MIAMI — Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka had to pay his dues before being given the keys to manage an NBA team from the sidelines.
After former coach Brad Stevens decided to quit and go to the front office after eight seasons, the franchise had to make a priority decision in the 2021 offseason.
Could the Celtics afford to hire a freshman head coach to lead a team on the cusp of greatness? That was the million dollar question when Udoka’s name was floating around as a potential candidate.
A year later, that question has been answered.
Udoka led the Celtics to the NBA Finals for the first time in 12 years. It took several interviews and heartaches before he snagged one of the prized 30 NBA appearances.
“The only thing I would say is the disappointment of being second for a couple of years that really hurt,” Udoka told Yahoo Sports after the Celtics beat the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday . “But if you had told me that I would have to wait for Boston to come [bypassed] of some I’ve been slapped on, it’s a no-brainer for me. I’m glad to be in Boston.”
It turns out that Udoka is one of – if not the most valuable – offseason pickups. The Celtics took gold, but with which other teams did he come second in the search for coaches?
“You really want me to tell you? Detroit, Indiana, Cleveland,” Udoka told Yahoo Sports. “I can go through the list. That was tough because I think I was ready. But I couldn’t be prouder to be part of an organization that’s pushing for wins and championships. You can be in many different situations. There are only 30 teams and I understand that, but in order not to be in a reorganization and in a situation full of pressure of expectations, I would not trade that on any day.
The 44-year-old coach is not new to the coaching community.
He spent seven seasons as an assistant at San Antonio under Gregg Popovich before taking on the same role at Philadelphia under Brett Brown and most recently at Brooklyn under Steve Nash before moving to Boston. His coaching journey followed after a seven-year NBA career.
“I always felt confident when my name got out,” Udoka told Yahoo Sports. “We’ve had some successes. Obviously being in San Antonio helped. The application process started and there was a lot of interest, so it was only a matter of time. I was a finalist in some destinations. So I’ve always had complete confidence that the right fit matters.”
Though disappointed that every interview was met with a rejection, he accepted the process and looked inward.
“You try to improve and you get feedback from the interviews and how your weaknesses are perceived,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I think for me it’s easy. My career as a player, journeyman, role player who only had two guaranteed contracts in my entire NBA career prepared me for this. It was always about putting your head down and grinding it out and finding a way to get it done. You don’t blame anyone or any situation. You find out how to do it. That’s what I’m really trying to convey to the team, but for me it’s about shaking it off and keeping it moving.
“I was in a great learning situation in San Antonio. I’ve had some great interviews and improved throughout the process, but it was a matter of aptitude. And so I couldn’t be happier with this group.”
Today, Udoka is considered a defensive mastermind, an excellent communicator who always remains calm, and one of the bright, young faces of the coaching profession. Black head coaches now make up half of the league, a record at any point in the NBA’s tenure.
“I mean, the proof is in the pudding,” Celtics star Jaylen Brown told Yahoo Sports. “Look around the league. Now you’re starting to see what we can do in the coaching ranks. There used to be talk of certain people of color not being qualified for their jobs or whatever the excuse was. Man you give these guys a chance and see what they made of it. First-year head coach Ime Udoka led us to the finals. Look at Monty Williams in Phoenix, look at Dallas with Jason Kidd. You look at all these coaches in the league and I’m happy to see they’re finally getting a chance. Black coaches and people of color deserve it and they are able to get the job done just like everyone else.”
When Udoka accepted the job, he was adamant that the tandem of Jayson Tatum and Brown could work toward championship goals over the long term.
The Celtics got off to a slow start this season and Brown said he couldn’t help but hear the calls to have him traded.
“This trade talk has been loud and most of it has come from Boston fans,” Brown told Yahoo Sports. “It’s a city that doesn’t make excuses. But the reality is we had a new manager at the start of the season, we had a new front office, I missed about 15 games early in the season and that meant we weren’t clicking on all cylinders like we wanted. People were impatient, I understand that. But fast forward, we got well, we got everyone back and now the sky’s the limit.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals begins Thursday against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco. The Warriors are big betting favorites going into the series.
Udoka and Brown both accept the perceived underdog status.
“We’ve been who we were all year and our defense has performed well and carried us through the playoffs,” Udoka told Yahoo Sports. “We played well against Golden State this year. We blew them up in place, had a tough defeat with us early in the season. And so it’s a new series. We know who we are and what we do well, so we believe in that.”
“The Warriors are a tough team to play against,” Brown told Yahoo Sports. “They are smart, experienced and have a lot of firepower. I am excited and looking forward to the challenge.”