Gabe Muoneke said that Ime Udoka does not show much emotion, so when Muoneke thinks their conversation needs a jolt, he switches the topic to coaching basketball and watches his close friend spring to life.
Udoka had told Muoneke for years that he would become an NBA head coach someday, and Muoneke never doubted it. When the two were teammates on the Nigerian national team, he could see how Udoka processed the game differently than most others. While Udoka was an assistant with the Spurs, 76ers, and Nets, Muoneke could see how his friend’s knowledge was blossoming.
This week, Udoka agreed to become the head coach of the Celtics. When he and Muoneke spoke afterward, when they talked about how this lifelong dream had come true, Udoka’s reaction was typically understated, not that Muoneke would have expected otherwise.
“But,” Muoneke said, “you could hear that smile over the phone.”
The excitement elsewhere was more palpable, however. After the news broke, Muoneke received a flood of text messages from friends and family in Nigeria who were thrilled that Udoka would now represent them as the NBA’s first Nigerian-American coach.
Now, Udoka will be tasked with guiding the Celtics back to the top of the NBA. And Muoneke is certain that Boston has found the perfect man for the job.
“If you’re not a big fan of basketball but you like the Celtics, and you hear Ime talk, he’s going to teach you about the game,” Muoneke said. “He’ll say things, and then the next game you’ll watch and you’ll see it. I know what he’s going to do over there, and I know it’s going to be a joy to watch. I can’t tell you how proud I am of him.”
Muoneke played in the D-League after graduating from Texas in 2000, and he was intrigued two years later when he saw that a fellow Nigerian American was playing there, too. He began to follow Udoka, and in 2004 the two met at a veteran free agent camp before representing Nigeria a year later at AfroBasket, a qualifier for the FIBA World Cup.
Udoka mostly kept to himself on that team, but Muoneke quickly realized that his calm demeanor should not be mistaken for a lack of fire. In August 2005 a brawl broke out in the AfroBasket third-place game between Nigeria and Algeria. The game was played in Algiers, and the numbers were not in Nigeria’s favor.
“But the person fighting the most people, with no anger or emotion, was Ime,” Muoneke said with a chuckle. “At one point I see him and he calmly says to me, ‘Gabe, watch your back.’ And I turn and see a guy with a chair coming at me. He nicked me in the eye, and I only moved because Ime told me to watch my back. And after he hit me, Ime got him. For me, that sold me on Ime. We were boys from that point on.”
Muoneke went on to play in the NBA summer league several times and even had some training camp deals, but he never quite latched on. Udoka, meanwhile, carved out a seven-year NBA career as a player.
Muoneke used to watch as many of Udoka’s games on television as he could. He remembers one in which a veteran was clearly trying to aggravate Udoka with constant trash talk. Udoka just continued on in silence for most of the game before finally making it clear that he’d had enough of the trash talk.
“I called him after the game and said, ‘You were about to kick his butt, weren’t you?’ ” Muoneke said. “He said, ‘Well he kept talking, man.’ And that’s Ime. He doesn’t get too high or too low. He thinks everything through and is even-keel. But when you do get him angry, you know you messed up.”
After spending four seasons with the Spurs as a player, Udoka became an assistant under coach Gregg Popovich and remained in that post for seven years. He then spent a season with the 76ers before joining the Nets’ coaching staff this season.
During their conversations, which always veered back to basketball, Muoneke would tell Udoka that he would make a good head coach someday, and Udoka would say that he was confident it would happen. Muoneke is thrilled that he is getting his chance. He thinks that his friend is the perfect fit for the Celtics, and that he will be an excellent mentor, too.
“When he’s talking to them, when he’s talking to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, they’re going to know that he’s sincere,” Muoneke said. “So when he speaks to them like a brother, saying ‘You can’t do this or that,’ they’re going to do what he asks them, because they won’t want to let him down. It’d be like they’re letting down a teammate.”
“And a guy like Jayson Tatum is going to go off, because any little intricacy he hasn’t perfected yet, Ime is going to pick apart and say ‘Let’s get to this level now.’ And players are going to see that he isn’t telling them what to do, he’s saying ‘Let’s get better together.’ ”
Muoneke said he is confident that Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens, who was previously the team’s head coach, will have a good working relationship with Udoka because they are both relentlessly focused on basketball.
“Ime doesn’t care about any of the outside things,” Muoneke said. “This is a guy who I would predict is going to live in an apartment in Boston, he may get a small condo with a couch, nothing fancy, and just study film all the time.”