Brad Stevens could have taken the safe route by choosing one of the multiple candidates with previous experience running NBA benches. Instead, Stevens has selected Ime Udoka as the new coach of the Boston Celtics.
Udoka is refreshingly unconventional as far as coaches go in that he wasn’t a great player and has never run his own team, but he impresses the people around him as a leader. And while he won’t buddy up to his players by taking them out for a beer after games, he will kick the butt of anyone who goes after one of his guys.
In short, Stevens appears to have chosen wisely in selecting his replacement on the bench.
Gregg Popovich’s take on Ime Udoka: ‘He’s really boring’
ESPN was first to report that the Celtics were finalizing their offer to Udoka, a Brooklyn Nets assistant coach. Udoka, 43, played 316 games for five NBA teams from 2003-12. He may have been a journeyman swingman, averaging 5.2 points a game, but he has a solid coaching pedigree.
Udoka assisted San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for seven seasons and then moved on to the Philadelphia 76ers in 2019. Steve Nash then brought him to Brooklyn for the Nets’ just-concluded season. Udoka’s specialty is defense, the most important and least liked aspect of the game for a lot of NBA players.
“He’s a fundamentally sound teacher because he’s comfortable with himself,” Popovich said, according to Boston.com.
That’s not all that colleagues learned about Udoka along the way. He served on the San Antonio staff in 2014 when the Spurs captured their first NBA title in seven seasons, but Udoka wasn’t the type to go out and paint the town silver and black afterward.
“He doesn’t drink, so I can’t enjoy a glass of wine with him,” Popovich said. “He’s really boring at dinner.”
Ime Udoka behaved like a character straight out of ‘Mortal Kombat’
Udoka was born in Portland but qualified for citizenship in his father’s native Nigeria. As a role player, Udoka would never have been good enough to represent Team USA in international competition, but the Nigerian governing body picked him for its 2006 FIBA World Championships team.
Gabe Muoneke, a Texas Longhorns forward in the late 1990s, teamed with Udoka when the Nigerians played in the 2007 African Championships in Algiers, and a wild fight broke out on the court and in the stands.
“(Udoka) was taking people out like in Mortal Kombat,” Muoneke wrote on a Hoopshype.com blog.
“In the middle of the whole thing I heard Ime, literally in mid-swing of another opponent say, ‘Watch (your) back, Gabe,’ and he calmly, I mean calmly, smeared a guy who, as I turned to see his warning, jumped from the stands with a chair to probably kill me or knock me out to where the crowd would have.
“I mean, Ime caught the guy in mid-air with a fist and calmly continued his dispatching of oncoming people.
“He and other guys (yes, me too) were whoopin’ so many people the crowd backed up. … To this day I don’t know how we got out of there. But that night we ate like kings at the Nigerian embassy.”
New Celtics executive Brad Stevens did his homework
Udoka, the NBA’s first Nigerian head coach, must prove himself capable of guiding one of the league’s storied franchises. He will start the process with an advantage that even Stevens didn’t have in coming to the Celtics after a great run coaching Butler University: He already possesses a working relationship with crucial pieces in the bid to bring the Celtics their first NBA title since 2008.
In briefing the media on the coaching search recently, Stevens said he’d consulted star players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown along the way. It turns out that they know Udoka beyond just seeing him on the bench during NBA games. Both played on Team USA squads on which Udoka was an assistant coach.
According to veteran basketball reporter Jeff Goodman, they signed off on their new coach as a man they “liked and respected.”
They’ve presumably seen both the “really boring” and Mortal Kombat sides of the new boss and should be ready to roll when training camp opens in the fall.
All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.