When Ime Udoka was a teenager, he spent countless nights playing in midnight basketball sessions at the Portland, Ore., gym that was run by Damon Stoudamire’s father, Willie. Later, when Udoka tore his ACL playing for a minor league team in North Dakota and was unable to afford surgery because he had no health insurance, Willie Stoudamire paid for it.
Damon Stoudamire and Udoka were so close that they spent time with each other’s families even when the other was not around. And before Udoka interviewed for the Celtics’ head coaching opening in June 2021, he called Stoudamire, a former star NBA point guard, and asked if he’d become one of his top assistants.
So for Stoudamire, the turmoil of the past six months goes well beyond reverberations felt on the court. Since Udoka received a one-year suspension in September for having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate team employee, Stoudamire has been crushed and concerned about his friend’s well-being.
“You’re talking about a relationship that dates back 30 years,” Stoudamire said as he sat in a quiet corner of the Celtics’ practice gym last week. “It’s bigger than sports. I just try to make sure that he’s all right. The biggest thing is he’s my friend. Things happen. Things have happened to me. The one thing I thought about this whole time is that regardless, you can get in a dark place and you get lonely. The most important thing is that he’s keeping his mind right, keeping perspective and is able to look back on this situation and grow from it.”
After grinding for so many years, Udoka finally became a head coach last season and guided Boston within two wins of an unlikely NBA title. The Celtics were set to enter this season as title favorites, and in an instant, Udoka was no longer part of the quest.
Stoudamire believes Udoka is proud of his former players now. The Celtics have vaulted to the top of the NBA behind interim coach Joe Mazzulla. But Stoudamire also understands how difficult it must be for Udoka to see what was tossed away.
“I think that everything that happens to you, when it hits you like this it can really get overwhelming,” Stoudamire said. “So that’s what I check on him about. I check on him to make sure he’s doing all right, and make sure his son is good, and that he’s able to find some type of peace within what he has going on. As a human being when you do something, you beat yourself down. And with the success that we’re having now, it’s human nature, man. You’re sitting there; you’re watching [the team]. I just think the biggest thing is that he’s able to, in his own way, come to some kind of resolution and peace in his mind so he can move forward.”
Stoudamire said he has talked to Udoka about the importance of remaining healthy and active as he navigates this gloomy period. He said Udoka has been walking and working out, and he believes it’s helping his mental health.
“You’ve got to find something that’s going to keep you going each and every day,” Stoudamire said. “The biggest thing is you isolate yourself, but at some point, you’ve got to come out … Life moves on. And for me, that’s all I hope and pray. When I talk to him, that’s all I care about. It’s not about the job, or getting another job. It’s about ‘How are you doing? Are you OK?’ The basketball, I don’t even care about. If that’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. But how are you doing? That’s the big thing for me. It’s not about the guys, how we’re playing and all that [expletive]. That’s not helping nothing.”
Udoka filled his coaching staff with longtime friends from the Portland area such as Stoudamire, and when he was suspended there were questions about whether some might leave the team. But Stoudamire, who was previously the head coach at the University of the Pacific, said he never considered departing, nor would Udoka have wanted him to leave.
“I wanted to be here,” he said. “I like the team, I like the guys, I like being around this group. I’ve been in a lot of different places as a player and a coach, and the cohesion that I see the players have, the camaraderie goes a long way. I left being a head coach to come here. So in my mind I was doing it for a reason and a purpose. So anything less than giving my all to this situation, I would have been cheating myself.”
With Udoka’s suspension and lead assistant Will Hardy’s departure to coach the Jazz, Stoudamire has become one of Mazzulla’s top lieutenants. The 1996 NBA Rookie of the Year is the only member of the staff with extensive playing experience at this level, and he has tried to offer unique perspectives.
“The biggest thing [when Mazzulla took over] was kind of like the cloud,” Stoudamire said. “What are guys’ roles and how is this thing going to work? And I think he let us know, and we all kind of rallied behind that and dove into our roles. I think he’s done a great job. It’s a difficult position to be in. The timing of it wasn’t perfect, but I think he’s kept a togetherness we relied on as we started to build last year, and I think we’ve all adapted to his style, how he wants to do things, how he sees things.”
Stoudamire said he would like to become an NBA head coach someday. He got a taste last month, when he led the Celtics to wins over the Rockets and Clippers while Mazzulla was sidelined with eye abrasions.
“It felt good,” Stoudamire said. “It felt like I belonged. Of course I want to be a head coach again, but more importantly I want to be prepared when the opportunity presents itself.”
For now, he is focused on helping the Celtics win their first title since 2008 while also embracing the less consuming nature of his position. He focuses on his physical and mental health, just as he has advised Udoka to do. He reads books and listens to podcasts about leadership, and he takes long, winding walks through the city, usually ending up in Boston Common or Back Bay.
“It’s so therapeutic,” Stoudamire said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 15 degrees or 90 outside. Just walking and catching the vibe, that’s really refreshing for me … I didn’t know what to expect when I came to Boston, but being here now for 18 months, it’s exceeded my expectations. I’ve met really good people. I’ve landed in a really good organization, an organization with some really good players. At the end of the day, that helps a whole lot.”