On June 20, Damon Stoudamire received a call from his friend Ime Udoka, whose first season as an assistant with the Nets had ended the night before with a gut-wrenching Game 7 loss to the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Stoudamire, the 1995-96 NBA rookie of the year, figured that Udoka just wanted to talk about the missed opportunity. But Udoka wanted to talk about a new opportunity.
He told Stoudamire that a Celtics contingent that included president of basketball operations Brad Stevens, co-owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca, and vice president of player development Allison Feaster was on the way to New York to interview him for the team’s head coaching vacancy. He asked Stoudamire if he would consider joining his staff if he got the job.
“And I told him, ‘Let’s make sure you get it first and talk afterward,’” Stoudamire said. “Then I wished him good luck.”
The following night, Udoka called again. He was going to become a Celtic. Stoudamire was preparing to enter his sixth season as coach at the University of the Pacific and was enjoying building a program there. He hadn’t really thought about returning to the NBA.
“But to do it for Ime was an easy call,” he said. “I didn’t even have to think about it. You want to work with great, quality people, and the relationship me and him have goes deeper than basketball, so that made it easy.”
Stoudamire, 48, and Udoka, 44, are both from Portland. When Stoudamire was a star at the University of Arizona he began hearing about Udoka’s ascension as a young basketball player back in Oregon.
The two eventually became friends and their bond was strengthened by their mutual connection to Erin Cowan, a staple of the Portland basketball scene who served as an agent for Udoka, an advisor for Stoudamire, and a close friend to both before he died in 2018.
“I believe he was one of the guys who helped get Ime his opportunity to play in the NBA,” Stoudamire said. “He really was invested in Ime moving forward, and I saw that. And now, Ime is a part of my family. He’ll talk to my dad when I’m not even there. This thing runs deep.”
When Boston’s coaching staff gathered at a retreat in Newport, R.I., recently, Stoudamire was taken aback when he looked around the room and realized he and Aaron Miles, who coached in the G League for two seasons, were the only members of the staff with head coaching experience.
“Even though it hasn’t been in the NBA, I’ve sat in that seat and I understand what that seat feels like,” Stoudamire said. “And I feel like my job is to help [Udoka] with that and help him see things coming, put things on his plate, but not give him the answers. Nobody can give you the answers to the test in that seat. But one of my things is to help give him choices and help guide him.”
Stoudamire averaged 13.4 points and 6.1 assists over 13 NBA seasons, and even though the former point guard is approaching 50, it is not easy to distinguish him from the current Celtics when they are all on the practice court.
He hopes that his long playing career will help him relate to these Celtics, and he believes he can provide guidance based on his own experiences. And as excited as he was to work with Udoka, Stoudamire said the talent on Boston’s roster also made this an appealing destination.
Most often, he said, new coaches are hired to fix crumbling teams. That is not the case with the Celtics, who have two young All-Stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and reached the conference finals in three of the last five seasons.
“It’s crazy to see how young these guys are and how much success they’ve already had,” Stoudamire said. “You don’t realize until you come into this gym, man, that there’s a lot of talent on the floor. There’s a lot of depth on the floor. There’s a lot of competition. I think we’re deeper than people think, and we’re better than people think.”