‘You’re Going to Be a Coach One Day’ – On Ime Udoka, the Knicks, and Perseverance
It was 2006 and the New York Knicks were at a crossroads. They had just fired Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, and subsequently the team’s beleaguered President of Basketball Operations Isiah Thomas was thrown into the fire and assumed the head coaching post with a mandate to produce results.
Thomas floundered, and two years later, he was out.
Thomas’ turbulent tenure in the moribund franchise left an impression on NBA journeyman Ime Udoka, who was 29 and playing for the Knicks at the time. Udoka began to wonder if coaching was in his own future.
Udoka recently spoke about his experiences as a player and coach in the Association during the Mary Kline Classic Sports and Business webinar last month.
“The first person, honestly, who said something like that to me was Isiah Thomas when I was with the Knicks in Summer League,” Udoka said.
“You know, you’re a journeyman, a role player,” Thomas told Udoka. “But the young guys – Nate Robinson, Channing Frye – they relate well to you, you can talk to them without scoring 25 points a game. The way you relate with them, you’re going to be a coach one day.”
Udoka may have made a strong impression on the Knicks coaching staff, but he didn’t make it to the next regular season roster, cutting short his stint in the Big Apple.
Fast-forward to 2020, and Udoka has reportedly been linked to New York again as one of the coaching candidates in a latest bid to resurrect the franchise. He was also reported as the frontrunner for the Chicago Bull’s head coaching post should the new front office in Windy City decide to move on from Jim Boylen.
An undrafted forward out of Portland State University, Udoka’s rise from a fringe NBA player to one of the most sought-after coaches in the league is a story of perseverance.
With defense as his calling card, he split his professional career between Europe and the US. In the NBA, he made stops at Los Angeles, New York, his hometown Portland, Sacramento and finally at San Antonio. This is where Gregg Popovich groomed Udoka to become one of his trusted deputies.
“I will spend long hours in the gym just like the coaches,” Udoka said of his days with the Spurs. “Then Brett [Brown] and Bud [Mike Budenholzer] and coach Pop they used to joke, back when I was a player, ‘that you might as well get into coaching. You’re here with us all day anyway.’”
It wasn’t until after his second stop in San Antonio in 2012 when the opportunity presented itself.
“I met Pop in the Summer League. He let me know that Jack Vaughn will be going to Orlando and that there’s an opportunity to get into coaching.”
Udoka ditched a two-year deal to play in Spain, jumping at the chance to become Popovich’s newest apprentice.
“I knew that I wanted to get into coaching,” Udoka said. “It came sooner than I planned on.”
It was an opportunity too good to pass up - Udoka fell in love with the organization ever since he joined them as a player in 2007.
“When my sister visited me [during my first season there], I said ‘something’s not right here’. It’s almost too good to be true. People can’t be this genuine.”
“So, to their credit, from top to bottom it’s one goal: win games, win championships and they want to take everything else off your plate. And that obviously comes from Pop, RC [Buford] and the owners. It’s great symmetry out there and it trickles down to Timmy [Tim Duncan] as a player, as the leader. Top to bottom symmetry. No egos, no agendas, all basketball. That’s what makes San Antonio great.”
Udoka spent seven years under Popovich, climbing the ranks while watching his fellow assistants spreading their own wings elsewhere.
Though he was getting comfortable with the Spurs, Popovich always reminded Udoka to keep his options open. If there’s one thing he learned from his playing career, it’s how to get comfortable at being uncomfortable.
“As a coach, that’s something you deal with every night,” Udoka said. “In-game adjustments. My playing career pretty much prepared me for that. I’ve got cut more than I made the team. That prepared me for being uncomfortable.”
Udoka missed that feeling. Last year he left San Antonio behind, joining Brett Brown to take on the new challenge as lead assistant in Philadelphia. Udoka immediately buckled down to work serving as their defensive coordinator and at the same time bridge the age gap between Brown and their young core led by Joel Embiid whom he coached in an Adidas camp in 2013.
“I just felt it was time for a change, to see different basketball philosophies.” Udoka said. “I want to see different things, be around different players, get back to the ‘real’ NBA because you know, San Antonio was like the Fantasy Land at that time, get around with some young guys but personal growth was the biggest thing. I felt like I learned a lot in San Antonio and I just want a different perspective.”
In Philadelphia, Udoka has made a huge impact. The Sixers owned the sixth best defense in the NBA this year, jumping from 12th spot last season.
While he directly comes from the vaunted Popovich coaching tree, Udoka’s coaching influences are not solely confined to San Antonio.
“The one thing that really prepared me well was the NBPA coaching clinics. I went to those three summers in a row at the University of Virginia. They pretty much put you to every scenario you’re going to see as a coach whether it’s high school, college or professional so I really had some hands-on training. We talked to Rick Carlisle, Tony Bennett, got some different perspectives from coaches so you know what you’re going into.”
But beyond the X’s and O’s, Udoka draws his edge from building relationships.
“Something I’ve learned early on in coaching ranks is that it’s a relationship-based job, not something looking at resumes. It’s something that is based on the people and the way you get along.”
It was that natural, familial sensibility that caught the eye of both Thomas and Popovich.
“That’s how it happened naturally.” Udoka said. It wasn’t anything I told people I want to do. It’s just based on the relationships with my coaches that I played for and the players I’ve played with on the court. I really didn’t talk about much but it’s more so about the way you care for yourself and the professionalism and that part of it.”
Those relationships he built throughout his career amplified his burgeoning status around the league as a potential head coach.
Last year, Udoka interviewed for the Cleveland Cavaliers coaching vacancy and when he didn’t get the job, he was reportedly set to join either Alvin Gentry in New Orleans and Luke Walton in Sacramento. But, in the end, it came down to his relationship with Brown which drew him to Philadelphia.
Once again, Udoka is in the mix as a few teams look to make a coaching change. There’s one thing he wants to clear to his potential employers.
“The one thing that Pop stressed a lot is be yourself. The fundamentals, the basics, and your foundations of basketball is the kind that we all agree with but you have to put your own personal touch on it and be authentic,” he said.
“I’ve had a few head coaching interviews now and that’s one thing I try to say. I’m not trying to be Pop. I’ve learned a ton from him and you take those things forever with you but you have to be yourself and be authentic. You have to be yourself, knowing that winning basketball is we all learned the right way but you have to be your own person at the end of the day.”
Udoka’s seven years of apprenticeship under Popovich made him appreciate doing the dirty work on the sidelines just like when he was a blue-collar player. His stint under Brown as second-in-command, meanwhile, gave him the leeway to put his own stamp on a game plan.
Looking back, it feels almost inevitable Udoka would rise to the rank of head coach. He’s been preparing for that all these years. He knows it’s so much more than just basketball.
“The biggest challenge overall [if you become a head coach] is managing a whole staff.” Udoka said. “As an assistant coach, one thing that you’re supposed to do is assist the head coach, and you’re kind of behind the scenes, putting out small fires, dealing with players in different situations but you’re still behind the scenes. The head coach has to make those ultimate decisions. That’s one thing, you have to manage your staff, manage egos, manage your players, direct your staff in the right way. That’s part of the hiring process.”
“I think as head coach, you’re looking for professionalism, people you trust with and you don’t have to micromanage. You trust them to do the small things and bring the big things to you. You’re going to make the final decision. You’re dealing a lot more on your plate and that’s the challenge you’ll have as a head coach and I’m looking forward to it in the future,” he added.
Back in 2006, Udoka was fighting for his NBA dream with the Knicks. A decade and a half later, he finds himself again knocking at their door.
Will they let him slip away again or will he finally get his long overdue shot as an NBA head coach?
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo