Ime Udoka was 28 years old when he signed with the Knicks in the 2005-06 season. At that point, his winding basketball journey had taken him from minor league teams in Fort Myers, Fla. and Glens Falls, N.Y., to pro clubs in Spain and France. So even though he had played in just four NBA games, it did not seem that way when he spoke to his teammates.
“When I was with the Knicks, Isiah Thomas was probably the first to mention that I would be a coach one day,” Udoka said Monday. “He said, ‘You connect with the young guys. You’re not a 25-point scorer but they relate to you well, and you push them in the right way.’ So I took that into my coaching career, not just relationship-wise as a player, but as a coach.”
Over his nine years as an assistant, Udoka helped mentor a range of players from then-Spurs star Kawhi Leonard to Nets star Kevin Durant. Now, he is eager to assume the same responsibility while holding the top post. On Monday, Udoka was introduced as the head coach of the Celtics.
“We’re here to win Banner 18 together, if we possibly can,” Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck said. “I know Ime will do everything he can to make that happen. He’s characterized, in my mind, by extreme insight, character, integrity, drive, commitment, passion, great training, and a burning desire to win.”
Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens said he interviewed even more candidates than media reports had indicated. His contact with Udoka included numerous phone calls and video chats.
“We were pretty much in alignment right away,” Udoka said.
Stevens eventually joined Grousbeck, co-owner Steve Pagliuca, and vice president of player development and organizational growth Allison Feaster on a trip to New York to meet with Udoka on June 20. The interview occurred one day after Udoka’s Nets were eliminated by the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, with the five gathering in a conference room at Pagliuca’s Bain Capital offices.
“Two hours went by in a flash,” Grousbeck said. “I was ready to go a couple more, ready to be stuck next to him on a coast-to-coast red-eye. It was that kind of electricity. He was so confident. He burns inside with a desire to do even more.”
While Grousbeck and Pagliuca enthusiastically signed off on the hiring of Udoka, this was Stevens’s biggest move since relinquishing his coaching duties and taking over for Danny Ainge one month ago.
“To separate yourself amongst all of [the candidates] was difficult, but Ime did that,” Stevens said. “I go back to he has a great basketball acumen, he has a great understanding, but that’s to me something that a lot of people have.
“It’s his authenticity, his ability to be tough and yet very warm, and just his experience. Not only his experience of playing but being [near the bottom] on the roster a lot, and then being in San Antonio for all those years.”
Udoka coached under Spurs legend Gregg Popovich for seven seasons, and Stevens has made it clear over the years how much he admires Popovich. Udoka said Monday that Popovich laid the foundation for who he wants to become as a coach, and that he was thankful that his former boss gave a ringing endorsement to Stevens “to make me look good to get me here.”
In the coming weeks, Udoka will rejoin Popovich as his assistant on the Team USA staff at the Tokyo Olympics. Celtics All-Star Jayson Tatum will be a member of that team, too, and that will give Udoka an early chance to spend more time around Boston’s franchise cornerstone.
Udoka spoke highly of the Celtics roster he is inheriting and made it clear that this team’s attack will remain built around Tatum and fellow All-Star Jaylen Brown.
“Something that you see in the perception of them outside this organization is All-NBA-level players, MVP-caliber players,” Udoka said. “And getting to know them over the last few years, you’ve seen their growth. They’ve taken huge leaps this past year, and we look forward to them continuing in that progress.
“It’s my job to put them in situations to be successful, push them to be greater, and like I said, the sky is the limit for those guys.”
Udoka gave some hints about his stylistic approach, too. He playfully jabbed Stevens about the Celtics ranking 27th in the NBA in assists this season, and stressed that the figure must improve with better ball movement. Udoka mostly was tasked with leading defenses in Philadelphia and Brooklyn over the past two years and said he will take a hands-on approach as he tries to reinvigorate the Celtics’ attack at that end of the court, too.
“I like to try to bring the dog out in guys,” he said. “We have some young dogs here and I’m looking forward to pushing them.”
First, Udoka will be tasked with assembling the rest of his staff. One league source that that while Stevens may vouch for some of his former staffers, he intends to give Udoka the freedom to add the coaches he wants.
Udoka said that one benefit of his winding basketball journey is that he has connected with so many coaches at so many levels. He wants assistants who are able to relate to players and build relationships with them.
“I’m looking forward to getting out there and grinding with the guys,” Udoka said, “so I’m looking for energy, juice in the building, a great environment to produce winning.”