What stood out Monday as Ime Udoka addressed the Boston media and the Celtics fans for the first time was that he does not lack in confidence. The 43-year-old NBA journeyman and veteran assistant who had to fight for roster spots and earn his respect and regard as a coach was ready for this opportunity.
Whether he was the Celtics’ first choice as coach is likely never going to be freely admitted on the record. Perhaps Chauncey Billups’ personal issues causedthe Celtics brass to balk and, according to an NBA source, ownership backed off of Billups as a prime candidate because of a 1997 assault case.
Meanwhile, Udoka did nothing but impress during the interview process and seized the job from his competitors. You could almost see Brad Stevens, the Celtics new president of basketball operations and former head coach, nodding his head in approval each time Udoka talked about taking this roster to the next level or giving Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown more responsibility in leading the franchise to a championship level.
The two bonded. Stevens and Udoka are 10 months apart in age, both share bright ideas for how to guide teams to a championship. Perhaps Stevens’ ideas and voice became antiquated, so he sought a fresh voice who was assertive enough to point out that the team he inherits is far from perfect.
“I looked at the numbers and sorry to mention this Brad but [the Celtics were] 27th in assists last year,” Udoka said. “We want to have more team basketball there. I like to try to bring the dog out in guys and we’ve got some young dogs here. I keep going back to the personnel and the players and that’s what makes this so attractive. We’ve talked about this in depth. We have some work to do. That’s my job to bring out the best in them.”
Stevens understood what Udoka was referring to. The Celtics struggled moving the ball and on defense last year. Tatum and Brown were the only primary players to enjoy breakout seasons. Most of the rest of the roster were uneven.
“In our Zoom interviews, it was pretty evident early on that me and Brad had a pretty good connection,” Udoka said. “And when I got with the whole crew, Alison [Feaster] included, it was their passion that was attractive to me. It’s easy to see why the organization is so successful.
“It’s my job to put them in situations to be successful, push them to be greater and the sky’s the limit with the those guys. When you have two foundational young pillars like those two, it’s exciting to build around them.”
Udoka was a highly-regarded assistant coach during his years in San Antonio, Philadelphia and Brooklyn but he entered this job search as a relative unknown outside of NBA circles. He had to prove to Celtics ownership that he not only had the basketball acumen (that was the easy part) but the confidence and fortitude to become the face of the organization.
“He’s so confident,” Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck said. “Burns inside with a desire to do even more and he wants to be here. This was his first choice and he was our first choice, it was a simple of that.”
Said Stevens: “I did talk to a lot of people. Some that were publicized and many others that weren’t. It is amazing group of talented coaches whether they have been coaches before or have not gotten their shot yet. To separate yourself from amongst all of them was difficult, but Ime did that.”
Udoka had interviewed for a handful of jobs over the past few years but missed out, perhaps because he wasn’t a big enough name or because he conducted his work quietly without fanfare. Eventually this day was going to come for Udoka, whose is of Nigerian descent, and he pursued the most attractive available NBA coaching position convinced he was the best candidate.
“This was always my ultimate goal once I started coaching,” he said. “I learned from some great ones as a player and a coach and this was a goal. I’ve been interviewing for three or four years now and if you would have told me I’d be a finalist for so-and-so team or I could wait two years and fall into this situation, it would be a no-brainer for me. I knew the right situation would come and this is it. ‘But I’m also not a self-promoter. I’m not out there trying to be the face of anything. I’m all about the players and organization.
“I may not be the biggest name but people inside know me and that’s more so my personality.”
What Udoka emphasized was that he will offer strong suggestions to the team’s cornerstones about improvement. Tatum and Brown are getting there but they’re not they’re yet. Udoka was hired to offer that needed boost. The Celtics are banking they have the right man, the mentor, life coach, big brother, motivator, X’s and O’s coach and counselor all rolled into one.
“My message to [the players] would be why wait?” he said. “The talent is there. The work ethic is there. It’s a chance to be a better leader and more vocal at times. But don’t wait for anything. Go out and take it now. I’m not worried about hard coaching. They’re asking for that and it’s something I’m going to bring to the table.”