On the mat, Joe Mazzulla is trapped in a chokehold. The Celtics coach is in danger, but not real danger. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is considered a gentle art, after all.
Still, for anyone feeling their neck constricted by another human being, panic can enter the equation.
“Once you get in a chokehold,” said Alex Costa, Mazzulla’s jiu-jitsu trainer, “your mind goes cuckoo.”
Mazzulla wants this. The physical exercise. The mental challenge. And yes, the probability of getting his ass kicked. He is at Costa’s gym, Gracie Barra Boston, to ready himself for the tests ahead. The situations Mazzulla sees here on the mat might leave him with one or two appropriate solutions. Any other response, any mistake, will lead him into an even worse problem than his current predicament.
“The general idea is that once you get in a position, a submission, (with a threat) on your body, you’re going to have to make very rapid decisions,” Costa told The Athletic.
“The first thing we teach students is how to stay focused and control the panic that would be, like, very close to happening essentially under a real stressful, life-threatening situation. Basically, what we do here is maintain the balance and make sure that we keep (your mind firing) to find technical solutions for your case.”
The application to basketball is obvious. On the sideline, every coach is faced with endless decisions. Lineups. Play calls. The messages to deliver at halftime and in timeout huddles. Broken down to the most basic function, coaching is nothing more than a constant search to find the right solution under duress. Moment after moment, day after day, season after season, Mazzulla must find his way out of a chokehold.
At the gym, with Costa guiding him, that is literal. Elsewhere, Mazzulla believes jiu-jitsu helps him navigate the challenges of life. That’s why on the day the Celtics hired him as an interim coach in September, Mazzulla went searching for an instructor. After seeing the benefits of martial arts training years ago, a lack of time and resources forced him to give up the practice when he initially joined Boston as an assistant coach in 2019. But after the team named him to replace Ime Udoka, Mazzulla made a return to jiu-jitsu one of his first objectives.
The decision has led Mazzulla into a beautiful friendship. It has shifted his perspective on certain aspects of coaching. It has sharpened the tools he uses to overcome obstacles on the sideline and everywhere else.
“One, I think it’s a way of life,” Mazzulla told The Athletic. “Two, I think the mentality. Many people get caught up in thinking it’s about fighting, and it’s not. It’s about problem solving. It’s about you’re in uncomfortable situations, you’re in situations that you have to constantly assess, and decision making. And again, the (discomfort). There’s a great quote where you’ve gotta seek things to lose that (comfort). That’s one of the things that I seek: to be challenged and to lose so that I can be humbled and learn more about myself to become better for the people around me.”
On the same September day Mazzulla took over as Boston’s interim head coach, Costa received a phone call that would change his life. He just didn’t trust the person on the other side of the line.
Kara Keena, the Celtics’ senior director of team operations, informed Costa that Mazzulla wanted to train under the jiu-jitsu instructor. Costa said he initially thought the call was a prank. He wanted to FaceTime with Mazzulla to make sure nobody was pulling his leg. Costa, who considers himself a huge Celtics fan, could not believe the team’s new coach wanted to work with him.
Mazzulla had been waiting for years to return to martial arts training. While in West Virginia, where he served as the head coach at Fairmont State University before joining Brad Stevens’ staff in Boston, Mazzulla believed the practice helped him deal with the rigors of the job.
“To me, when you become a coach and a leader, you need to have something in your life that you’re being coached at, and you’re learning and you’re being challenged,” Mazzulla said. “So, it was something that had helped me in the past when I was a head coach in college and as a kid. I just knew with this job, I was going to need something that was going to push me every day, that I was going to be coached by somebody.”
Mazzulla wanted to start immediately. Keena called Costa to request a meeting at Mazzulla’s house later that night. Costa couldn’t make it but scheduled a visit the following day. Mazzulla told Costa he wanted “something out of the box” to help him navigate the process of coaching an NBA team. He shared with Costa he practiced jiu-jitsu in the past and owned “a huge belief” it could help his mindset.
After realizing it wasn’t a prank, Costa took on what he called the biggest challenge of his career. He had worked with poker players who wanted to use martial arts as a tool to improve in their profession. Mazzulla’s status as the Celtics’ head coach brought with it unique hurdles. Costa knew he could not, under any circumstances, injure Mazzulla in any way. With the sporadic and busy nature of the NBA calendar, scheduling lessons proved difficult at times.
Another problem, if it counts as one: Costa didn’t want to interfere with everything that made Mazzulla such a high achiever. It takes a special type of person to be tasked with leading the Celtics at 34 years old. Before making any suggestions, Costa knew he would need to think deeply about the impact of his advice.
“I have to be very delicate,” Costa said. “Every little thing that I try to change, I’ll make sure that I don’t interfere (with) his structure; you are a successful person, you might need some adjustments, but overall, you are an extremely successful man. You succeed in every field of your life as a human being. So, there’s nothing wrong with you.”
Though Mazzulla’s training still involves physical work, Costa understood he didn’t need to turn Mazzulla into a fighter overnight. More of their work has been on the mental side, according to Mazzulla. With every student, Costa aims to align the body, mind and soul because he believes that’s the only way to maximize a person’s potential.
The first lesson addressed Mazzulla’s breathing. Another early lesson involved his posture. Eventually, Mazzulla ditched his habit of chewing gum on the sideline because of the way it impacted his breathing. Every change aimed to improve his mental capacity.
“In any emergency situation, the first thing a doctor checks is if you’re breathing,” Costa explained. “There’s nothing else more important than that. … Every time there’s short breathing, your mind cannot get in touch with your body, and you go immediately into automatic pilot, which is not the best (for) you. If you focus on maintaining the breathing and maintaining your brain with a good amount of oxygen, (it) allows you to access the files that are (in your head).”
“It’s amazing if you go through life how much we hold our breath during decision making and how much we hold our breath at the point of focus,” Mazzulla added. “I started noticing a couple years ago where when I was intentionally watching film, I was holding my breath, and my posture was bad. That’s where I would get my back pain. It’s the same in jiu-jitsu. If you don’t breathe through a situation, you’re going to get a flat tire. You’re going to get hurt because your body is tense. So, just being aware of my breathing and how it affects my decision making and how it affects my body has allowed me to make better decisions and be more aware of what’s going on around me.”
As Mazzulla’s guest at Celtics games, Costa takes notes on everything from the coach’s behavior on the sidelines to the players’ apparent experiences on the court. All of his takeaways help to inform his lesson plans.
“He’s amazing at studying the environment,” said Mazzulla. “He’s amazing at listening to the media. He’s amazing at understanding where our team is, where our environment thinks our team is, what challenges we’ve gone through and what challenges we have ahead of us. So, every class theme is based on where I’m at and where our team is. He does a great job of studying that.”
When the Celtics went through a tough stretch, Costa put Mazzulla through situations where he was losing and needed to find a fix. After Boston blew a 25-point lead at home to Brooklyn, Costa used the debacle as a way to teach Mazzulla how to better handle momentum swings. As Costa put it, a fighter tends to drop his guard when up big. A key to building on leads is to counterbalance that tendency.
“A lot of lessons came from that game as far as how to handle momentum, how to shift momentum, how to go from being the hunted to the hunters in situations like that,” Mazzulla said. “To be able to hear his diagnosis of the environment of that game is really what helped change me. I think it’s just the ability to understand momentum, the ability to know that you have the tools to shift momentum and shift energy and shift your team’s perspective. That situation is no different than a fight, where it could be going really well for you and then at one point, it cannot be. How do you bounce back?”
In some ways, just about everything can be viewed as a fight. Mazzulla is fighting his opponents. He is fighting human nature. He is fighting to maximize the potential of this Celtics team.
“This job — and not just this job with the Celtics — it’s a fight,” Mazzulla said. “And there are physical components to it: the travel, the tiredness. There’s a lot of mental components to it. There’s the emotions, there’s the winning, there’s the losing. It’s funny. Now that you know him, you probably understand why I react the way I react to (the media’s) questions in certain situations. Because of the way that our brains are looking at (Mazzulla’s answers). How do you handle success and failure? It’s the same. What I love about learning is there are so many integrations around what we do that you can learn from it. And that’s the main one for me.”
Jiu-jitsu has not primarily been a vessel for Mazzulla to hone his physical ability. It has been a way for him to strengthen his mind.
“You don’t see it as a physical fight,” he said. “I think that’s where people get caught up. One of (Costa’s) quotes is you’re a technician first. You see every opportunity that you’re around as you’re diagnosing a situation. You’re problem solving — how are you handling it, you’re aware of your surroundings and stuff like that. So, it’s not so much a physical fight as it is a mental fight.”
Mazzulla’s never-ending quest for an edge led him to Costa, who was willing to upend his life for the chance to help the Celtics coach.
Why couldn’t Costa meet up with Mazzulla that first night? Because Costa lives with his wife and three daughters in Denver, where Gracie Barra has another location. After hearing that the coach wanted to meet, Costa booked a red-eye flight so he could make it to Mazzulla’s house the following day.
For months, Mazzulla didn’t realize Costa was commuting from Denver for their lessons. Without Mazzulla’s knowledge, Costa would study the Celtics’ schedule so he could be in Boston whenever they returned from a road trip.
“I would text him like, ‘All right are we good for tomorrow?’” Mazzulla said. “And he was like, ‘Yup, good for tomorrow,’ and I had no idea that day he had flown from Denver to get back to Boston.”
In February, Mazzulla said Costa finally told him the truth.
“He came up to me one day and said, ‘I’ve been lying to you. I’ve gotta tell you something,’” Mazzulla said. “I was like, ‘Oh man, are you a felon or something? What is going on here?’ And he said, ‘I don’t live in Boston.’ I was like, ‘All right, like, Maine? New Hampshire?’ He said, ‘Denver.’ I’m like, what?”
Costa had stayed at friends’ places. He had slept at the gym in Boston. He had spent significant time away from his family to see Mazzulla on a regular basis. The sacrifice wowed Mazzulla as soon as he learned about everything Costa has done to continue the working relationship. Though Costa is the coach in this situation, they both believe they’re learning from each other.
“I have learned more from Mazzulla than he has learned from me,” Costa said. “I learned about discipline, perseverance, opening the mind to new concepts, accepting new things, integrating old stuff, recycling, thinking above and beyond.”
“He has an unbelievable passion for teaching,” Mazzulla added. “And the time and effort that he puts into teaching, like, he writes up every class plan and sends it to me the night before. Just the dedication. He loves it so much; I’ve seen him cry because of how much he loves it.”
By Costa’s estimation, the two have worked together roughly twice a week since September, though the frequency of their lessons fluctuates based on the Celtics’ schedule. Costa even met up with Mazzulla in road cities such as Portland, Sacramento, Indianapolis and Toronto. On the road, without certain responsibilities, Mazzulla has a bit more time to spend on jiu-jitsu training.
To Costa, Mazzulla is the perfect student, one with impeccable discipline, diet and physique. If Mazzulla had focused on it, Costa believes the Celtics coach could have become a boxer or MMA fighter. Sometimes, before or after Celtics games, Mazzulla can be found working on maneuvers.
Costa has been harnessing the power of martial arts for most of his life. He said he was a “sad child” growing up in Brazil with asthma and bronchitis, unable to play soccer like all the other boys. He believes martial arts helped him find both physical and mental health. He believes the focus on breathing allowed him to overcome the asthma concerns. After his father passed away when Costa was 11 years old, he said, “Who guided me through life was the people on the mats.”
Now he’s using the same principles to guide Mazzulla. Of course, the Celtics coach has plenty of other support. He has his wife and the rest of his family. He has a big staff with a long list of assistant coaches. He has plenty of voices to rely on.
One of them comes from a jiu-jitsu instructor who Mazzulla found through a Google search.
“Really, how I’ve grown is a testament to a lot of people in my life, but it’s a testament to him,” Mazzulla said. “For someone to give up what he gave up to help train me and put me in the position to help others be successful, I have a lot of gratitude for him. I really appreciate what he’s done for me.”
One day Costa, who lived in Boston when he first came to the United States, hopes to move back to the area permanently with his family. He wants to continue “doing what we’ve been doing, which is (spreading) Gracie Barra methodology and philosophy here.”
Mazzulla intends to help out his instructor however he can.
“He’s always talked about how it’s a gift from God that we’re able to work together,” Mazzulla said. “And I believe that for me, too.”
(Top photo of Joe Mazzulla and Alex Costa: Courtesy of Alex Costa)