On Friday morning, Bobby Harris took his small boat out on the Willamette River just south of Portland, Ore., and caught a 13-pound spring Chinook.
“The best salmon you can eat,” he said. “They don’t spawn until later in the fall, so their flesh is just packed with nutrients and minerals. You feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven when you eat one.”
And that was just the second best part of Harris’s day. As he floated along with a line in the water, his friends in passing boats wanted to talk about the quiet, competitive basketball player Harris once coached at Jefferson High who is now just three wins from an NBA title.
Harris and his fishing buddies watched with pride and amazement Thursday night as Celtics coach Ime Udoka helped Boston roar back from a 15-point deficit and take a 120-108 win over the Warriors in Game 1 of the Finals,
“The comeback was almost indescribable,” Harris said. “Everybody here is just so excited for Ime.”
The past few months have been a joy for those closest to Udoka. His older sister, Mfon, said that after the Celtics defeated the Heat in the conference finals Sunday, the flood of calls and text messages was so constant that she needed to put down her phone.
The support has been warm and sincere, in stark contrast to the relative silence of earlier this season, when Boston slipped into 11th place in the East and whispers surfaced about whether Udoka, a first-year coach, was the right man for this job.
“I knew Ime wasn’t bothered by it, but it kind of bothered me, all the negative things I heard,” Mfon Udoka said by phone. “But if I’d told him any of those things, he would’ve said, ‘I do not give a [expletive]. I don’t care what people are saying. I really don’t care.’
“And he really doesn’t. I say this jokingly, but I think he’s the most unbothered person on earth. There wasn’t a time he saw a reason to panic, even though people around him, including me, were like, ‘What in the world is going on?’ ”
Mfon said that her brother’s steady, unaffected demeanor is rooted in their upbringing. Their father, Vitalis, was a Nigerian immigrant who struggled to find consistent work as a laborer after moving to Portland. Before Ime was born, the family once lived in a motel after being evicted from their apartment. Other times, the electricity was shut off in their home and they gathered near the oven to stay warm.
But Vitalis and his wife, Agnes, always stressed to their three children that there eventually would be opportunities for a better life. It would just require time and a good work ethic.
“Our parents, regardless of their situation, were always pushing us and giving us the belief that we could do anything,” Mfon said. “We didn’t have everything, but we had just enough to make it out and find a way to be successful. And Ime has always had an ability to keep going, regardless of what’s happening around him.”
Vitalis Udoka died of a heart attack in 2006, and Agnes Udoka died after a brief battle with cancer five years later. Ime, who once loaded packages for FedEx at night so he could pursue his basketball dreams during the day, bounced from one minor league town to another before grinding out a productive NBA career as a player and then working as an assistant under Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
A slow start during his first year as an NBA head coach was not going to make him flinch. Still, he tends to be guarded with his emotions, and Mfon had some concerns. When she reached out to Celtics assistants Damon Stoudamire and Aaron Miles, longtime friends with Portland ties, they put her at ease.
“They were just like, ‘Hey, Ime is Ime,” Mfon said. “He’s handling it all really well.”
The Celtics bounced back from injuries and COVID-19-related absences and fortified their roster at the February trade deadline by adding Derrick White and Daniel Theis. Then they flipped into the most dominant team in the NBA.
But in addition to being unaffected by his team’s early stumbles, Udoka was not swept up by its eventual surge. Mfon, who played in the WNBA for several seasons, said Ime always believed this was a championship-level roster.
“He’s achieved a lot and done great for his first year, and I don’t think he would’ve expected anything less,” Mfon said. “But the way he is, it’s, ‘Well, if we don’t win, what difference does it make? We’ve got to win the whole thing.’ ”
When the Celtics defeated the Heat in the conference finals, Udoka tried to wave off a water-bottle soaking by his players because he did not believe there was much to celebrate yet. Then he realized his resistance was futile and even cracked a smile as he was sprayed.
“I honestly remember one game back when he played for Portland, he yelled and pumped his fist and I was like, ‘Oh, who is that?’” Mfon said. “I’d be shocked to see him really celebrate if they win [a title] anyway. He’s just very reserved. But I’d love to see him just yell a little bit, and maybe jump around.”
Udoka and his brother, James, do not have social media accounts, so Mfon shares the most entertaining memes and posts about Ime and these Celtics on their family group text.
“Somebody on one said he looked like Sinbad,” Mfon said with a chuckle. “He was like, ‘My [butt]. That’s trash. I do not.’”
Most often, though, Mfon simply shares messages of support. She said Nigerians are swelling with pride, and that several tribes continue to claim Udoka as one of their own. And as the Celtics’ run has unfolded, the buzz has spread across the continent.
Back in Portland, Udoka’s friends and family remain hopeful that he will help Boston take this final step. Harris has exchanged text messages with him several times during these playoffs. The correspondence has been brief and simple, and it usually ends with Udoka thanking his former high school coach for caring.