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SAN FRANCISCO — Mild-mannered and painfully polite, Ime Udoka glides through the dark labyrinth of turns through Chase Center, completing one request after another during a chaotic NBA Finals Media Day.
You could almost feel an itch gradually burning through the man’s 6-foot-6 frame as sneakers squeaked, and basketballs bounced feet away, byproducts of a Boston team warming up on the floor without its coach.
“He’s gotta go now,” a league official said, as the door she held shut slowly with Udoka disappearing behind it.
Udoka understands these tedious processes intimately, having trekked the winding road of middling NBA player, to trusted assistant with three franchises over the course of nearly 20 years to land here, now, in this arena, eyeing a shot at securing an 18th title banner for the Boston Celtics.
“Stability and tenacity” are the traits that translated from Udoka’s playing career to the bench, according to San Antonio CEO R.C. Buford, who served as general manager for the team during the coach’s two stints as a player and seven years as an assistant under the legendary Gregg Popovich.
Seven-time All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge competed alongside Udoka in Portland as a teammate (2006-07), before playing four seasons in San Antonio (2015-19) for the 44-year-old, and another in Brooklyn (2020-21). Udoka lured Aldridge to both squads by utilizing an uncanny knack for fostering strong relationships; a skill we’ve already witnessed this season when the coach navigated a choppy start to 2021-22 to lift the club to this point.
Don’t get it twisted for a second, though.
Player’s coach? Yes.
Pushover? No way.
“He definitely ain’t no punk, and you ain’t gonna try him,” Aldridge told NBA.com. “But he’s got this great balance, which is probably why he’s so good at coaching already in his first season as the guy.”
Spurs All-Star point guard Dejounte Murray witnessed this dynamic firsthand, having entered the league as a 19-year-old rookie watching Udoka challenge NBA royalty in Popovich, the league’s winningest head coach.
You’ll learn later that was all by design.
“He got my respect from Day 1, just watching him and seeing him hold everybody accountable, even though he was an assistant,” Murray told NBA.com. “I saw it with my own eyes. I saw him tell Pop, ‘No, Pop, that was the wrong thing’ and stuff like that. The respect Pop has for him, I know it’s really, really, deep because Pop knew Ime wasn’t afraid to tell him if he was doing something wrong. That’s huge. Knowing how great a man and coach Pop is, me as a 19-year-old coming in and seeing Pop respect Ime for his knowledge and him not being afraid to speak up, that held value for me.”
Udoka chuckles easily listening to anecdotes divulged by associates about his no-nonsense demeanor, penchant for calling out players and coaches (including Popovich) without disrespecting, belittling or embarrassing them, and what Buford called an ability to “handle difficult relationships and never waver from speaking truth to power, whether that be with the coaches or with players. He was always thoughtful and managed emotions really well.”
In Boston, the coaching staff is empowered to speak freely. A diversity of opinions is valued there the same it is in San Antonio under Popovich.
So, it’s no surprise two of Udoka’s assistants — lead assistant Will Hardy and Ben Sullivan — started their NBA careers in the Spurs’ video room, before eventually finding their way to Boston. Hardy worked 11 years in San Antonio, starting as a basketball operations intern in Udoka’s final season as a player with the Spurs (2011), before advancing to assistant coach. A native of Portland, Oregon (similar to Udoka), Sullivan left San Antonio in 2013 along with Popovich protégé Mike Budenholzer to go to Atlanta. Crowned an NBA champion last season, Budenholzer brought Sullivan in 2018 to Milwaukee, before the assistant later joined Udoka with the Celtics.
During their time working with the Spurs, that group learned valuable lessons it would apply in Boston.
Knockdown, drag-out debates behind closed doors formed the norm in San Antonio. Once the staff made decisions, no matter how hotly debated internally, the crew stressed the importance of presenting a united front in both the locker room and publicly.
“First off, it was encouraged by Pop,” a laughing Udoka told NBA.com. “As we know, he wants [a] debate, discussion and arguments. He doesn’t want yes-men. I knew that as a player. The first thing he told us when he hired me and had us in coaching meetings and coaching retreats was, ‘Speak your mind. Everybody has different ideas. We value them all.’ So, he really encouraged us to do that. That’s who I am.”
To trip up the staff on occasion, Popovich even baited it by presenting seemingly outlandish ideas to test the group’s willingness to disagree and debate.
“There’s a lot of us that argued with Pop,” Hardy said.
‘Stability and tenacity’
When Boston stumbled out the gates to a disappointing 17-19 start, Buford and those who know Udoka well expected the turnaround we all eventually saw. The Spurs CEO earlier raved about the “stability and tenacity” Udoka displayed as a player. Those traits remained central tenets in Boston’s recovery from near the basement of the Eastern Conference standings to where we stand today.
“It always surprises you when things happen quickly, but it doesn’t surprise me with Ime that they weathered the storm they faced earlier in the year just from a consistency standpoint,” Buford told NBA.com. “I know his approach and how he would not deviate, but also he’d be thoughtful in his adjustments and in his relationships with the players.”
With the Celtics struggling through a barrage of circumstances (COVID-19, injuries, a new staff adjusting to the team and internal strife among players), Udoka held firm to his principles. As Boston stumbled, and rumblings in the city screamed the sky was falling, Udoka privately remained realistic about the Celtics’ situation, while refusing to make excuses for the team’s subpar performance.
He’d continue to hold the players accountable and stand firm on the new philosophies and methodology being implemented. Udoka refused to panic and was committed to staying the course, even as the losses mounted.
The coach understood it would take time for the team to properly acclimate to the new staff’s teachings. After all, Boston’s core group had already achieved a sustained level of success playing the bulk of their careers up to that point for former coach Brad Stevens. So, Boston’s staff implemented the new details with an inkling of expectation that, at times, players might want to revert to what was comfortable, what had worked in the past under Stevens, a successful predecessor to Udoka.
To the Celtics’ credit, they never did. They kept pushing. They believed.
Eventually, they’d achieve to reach the game’s grandest stage.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” Hardy told NBA.com. “To get that foundation from being in San Antonio, and then be able to transition to a place like this working for somebody like Ime, who I know and trust, and he trusts me. That part is not lost on me. That’s not everywhere in the NBA. Ultimately, I love the guy and want him to kick a–, and I want our team to be great.”
‘The new generation of coach’
LA Clippers player development coach Cameron Hodges, like many mentioned earlier, started his San Antonio career working in the video room, many days grinding from sunup until 2 a.m.
“As many hours as I was in there, Ime was in there working, too,” Hodges told NBA.com.
Hodges joined the Spurs in 2017 and left San Antonio with Udoka in 2019 to become a member of Brett Brown’s staff in Philadelphia. On every team he worked as an assistant, Udoka held the role of defensive specialist, but most importantly, coaches asked the assistant to take the lead in managing oftentimes difficult relationships with star players.
That old-school stuff is kind of dead now. Rah-rah stuff isn’t it. He just shoots you straight and does it with a demeanor that’s respectful and he doesn’t embarrass guys. He talks to players like grown men.”
— LA Clippers player development coach Cameron Hodges on Ime Udoka
Hodges saw it in San Antonio with stars such as Kawhi Leonard, as well as Philadelphia with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
“Ime was the guy that could bridge the gap between the players and coaching staff, the head coach and the stars,” Hodges said. “He could be that voice of reason. He could call guys out when needed, and he could do things for the head coach that maybe other assistants couldn’t do because he had these relationships with these players, and he’s so respected.”
Udoka also possesses the innate talent to quickly diagnose exactly what a situation calls for, according to Buford. That’s how the coach successfully recruited Aldridge to San Antonio in 2015 as that summer’s highly touted free agent.
After Aldridge completed his meeting in Los Angeles with the Spurs, the forward hopped on a private jet headed back to his hometown of Dallas. Since Udoka resided in San Antonio at the time, Aldridge figured he’d offer his former Trail Blazers teammate a ride back to Texas. On the flight to Dallas, Udoka answered every question lingering in Aldridge’s mind about the Spurs. The coach knew Aldridge would feel more comfortable talking with him about what to expect than Popovich and the rest of the brass.
“We’re close like that,” Aldridge told NBA.com. “So, I didn’t mind him riding with me. Then, when we landed, I’m like, ‘So, how are you getting home?’ He was like, ‘Man, I’m going back to L.A.’ I thought he was flying with me to go home. He was like, ‘Nah, I just flew so I could talk to you.’ I said, ‘Man, you’re crazy!’ That was effort, man.”
Udoka pulled the move on his own volition because of “how well he read that circumstance,” according to Buford.
I hope they win the championship because it only opens doors for young coaches, new coaches. He’s leading the way without even knowing it.”
— Spurs guard Dejounte Murray on the Celtics and Ime Udoka
But those types of actions create ironclad relationships and credibility with today’s players. That’s not even considering the currency built from Udoka’s own NBA career as a fierce competitor who understood his physical limitations, but compensated by playing harder and tougher than opponents. So, for Aldridge, Udoka didn’t have to work near as hard later when convincing the forward to join the Nets, where he worked one season as an assistant prior to taking over in Boston.
One summer during Udoka’s days as an assistant in San Antonio, the coach met Aldridge in Newport Beach, Calif., to work out the power forward, who often played pickup games at UC Irvine. Udoka arrived at the gym with Aldridge as they met an assortment of college players, pros playing overseas and a couple of NBA guys. The group was one player short of a full 5-on-5 run.
Now pushing 40, Udoka tightened his sneakers and joined the game.
“He was way older than everybody else, and he’s in there trying to lock up, talking trash, going hard at the players,” Aldridge said. “Ime knows only one way, and that’s to go hard. It was funny. He was the oldest guy out there and hadn’t really played that much. But he was still going hard as hell.”
You see that tenacity from Udoka on the sideline as a coach, too. When the inevitable “call out” comes, it arrives in a way that isn’t disrespectful or belittling. It almost sounds like a teammate coaxing out the best from a peer, according to both Murray and Aldridge.
“In Brooklyn and San Antonio, yeah, he would call me out all the time,” Aldridge said. “He’d be like, ‘Go at him, man. He’s weak. Man, you’re trippin’ right now.’ Or when you’re in drop [coverage], he’s like, ‘don’t step up on that.’ If it’s somebody that he doesn’t like or he thinks I can kill, he’d be like, ‘Go kill his a–.’
“The way he talks to you, it’s like he’s still a player playing with you basically. It’s like one of your teammates. He can relate to you because he’s not coming at you with some fluff or fake stuff. He’s just being real. He always calls it how it is, whether it’s him, coaches, or whomever. He’s not gonna lie to you.”
Udoka’s ability to connect with players around the league not only speaks volumes about his character but also demonstrates the immense importance of diversity in coaching roles. With half (15) of the NBA’s franchises now having Black coaches, in a league predominantly filled with Black players, Udoka is a vital component not just in Boston but throughout the Black community and beyond.
Murray was thrilled for Tatum, Brown and the rest of the Celtics’ core once news spread Udoka would take over in Boston. The coach had already built relationships with Tatum, Brown and Smart through USA Basketball as well as future Celtics guard Derrick White through their time together in San Antonio.
“I just knew their whole core would love him,” Murray said. “He’s a motivator. He’ll tell you, ‘Who cares that you turned it over? Who cares that you missed that shot? That comes with the game. I just want you to play hard. As long as you play hard, I’m gonna back you up 110%.’ That’s the type of coach that you want to play for. I hope they win the championship because it only opens doors for young coaches, new coaches. He’s leading the way without even knowing it.”
All the while, Udoka maintains his unique sense of self.
“He’s still Ime, and I think that’s one of the things everybody — coaches, staff and players — love about him,” Hardy told NBA.com. “He’s human. He’s authentic. He’s not playing a character. He just is who he is all the time.”
Interestingly, that wasn’t enough for all the teams that passed on Udoka. The coach participated in a handful of fruitless interviews over the years that resulted in disappointing summers for the man deep in the NBA Finals in his first year as a coach.
Too bad those teams missed what so many others now see.
“It just comes down to Ime being a great coach and relationship builder that’s able to connect with any type of guy — young, vet, black, white — it doesn’t matter because that’s just what he does,” Hodges said. “That old-school stuff is kind of dead now. Rah-rah stuff isn’t it. He just shoots you straight and does it with a demeanor that’s respectful and he doesn’t embarrass guys. He talks to players like grown men. He is the new generation of coach, and he’s gonna have a career as long as he wants because he’s just cut out for it. He’s got all the DNA to succeed.”
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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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