After Winning the NBA Finals, Boston Celtics Coach Joe Mazzulla Desperately Wanted to Do 1 Thing. It’s a Brilliant Lesson in Emotional Intelligence

Image by Michael Tipton

In his NBA Finals post game comments, Celtics Coach Joe Mazzulla does more than show appreciation and respect: He gives a case study in how to build a culture of humility and trust.

It’s all about recognition.

That’s the message Boston Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla sent last night, after he became the youngest head coach to win an NBA championship since Celtics Coach Bill Russell won at the same age, back in 1969.

Mazzulla has had one of the most successful starts in NBA coaching history. He’s received effusive praise from his players, fellow coaches, and analysts alike.

And last night, Mazzulla showed why.

In the postgame press conference, Mazzulla took advantage of his first opportunity to speak to praise those who came before him.

“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. “I want to make sure that every person that worked for the Celtics, that’s played for the Celtics and didn’t win, knows that their work and what they’ve done hasn’t gone unnoticed.”

Mazzulla went on to praise former Celtics head coach and current team president Brad Stevens’ coaching, his staff, and the foundation they built with the Celtics young core as “one of the reasons why we’re here today.”

“Just because you won this doesn’t mean that what the people have done before us isn’t just as important,” Mazzulla concluded.

Mazzulla’s words are more than a sign of appreciation and respect—they teach a brilliant lesson in emotional intelligence. Let’s take a closer look at Mazzulla’s coaching style, to see what you can learn from it. (If you find value in this article, you might be interested in my free emotional intelligence course, which delivers a tip for building EQ directly to your inbox every day for a week.)

How Joe Mazzulla gained the Celtics’ trust and respect

To understand why the recognition Mazzulla provides is so valuable, it helps to know more about his reputation, along with the context surrounding his hiring.

Mazzulla took over the Celtics head coaching job under dubious circumstances. Ime Udoka, Mazzulla’s predecessor, was beloved by his players. But after getting romantically involved with a female employee, Udoka was suspended by the Celtics, and eventually let go. Mazzulla was initially promoted on an interim basis, but eventually the Celtics named him the team’s new head coach.

It took time, but Mazzulla eventually gained the trust of not only his players, but his boss. Stevens has called Mazzulla “a terrific leader,” with “leadership qualities [that] are hard to find.”

“Man, I love Joe Mazzulla so much,” Celtics guard Derrick White told reporters, when asked to describe his relationship with his coach, who unexpectedly promoted White to a starting position on the team. “I just believe in you and I trust in you,” White says Mazzulla told him.

“From that moment on, I think it’s changed my whole career,” White said, while fighting back tears. “I’d do anything for him.”

Celtic veteran forward Al Horford shared a similar sentiment. After praising Mazzulla for his level of preparation, along with his ability to cultivate a culture of hard work and successful habits, Horford said this:

“He always knew when to push the buttons. He’s hard. He can be a little wacky sometimes, but that’s what we appreciate about him.”

“He truly cares about us. And he cares about what it means to be a Celtic.”

Celtic superstar Jayson Tatum gave evidence of exactly how that care was demonstrated, shortly before the Celtics took on the Mavericks for game 5.

“Today [Mazzulla] just reminded each guy why he’s important to this team, why we all need each other, and what every person brings to the table,” Tatum said in his pregame press conference. “I think that was really important for us to go over today.”

All of these comments show the trust and goodwill Mazzulla built with his players. But with his post NBA finals press conference, Mazzulla took his reputation up another level.

“Don’t lose sight of those who came before you.”

By focusing attention on those who have come before this current team of champions, Mazzulla inspired humility. In a world where it often feels like the one who toots his own horn the loudest wins, Mazzulla’s humble approach is a breath of fresh air.

But it’s also emotionally intelligent—especially when you consider this team’s pedigree.

Mazzulla is now tied as the youngest coach ever to win an NBA championship. His team’s two best players, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, are aged 27 and 26, respectively. Because these young men are among the best in the world at what they do, it would be easy for them to get cocky, brash, arrogant.

But time and again it’s been proved that pride leads to a crash—and the most successful persons are the ones who recognize that they are only pieces in a puzzle. That a team’s success is due to the contributions of many. In the Celtics case, those “many” included Stevens and Udoka, along with players like fan favorite Marcus Smart, who many considered the “heart and soul” of the team before he was traded away last year.

Further, by crediting his predecessors, Mazzulla creates goodwill. People are drawn to those who are proven to value and recognize others. In essence, Mazzulla makes the Celtics a team the best of the best want to play for.

So, if you’re looking to build trust, respect, and humility on your team, take a page out of Joe Mazzulla’s playbook: Show them that you care, and don’t lose sight of those who came before you.

Because when you recognize “the many” that contribute to your success, you use an emotionally intelligent approach—and everybody benefits.


(Enjoyed this story? Check out my free emotional intelligence course, which delivers a tip for building EQ directly to your inbox every day for a week.)


Image by Michael Tipton, Creative Commons License 2.0.

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