facts after speaking, I erased what I posted, because this situation in Boston is deep. “It’s messy, it’s a hundred times uglier than any of us thought. … Things have happened that I can’t condone, I can’t turn it back.”
If Barnes already has a more complete version, how soon will it make its way into the NBA and the public sphere? It’s hard to imagine what could have justified a one-year suspension and not Udoka’s resignation. It is equally difficult to take Grousbeck at his word that “this is well justified and appropriate”.
“This felt good,” he said, 48 hours after learning the magnitude of it, “but there are no clear guidelines for all of this. It’s really a conscience and feeling and being here for 20 years. I’m responsible for the decision “In the end, although I’ve taken a lot of advice from partners like Brad and others. We’ve come to this together and have come to it, but it wasn’t clear what to do. It was clear that something substantial had to be done, and that was it too.”
He may be sincere, but how is the public supposed to trust the Celtics if they can’t even tell us whether they believe Udoka’s behavior constituted sexual harassment or harmed other employees?
“I don’t have the opportunity to go into the conclusions of our legal analysis,” Grousbeck said.
Even Udoka’s absence is shrouded in mystery. They will not disclose the terms of his suspension and they have not decided on the criteria he must meet in order to return. In the same breath, Grousbeck said the suspension will run until June 30, 2023. In another, he said: “We are not going to talk about the long term, because nothing has been decided yet … and we will make a decision at a later date about Ime’s future with us.”
It all looks like the Celtics were taken aback by the depth of the investigation’s revelations or the speed of the leaks or both. It really does feel like they’re bidding their time while negotiating Udoka’s departure, as media day is Monday and the clouds over Boston aren’t clearing any time soon.
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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Do you have a tip? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach