Last June, a small but powerful Celtics contingent flew to New York to interview Nets assistant Ime Udoka for Boston’s head coaching vacancy.
In a conference room at co-owner Steve Pagliuca’s Bain Capital offices, they noshed on veal parmesan, meatballs, and linguine as Udoka described his winding journey and his vision for this team. Then co-owner Wyc Grousbeck asked a simple question that left Udoka stumped.
“What are your hobbies outside of basketball?”
Udoka has never considered a life outside of basketball, and he has never wanted to.
This was a man who skipped his school prom to play in late-night pickup games. Who took graveyard shifts loading trailers for FedEx just so it wouldn’t disrupt his training sessions. Who returned to practice with the Portland Trail Blazers the day after his father’s sudden death.
For Udoka, basketball is all-consuming and fulfilling and essential. So his answer to Grousbeck’s question may have sounded overdone, but it was honest.
“For me,” he said, “there’s nothing else.”
A rough beginning
Udoka has made millions of dollars over his career as a player and coach. He has been called on to defend players such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, and to devise ways to stop them. He has a movie-star fiancée and is now in charge of bringing one of the world’s most prestigious pro teams to the summit.
But throughout his journey, he has generally kept the struggles that led him to this point to himself.
His father, Vitalis, came to Oregon from Nigeria to attend Portland State and chase the American dream, but he found that it was not that simple. He held various jobs as a laborer and often faced discrimination and racism. More than once, he was fired when he tried to stand up for himself.
“We’d tell him to just not say anything, so he could keep working,” said Ime’s sister, Mfon. “But he said he was being mistreated. It’s hard being a Black person in America, and a foreigner at the same time.”
Vitalis and his wife, Agnes, who was from Illinois, tried to shield their children — James, Mfon, and Ime, the youngest — from the family’s financial hardships, but it was not easy.
They briefly lived in a motel after being evicted from their home before Ime was born. When the electricity was shut off in their Portland apartment, Agnes would gather everyone near the gas oven to stay warm.
Food boxes arrived from local charities, and whenever Mary Gossart, a close family friend, brought vegetables from her garden, the family acted as if it was a feast. Gossart bought sneakers for the children, and when she learned that Ime and James did not have beds after moving into a new home as elementary school students, she purchased bunk beds for them at a friend’s garage sale.
Ime understood the challenges, too. When he played in youth basketball tournaments, he would fill his backpack with free bottled drinks and bring them to his family.
They did not have cable television, but Ime and his father would listen to Trail Blazers games on the radio together. Ime would record other games on network television and watch them on a loop before dribbling to his middle school to practice the moves he had just seen.
“There’s not a day I can remember when I didn’t play basketball, unless I was sick,” Ime said. “We were poor. We didn’t go on family vacations. It was just basketball. I’d play by myself, when it was raining, everything. Neighbors probably looked at me like, ‘Why is this kid out there every [expletive] day?’ ”
A long, winding road
Udoka knew basketball could be a route out of poverty, but his dedication was mostly sparked by his enchantment with the sport.
He would go to midnight sessions at the local Salvation Army gym and take buses around the city in search of pickup games. He skipped parties and dances and most activities that did not involve a court.
“He never stopped.” said Bobby Harris, his former Jefferson High coach.
Finding stability remained a challenge, however. Udoka played for Eastern Utah Junior College and the University of San Francisco before returning home to Portland State.
The 6-foot-6-inch forward was dominant as a senior and NBA scouts noticed, but he tore his ACL in February 2000. He opted for a surgery with a shorter recovery time but greater risk, in which a piece of his hamstring was used to repair the knee ligament.
Udoka returned four months later and spent training camp with the Trail Blazers before he was cut and signed by the Fargo-Moorhead Beez of the International Basketball Association. He was paid $200 a game, and the team traveled by bus and stayed in cheap motels. About 10 games into the season, Udoka tore his ACL again.
He had no health insurance, but this second procedure was paid for by Willie Stoudamire, who ran the midnight basketball session where Udoka had spent so much of his childhood, and who was the father of former NBA standout and current Celtics assistant Damon Stoudamire.
When Udoka woke up after that second surgery, a doctor told him that a piece of cartilage was missing from his knee. He said Udoka would likely experience pain for years, and that he should consider a new career path.
“I knew that if I had one more injury, it’d all be over,” Udoka said. “But there was never a doubt that I was going to try.”
He spent eight months in Portland loading trailers at FedEx, mostly on graveyard shifts, and did squat workouts using heavy packages. He would return home around 8 a.m., eat breakfast, and start his basketball training that included pickup games against Trail Blazers players.
‘“I knew that if I had one more injury, it’d all be over. But there was never a doubt that I was going to try.”’
Ime Udoka on his torn ACL
Over the next few years he toiled on the fringes of the NBA. There were summer-league stops and training camp invites, some more promising than others. He made his debut after signing a 10-day contract with the Lakers when Kobe Bryant injured his shoulder in January 2004.
“Then Kobe walks in after a few days, raises his arm above his head, and goes, ‘I’m good,’ ” Udoka said. “In my head I’m watching like, ‘[Expletive], of course Superman came back this quick.’ ”
His pinball-like path continued with several more stopovers before Udoka was called up from the D-League by the Knicks late in the 2005-06 season. The following year, after president of basketball operations Isiah Thomas had taken over as the team’s coach, he summoned Udoka outside the Wynn Casino during the Las Vegas summer league.
“You’re never going to be a 20-point scorer, but the guys respect you and listen to you, and you play the right way,” Thomas said. “I think you’re going to be a great coach one day.”
Udoka had never considered the possibility, but a seed had been planted.
Shaken by tragedy
Throughout her family’s struggles, Agnes Udoka used to tell friends that if she just had one child reach the NBA, everything would turn out just fine. And Ime was constantly on the doorstep.
In 2006-07, after he was released by the Knicks, he landed with his hometown Blazers and made the final roster. The family was overjoyed.
Udoka did not play in the preseason opener. He was getting ready for the second game a few days later when his mother called and said something had happened to their father. He and his sister should come quickly.
Ime and Mfon rushed to their parents’ apartment, where they found Vitalis Udoka unconscious on the floor. He had suffered a massive heart attack and died soon after.
Udoka takes some solace in the fact that Vitalis knew he had reached the NBA. But it was crushing that he would never see what came next.
“I went to practice the following day and everybody was looking at me like, ‘Why are you here?’ ” Udoka said. “But basketball was all that could take my mind off of things. It’s always been that way.”
Udoka traveled with the team to Utah for a game against the Jazz, and when he was alone in his hotel room, he finally broke down.
On the court, though, he seemed to find a home. He started 75 games for the Trail Blazers and knew he would not be returning to the minor leagues any time soon. Spurs assistant coach Brett Brown had scouted a few of Portland’s games against the Lakers, and he was impressed by how Udoka did not back down from guarding Bryant.
“You’ve got to see this guy,” Brown told longtime Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
The following year, San Antonio offered Udoka a three-year, $9 million contract. It was perfect. But two days later Popovich called and said that team doctors had noticed the cartilage missing from Udoka’s surgically repaired knee. The offer was rescinded.
“I started tearing up on the phone,” Udoka said. “I was just like, ‘Are you [expletive] kidding me?’ ”
The Spurs were still interested, just at a steep discount: two years, $2.5 million. Udoka eventually took the deal anyway and realized he would have to prove himself once more.
He spent two productive years with the Spurs, then played for the Kings for one season before returning to San Antonio, where he spent half a season before being released.
In February 2010, when Udoka played for the Kings, he had met actress Nia Long when a mutual friend set them up while they were both in Boston. Long was filming a pilot for NBC, and Udoka was playing against the Celtics.
They talked in a hotel lobby until 1 a.m., and the next night went to an Italian restaurant in the North End. They started dating and eventually got engaged. On Nov. 7, 2011, Long gave birth to their son, Kez, but the joy from that moment was fleeting.
Agnes Udoka had become very ill and mostly kept her health private, even from her children. A few weeks after Kez was born, she took a turn for the worse and was diagnosed with late-stage cancer.
Ime, the baby of the family, had always been closest to his mother. When he was a small child and Agnes woke up early to work at a bakery, he would follow her outside sobbing because he did not want her to leave.
When he played for the Spurs and had a guaranteed salary for the first time, he purchased a home for her in north Portland and surprised her with the keys.
Agnes was rushed to the hospital on Thanksgiving morning, and she died two weeks later.
‘I already know who you are’
When Udoka played for Portland State, he often made strategy suggestions to the coaching staff. On the Spurs, he had spent so much time at the team’s training facility that the coaches joked that he might as well join them.
Udoka started an AAU program in Portland while he was playing for San Antonio, and during summers he would return home to coach that squad, which included future NBA players Terrence Ross and Terrence Jones. Also, Udoka took part in coaching clinics at the NBA Players Association’s camp for the top college prospects.
Udoka went to Spain after his mother’s death and played well, and in the summer of 2012 he returned to the United States to support Jones and Ross, who were playing in the NBA’s Las Vegas summer league.
One day he was visiting with the Spurs staff there when Popovich pulled him aside. He said that assistant coach Jacque Vaughn was joining the Magic, and he wanted Udoka to replace him. Udoka was taken aback.
“Just think about it,” Popovich told him. “I’m going to interview some people, but I already know who you are. Keep me in mind.”
Udoka had several multiyear offers to play overseas, but he also had a family, and he knew that his playing career would not last much longer. He accepted the Spurs job and went in headfirst.
He’d study film deep into the night and bounce into Popovich’s office with suggestions on how to tweak a play. It did not take long for him to emerge as one of the head coach’s most trusted confidants.
“I’d ask him if he thought something was going to work, and he’d tell you straight up,” Popovich said. “You’d respect his opinions because he didn’t have a thousand of them.”
In the summer of 2014, forward LaMarcus Aldridge, a prize of the free agent market, met with the Spurs and several other teams in Los Angeles. He had played with Udoka in Portland and the two had a strong bond. After his meetings, Aldridge was taking a private jet back home to Dallas.
‘“I’d ask him if he thought something was going to work, and he’d tell you straight up. You’d respect his opinions, because he didn’t have a thousand of them.”’
Gregg Popovich on coaching with Ime Udoka
“And Ime just hopped on the plane and was like, ‘I’ll fly with you,’ ” Aldridge said. “I thought he just wanted to go back to Texas, but he was like, ‘Nah, I got on so if you had any questions, I could answer them.’ ”
For three hours, the two talked about the things Aldridge might not have been comfortable asking the Spurs’ top brass. As they walked off the plane afterward, Aldridge turned to Udoka and told him he was coming to San Antonio.
“I think one of the first parts of being able to coach is being selfless,” Aldridge said, “and Ime has had that since Day 1.”
In May, after longtime president of basketball operations Danny Ainge retired and was replaced by Brad Stevens, the former coach’s most immediate responsibility was finding his own replacement.
“And the name that kept coming up from everybody you talk to,” Stevens said, “was Ime’s.”
Brett Brown told Stevens that Udoka was the kind of coach players would truly want to win for. Popovich’s pitch was more direct.
“I told Brad that if he’s looking for a partner, a team player, a guy that has knowledge and gets along with people, and players respect the hell out of,” Popovich said, “he’s your guy.”
Stevens completed two Zoom interviews with Udoka during the Nets’ conference semifinal series against the Bucks, and Udoka was encouraged by their similar views of the game.
Still, Udoka did not want to get his hopes up. Over the past few years he had interviewed for head coaching jobs with the Hornets, Magic, Raptors, Pistons, and Cavaliers, and he hadn’t gotten any of them.
“I could tell that frustrated him,” said Udoka’s brother, James. “He waited a little longer than he wanted, but the opportunity he got ended up being the best one.”
After Brooklyn’s Game 7 loss, Stevens, Grousbeck, Pagliuca, and vice president of player development Allison Feaster met with Udoka for several hours at Pagliuca’s Manhattan offices, and Boston’s brass was rapt.
Udoka was scheduled to do a Zoom interview for the Wizards’ head coaching opening on June 23, and Stevens asked him to push it back as far as he could. Two hours before the meeting with Washington, Stevens called and offered the job.
When Udoka walked back into the living room at his Brooklyn home, his family knew what had happened just from his smile. Mfon was in Nigeria when her brother’s news broke and watched it reverberate through the country. On one television show, it was pointed out how the Celtics’ colors — green and white — are the same as those in the Nigerian flag.
“Nigerians are very proud people,” Mfon said. “Right away, one tribe started to try to claim Ime, and then our actual tribe was like, ‘No, he’s one of us.’ ”
When Udoka called Popovich later, the Hall of Fame coach started crying. During their time together in San Antonio, others in the organization jokingly referred to Udoka as Popovich’s stepson because of their obvious bond.
“Ime’s had it tough in many ways,” Popovich said. “He never made a bunch of money as a player and had injuries cut his career short. He put in the time here and then saw other guys go and get jobs. So when he got this job it was just very satisfying, and easy to be over-the-moon happy for him.”
The next challenge
Udoka was sitting in a private room at a Seaport steakhouse recently, and between bites of New Zealand salmon he talked about the obstacles that ultimately led him to this point: the injuries and the tragedies and the minor leagues and the job filling trucks with packages.
But he only talked about them because he was being asked about them. This is the way with Ime Udoka. Popovich said he knew most of Udoka’s backstory, but very little of it had been revealed by Udoka himself. Despite his personal struggles, Udoka never wanted people to feel sorry for him.
“And that was very telling to me,” Popovich said. “There were no excuses.”
Udoka has now achieved the biggest goal left on his list, but that list is ever changing. Now that he is a head coach, he wants to become one of the best there ever was.
The start of this season has been slightly bumpy for the Celtics, who entered Saturday night’s game against the Knicks in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference, just like last year. There are times when Udoka seems exasperated trying to get his players to give the two things his own life was built on: focus and maximum effort.
Still, he remains relentlessly determined to bring another championship to this city that knows winning so well. He is living in a modest apartment in downtown Boston and his friends joke that there is probably not even anything on the walls. He is just here for this game, same as it ever was, same as it will always be.
“I don’t look at it as a negative thing to say you’re a basketball lifer,” Udoka said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. It got me to where I’m at.”