Boston – Ime Udoka was always ready to offer instructions. But his players felt that there were limits to how much he could teach them. Sometimes he needed to show them.
So Udoka would ring the phone and call old friends from the neighborhood. These were former high school teammates, hoopers he knew from the playground, and even a few friends who played abroad. Udoka’s request has already become familiar: Could you shake it with exercise and tighten its boys?
“They were older, stronger and smarter, and they would just take us out of court.” Said Mike Moser, who played on the first team coached by Udoka. “But you will learn.”
As Garrett Jackson, another former player, put it, “They give us punk.”
Since then, the 44-year-old Udoka has made a big impression on the Celtics coach in his first season, as his Eastern Conference semifinal series with Milwaukee Bucks ended in one of his games on Saturday before the match on Saturday. But by the time Udoka was still on the NBA court as a defensive-minded forward, he was already planning his future – training a bouquet of teens in his spare time.
For four summers, from 2006 to 2009, Udoka patrolled I-5 Elite, alongside the Amateur Athletic Union team, which he assisted in Portland, two.
“I made a mistake around those young guys,” he said.
Udoka jumped in training with I-5 Elite. He washed the dirty socks of his players. Talent, he told them, was not as important as effort. With Cumbeno Memory and Kendrick Williams, two childhood friends who ran the team with him, Udoka created the I-5 Elite with his stunning image. His former players saw that he used the same plan against the Celtics, who destroyed the Bucks in the second game of their series. Marcus Smart, in his eighth season in Boston, became the first defender since Gary Peyton in 1995-96 to win the NBA Player of the Year award.
“The most important thing I learned from that is endurance,” said Moser, now assistant coach of the University of Oregon women’s basketball team. “You really don’t know if you don’t know what he went through and what it took him to get into the NBA, when you think about it, it’s almost ridiculous.”
Udoka grew up obsessed with basketball in Portland, a game student who missed out on playing prom. He appeared in the NBA run in Portland but broke a knee before the draft. Strange work ensued, including an internship with Fargo-Moorhead Beez of the International Basketball Association. After he broke the knee again, Udoka spent most of the following year loading trucks for FedEx, hoping for another crack in the NBA.
When Udoka finally landed on the Trail Blazers in 2006, it was the break he needed and the start of a prolific career that spanned two seasons and a third at the San Antonio Spurs. He also took the opportunity when Nico Harrison, Nike’s chief marketing officer, set aside a few dollars for Udoka to start the AAU team, Memory said. That was something Udoka had been talking about with friends for years and now they could do it. (Harrison is now the general manager of the Dallas Mavericks.)
At the time, AAU basketball was known as a breeding ground for well-funded street games. Udoka, however, was going to do things his way, which meant a difficult path.
“We were never going to launch the ball,” Udoka said. “We were going to teach them to play. Structure, discipline, defense – these are all things I have emphasized. And I was like that as a player. “
Memory and Williams worked on X’s and O’s – Udoka, strange as it may sound, was not a coaching certificate – but it was Udoka’s program, Williams said. As soon as Udoka’s NBA season ended, he hurried to the airport to meet the I-5 Elite.
“You were literally watching his game on TV for Spurs, and then he would be in the hall with you the next morning,” Jackson said.
The first recruit of the I-5 Elite was Moser, who, as a 15-year-old forward, admired the fact that the NBA player – from his hometown, no less – showed interest in him. Udoka worked with Moser in the Trailer Blazers gym and invited him to play on the court. But Udoka also confronted him. From his seat on the bench, Udoka noticed that Moser was standing around when his teammates started shooting. Udoka wanted to get an offensive rebound.
“Stop watching, Moser,” whispered Udoka. “Stop watching.”
Moser finally received the message. (Really, he had no choice.) Later, as a second-year student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Moser emerged as one of the country’s leading rebounders.
There were more talented teams in the national circle. But Udoka, along with Memory and Williams, reduced the I-5 Elite list for every drop of potential. The weekend workouts were tough. Udoka had a soft spot for role players and glue for boys, scrapers, who treated everything like a final test. One such player was Jeff Dorman. Udoka has always lobbied other coaches on behalf of Dorman, even though he played behind Terence Ross, who had an NBA career ahead of him.
“Dorman was an unsigned senior,” Memory said, “and he would say, ‘Throw Dorman there, man.’ I think he has something. “Give him a chance.”
Dorman continued to play at Clackamas Community College, where he was a full-time conference guard, and at Seattle Pacific, a Division II school.
Udoka understood communication was not uniform. Some players needed more discipline, while others needed more encouragement. Some were from the suburbs, some from the city. So Udoka took his approach, trying to understand as much as possible about each of them. He offered them exercises. He ate with their families. He knew, even that relationships were essential to the coaches, he said. But he refused to compromise on his standards.
“It was not difficult to confront them and hold them accountable,” Udoka said.
Sometimes he added a stimulus. Moser said the team was fighting during an uninspired workout one afternoon when Udoka halted the process: Who wants $ 100? The winner of the next collision receives the prize.
“And that was $ 100 per player, man,” Moser said. “I was not cheap.”
The temperature in the gym went from lukewarm to melted.
“There were several prisons in the rough,” Moser said. “But it encourages us to be – a tough, tough group.”
Jackson recalled being on the road with the I-5 Elite in a tournament when his college recruitment was on the rise. Returning to the hotel one night, he was talking on the phone with a college coach who was wondering about Udoka: What was he like around? It was at that moment, Jackson said, that Udoka appeared from the corner wearing a pile of sweaty uniforms.
“The guy is in the NBA,” Jackson said, “and he’s washing our clothes at the hotel.”
As it became clear to him that he might have a coaching career, Udoka worked in his profession and attended coaching clinics organized by the NBA Players Union. In 2012, Spurs coach Greg Popovich called him and offered him a job as an assistant. Udoka decided: Did he want to close his gambling career book?
“And it was unusual because it’s usually very crucial,” Moser said. “I remember talking about it for hours. Then he simply decided, “Do you know what? I’m going to do that. “
Udoka did not look back. He spent nine seasons as an NBA assistant before the Celtics picked him up last summer and brought in a few familiar faces. Among them: Jackson, 30, who joined Udoka’s staff as a player improvement assistant.
“When he got the job, I knew I wanted to help him,” Jackson said. “I did not know what role I would play and I was not interested. I said, “I will do whatever you want.”