BOSTON — Ime Udoka was always ready to offer instruction. But his players felt there were limits to what he thought he could teach them. Sometimes he needed to show them.
So Udoka would hop on the phone and summon old friends from the neighborhood. They were old high school teammates, hoopers he knew at the playgrounds, and even a few buddies who had played overseas. Udoka’s request became familiar: Could they switch to training and toughen up his guys?
“They were older, stronger and smarter, and they would just knock us off the pitch.” said Mike Moser, who played for the first team coached by Udoka. “But you would learn.”
As Garrett Jackson, another former player, said, “They’d kick our ass.”
Udoka, 44, has since caused a stir in his first season as coach of the Celtics, whose Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Milwaukee Bucks was tied at one game apiece heading into Game 3 on Saturday. But back when Udoka was still roaming the NBA courts as a defense-minded forward, he was already planning his future – coaching a group of teenagers in his spare time.
For four summers, from 2006 to 2009, Udoka patrolled the sidelines for I-5 Elite, an Amateur Athletic Union team he helped start in Portland, Oregon. For Udoka, it was a formative experience and laid the foundation for everything that followed.
“I got the bug from being with these young guys,” he said.
With I-5 Elite, Udoka embarked on exercises. He washed his players’ dirty socks. Talent, he tells them, is not as important as effort. Alongside Kumbeno Memory and Kendrick Williams, two childhood friends who ran the team with him, Udoka fashioned I-5 Elite in his no-frills image. His former players saw him apply the same plan to the Celtics, who lambasted the Bucks in Game 2 of their series. Marcus Smart, in his eighth season with Boston, became the first guard since Gary Payton in 1995-96 to win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.
“The most important thing I learned from Ime is resilience,” Moser said, now assistant coach for the University of Oregon women’s basketball team. “You can’t really know Ime without knowing what he went through and what it took to get him to the NBA. It’s almost ridiculous when you think about it.”
Udoka grew up in Portland, a basketball-obsessed student of the game who skipped prom to play hoop. He became an NBA prospect at Portland State, only to tear his knee before the draft. Odd jobs followed, including a stint with the Fargo-Moorhead Beez of the International Basketball Association. After re-injuring his knee, Udoka spent much of the next year loading trucks for FedEx, hoping for another crack at the NBA. He went through invitations to training camps and 10-day contracts.
When Udoka finally landed with the Trail Blazers in 2006, it was the break he needed and the start of a productive career that included two seasons and part of a third with the San Antonio Spurs. He also jumped at an opportunity when Nike marketing manager Nico Harrison set aside a few dollars for Udoka to start an AAU team, Memory said. It was something Udoka had been talking about doing with his friends for years, and now they could do it. (Harrison is now the Dallas Mavericks general manager.)
At the time, AAU basketball was known as a breeding ground for well-funded street-ball games. Udoka, however, was going to do things his way, which meant the hard way.
“We were never just going to throw the balls over there,” Udoka said. “We were going to teach them how to play. Structure, discipline, defense – these are all things that I insisted on. And that’s how I was as a player.
Memory and Williams handled the X’s and O’s — Udoka, oddly enough now, wasn’t certified as a coach — but that was Udoka’s program, Williams said. As soon as Udoka’s NBA season ended, he was rushing to the airport to meet I-5 Elite.
“You would literally watch him play on TV for Spurs and then he would be in the gym with you the next morning,” Jackson said.
I-5 Elite’s first recruit was Moser, who, as a 15-year-old forward, was impressed that an NBA player – from his hometown, no less – was interested in him. Udoka worked with Moser at the Trail Blazers practice facility and invited him onto the field for games. But Udoka also challenged him. From his place on the bench, Udoka noticed that Moser tended to stay upright when his teammates threw shots. Udoka wanted him to pursue offensive rebounds.
“Stop looking, Moser,” growled Udoka. “Stop looking.”
Moser finally got the message. (Really, he had no choice.) Later, as a sophomore at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, Moser became one of the top rebounders in the nation.
There were more talented teams on the national circuit. But Udoka, along with Memory and Williams, squeezed the I-5 Elite roster for every drop of potential. Weekend practices were rigorous. Udoka had a thing for role players and glue guys, for scrappers who treated every possession as if it were a final exam. One of those players was Jeff Dorman. Udoka always lobbied other coaches on Dorman’s behalf, even though he was playing behind Terrence Ross, who had an NBA career ahead of him.
“Dorman was an unsigned senior,” Memory said, “and I’d be like, ‘Put Dorman out there, man. I think he has something. Give it a chance.
Dorman continued to play at Clackamas Community College, where he was a guardian of all lecturesand at Seattle Pacific, a Division II school.
Communication, Udoka understood, was not unique. Some players needed more discipline while others needed more encouragement. Some came from the suburbs while others came from the city. Udoka therefore adapted his approach, seeking to learn as much as possible about each of them. He offered them rides for practice. He ate meals with their families. He knew, even then, that relationships were key to coaching, he said. But he refused to compromise on his standards.
“It wasn’t hard to catch them and hold them accountable,” Udoka said.
Sometimes he added incentives. The team, Moser said, was struggling during an uninspired practice one afternoon when Udoka interrupted the proceedings: Who wants $100? The winner of the next scrum wins the prize.
“And it was $100 per player, man,” Moser said. “Ime was not cheap.”
The temperature in the gym went from lukewarm to melting.
“There were prison fouls,” Moser said. “But that’s how he encouraged us to be – a tough, uncompromising band.”
Jackson recalled being on the road for a tournament with I-5 Elite when his college recruiting was heating up. Back at the hotel one evening, he was on the phone with a college coach who was curious about Udoka: how was he around? At that exact moment, Jackson said, Udoka surfaced around the corner, cradling a pile of sweaty uniforms.
“The guy is in the NBA,” Jackson said, “and he washes our clothes at the hotel.”
As it became clear to him that he might have a future in coaching, Udoka worked his craft, attending coaching clinics hosted by the NBA Players Union. In 2012, Gregg Popovich, the Spurs coach, called him to offer him a position as an assistant. Udoka struggled with the decision: Did he want to close the book on his playing career?
“And that was unusual because he’s usually very decisive,” Moser said. “I remember talking about it with him for hours. And then he just decided, ‘You know what? I’m going to do it.'”
Udoka never looked back. He spent nine seasons as an NBA assistant before the Celtics signed him last summer, and he brought some familiar faces with him. Among them: Jackson, 30, who joined Udoka’s staff as an assistant for improving players.
“When he got the job, I knew I wanted to help him,” Jackson said. “I didn’t know what the role would be, and I didn’t care. I was like, ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’