Ime Udoka brings Nigerian tenacity to the NBA

There may have been too many obstacles in his path to make it big as a player, but Boston Celtics’ head coach is making his mark on the management side of the National Basketball Association.

Ime Udoka’s favourite Nigerian dish is doughy fufu with egusi soup. His father used to cook the soup made from dried, ground melon seeds and leafy veg for him – without too much spice because he doesn’t like it hot – when he was younger. That’s what he orders when he is on the road and can find a good spot.

He hasn’t found one in Boston yet. The 44-year-old Nigerian-American has been busy since his arrival in the sports-crazed American city to take up the role of head coach for the Boston Celtics, making him the first coach of African origin to serve in the position for a team in the NBA. The job is a pressure cooker as expectations are high. 

Celtics have an exciting team on paper but in the past five years the side has had three Eastern Conference Finals losses, one semifinal defeat and one first-round exit. And with the NBA play-offs in full swing, the Celtics are looking to finally make it out of the Eastern Conference. The task is daunting but one Udoka has been prepared for all his life. 

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If there’s anything he loves more than fufu and egusi soup, it’s basketball. Udoka was raised in an athletic family. He watched the local NBA team, the Portland Trailblazers, religiously. The demographic of the city is still predominantly white American, but during the 1970s the county saw an uptick in African migrants who came to the United States mainly to pursue higher education. Udoka’s father Vitalis was one of those students, from the Akwa Ibom region in Nigeria. He married Agnes and they had two sons and a daughter, with Udoka being the youngest. 

“Growing up in Portland, Oregon, I used to listen to every game on the radio with my father. The Blazer team back then competed in the championship in back-to-back years against the Pistons and the Bulls. I fell in love watching Clyde Drexler and that team was special to me. As a young fan, I emulated them on the playground and I wanted to be a basketball player,” says Udoka.

Udoka was not considered a hot draft prospect, partially because he went to a high school that isn’t a top recruiting spot and because he was relatively small for his position. “I wasn’t the most athletic guy, I was a late bloomer. I wasn’t one of the most talented guys coming out of high school, and I wasn’t heavily recruited. But the thing I had was passion and the work ethic, and I knew that could take me to wherever I wanted to go.”

Many hurdles

Udoka went to Utah State University Eastern and then to the University of San Francisco before transferring to Portland State University in his senior year of college. Neither of these are NCAA Division I or Division II schools (from which most players in the league are drafted).

“He’s always been overlooked and was always trying to find his way. When he was on his youth basketball teams, he was always smaller than a lot of kids and so he got to play different positions. Then he went to the wrong university, and then had to transfer back home for a year. He should have never gone to junior college because there just wasn’t the proper support system to get him exposure,” says Udoka’s sister Mfon, who represented Nigeria in basketball and played in the WNBA.

Udoka was still determined. But he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee right before graduating in 2000 from his father’s alma mater, which threatened his prospects. He had surgery and was invited to train with the Portland Trailblazer’s team, which could have opened the door to his NBA career. But after a short stint in the now defunct International Basketball Association as a Fargo-Moorhead Beez player, he tore the ligament again. He wandered in basketball obscurity and played in Europe before he was called up twice by NBA teams the Los Angeles Lakers in 2003 and the New York Knicks in 2005. He would later be waived by both teams.

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Heading into the 2006-2007 season, Udoka got another shot and locked in a roster spot for his hometown team, whose first home preseason game was against the Seattle Supersonics (now rebranded as the Oklahoma City Thunder). 

“It was Ime’s best chance to make an NBA roster. We all went to the first preseason game. My mom and dad were there, my uncle, my brother and a couple of family friends. We were all excited to see him play in the game. And he didn’t get in the game, not for one minute. And my dad was sitting in the audience, and I’m angry and we’re all just really upset, like, why did he not get in? And so I’m thinking, well, you know, maybe in the next game. I really wanted my dad to see him, just to see Ime on the court one time,” says Mfon.

A sudden tragedy

Udoka’s father helped shape him as a basketball player. They had delighted in watching the sport and bonded over it. “He pushed me and my siblings hard. He was really strict. He was all about setting a goal and attaining it. He said to keep distractions away, to keep focus and put everything into it. That pushed me subconsciously at times and that helped me but I also had the desire. I think that strong pushing and nudging helped us in the big picture. He gave me the love, the mentality and the dedication,” says Udoka. 

He was set to feature in his first game against the Golden State Warriors on 17 October 2006. Before the game, Udoka went to shootaround, beaming about finally getting a chance to play. He raved about how his father was so excited to see him on the court. But just hours before the game, his father collapsed and died shortly thereafter from complications relating to high blood pressure and diabetes. He was 59. 

“It was very tragic and it was sudden. I mean, I knew he wasn’t feeling well. I saw him one week and when I looked in his eyes, he just looked very sick. But probably a few days later, he looked a little better. And then on the day, you know, we were all expecting to go see the game at around 7pm, but then we got a call from my mom at around 2pm that he had collapsed. And so we rushed over to the house and he was gone already. He never got to see Ime play and that is still sad to this day,” says Mfon. 

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Udoka returned to practice two days later and decided to travel with the team to play against Utah Jazz, despite grappling with the loss of his father. Speaking about his motivation to keep playing, Udoka says, “I dove into basketball, even deeper and harder. I went to practice and left for Utah and my team was like, ‘Why are you here?’ It was the one thing that could take my mind off his passing. 

“I played through the year and I look back and wish he would have been there to see that whole season in Portland. But I also looked at it as a blessing, you know. I could have been anywhere in the world or anywhere in the country pursuing my dream but I was home with my family that year. I got to spend more time with him that summer and preseason. But it was tough for sure. It was bittersweet.”

Udoka played for 31 minutes in that game against Utah Jazz and finished with 16 points. He followed that up with a 16-point, five assists and four steals performance at home against Seattle, which helped seal the team’s first preseason win. His determination and display of tenacity solidified his position as a permanent figure in the starting line-up for that season.

National exposure

The following year, he moved to the San Antonio Spurs and played there for three seasons, with a season at the Sacramento Kings sandwiched in between. After retiring in 2012, Udoka started his journey as a coach when he rejoined Spurs as the assistant coach under Gregg Popovich. He was part of their 2014 NBA championship-winning season and served in that role for eight years before working for the Philadelphia Sixers and the Brooklyn Nets in the same capacity.

Udoka has also worked as an assistant coach for the US basketball team. It wasn’t his first brush at the international tournament as he played for the Nigerian men’s national team. “I loved every minute of it. My sister played for the Nigerian women’s team and went to the Olympics in Athens, and she shared her experience with me and that got me interested in it. I was pursuing the NBA at the time. And while I was still grinding to get there, I wanted to play in the summer tournaments like the African and World Championships. So I dove into it and into the culture. It was my first time going to Nigeria and I was in my 20s,” says Udoka.

“I went to Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt, mostly the big cities. We would go back and forth [between those cities] for practice before we had a tournament competition, and I loved it. I can’t say that enough. I would wake up at 5am in the morning, look out my window and just watch the city. It has millions of people, you know, grinding every day. I began to appreciate the place that made my father. I used to think about his journey to get into America for college. He was there, that’s the world he was in. He strived to make something better for himself.”

25 January 2022: Jaylen Brown talks to coach Ime Udoka during Boston Celtics’ game against the Sacramento Kings at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photograph by Adam Glanzman/ Getty Images)

Ime’s first name means “patience” and it was given to him by his father. Mfon says it’s the perfect name to describe his nature. “He’s incredibly stoic and unbothered. Nothing rattles him. He can handle things that are difficult. He’s always loved basketball and he is a student of the game. Ime is very smart and very personable, but at the same time he can be a very cut-throat guy. He’s a very tough competitor and he’s honest just like our dad, but has this way of relating to people and players and he gets some of that from our mom.”

His calm temperament has prepared him for the role of being the head coach. He was hired in July last year, just before the beginning of the 2021-2022 NBA campaign. He is one of 13 Black coaches in the league, only one shy from the record set in the 2012-2013 season. Despite having a majority Black demographic in players, the league has had a long history of white men in coaching and executive positions. 

With race politics and social justice messaging becoming more prominent in sport, the NBA has had to address the disparity in coaching and managerial hires. The league has shown its commitment to more diversity with initiatives such as the Coaches Equality Initiative, Future Star Sales Program, Mentorship Program and Executive Highlighting Initiative. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (Tides) released the 2021 NBA Racial and Gender Report Card and the league received an A for racial hiring practices, a B for gender hiring and an overall B+ grade.

“Amid one of the most tumultuous years in American history, the NBA was able to have an incredible season,” said Tides director Richard Lapchick, the author of the report card. “That is a testament to its leadership as it also remains the best among men’s professional sports leagues when it comes to diverse and inclusive hiring.”

The challenge ahead

Udoka has a tough road ahead of him. His challenge is to take Celtics to the next level. Despite having a young and talented core of superstar players, the team has struggled to get past the Eastern Conference in the past five years.

His first season has been a rollercoaster ride. The team has had to contend with injuries and Covid-related absences that have changed the make-up of the roster. As a result, they started the season on a rough note, losing a string of games and suffering a 117-113 defeat at the marquee Christmas game against current reigning champions the Milwaukee Bucks.

Udoka has, however, turned the ship around, winning the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for February as well as March/April. He is touted as a candidate for Coach of the Year.

“My parents would have been really proud. We all are. My dad would have probably had something sharp to say like ‘it took you long enough’ or ‘about time’, because you know Nigerians are cheeky like that,” says Mfon. 

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“Ime deserves it for someone who has been through all the things that he went through and how he fought his way back to be a professional. It even goes back to how he grew up. In our family, he was always the one that my parents worried about, a little troublemaker. I’ve watched him fight just to be an NBA player and now a coach. It makes it so much more special.”

Udoka says his father “would be proud of how I pushed to achieve a lot of things. But at the same time, I’m never content, complacent or satisfied and I continue to strive for more. He is very similar to me and I’m sure I got this from him. As a player, my goal was always to do something in the NBA, not just get there. And now I’m looking to do the same thing as a coach. As soon as I got into coaching, my goal was to improve and make a mark. I think he would look at it that way and that’s why I’m the way I am, because I have the same perception and mentality that he did.”

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