MIAMI — Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka had to pay his dues before he was given the keys to lead an NBA team from the sidelines.
After former coach Brad Stevens decided to hang up his boots after eight seasons and head to the front office, the franchise had a big decision to make in the 2021 offseason.
Could the Celtics afford to hire a first-year head coach to lead a team at the peak of greatness? That was the million dollar question once Udoka’s name started circulating as a potential candidate.
A year later, this question is resolved.
Udoka guided the Celtics to the NBA Finals for the first time in 12 years. It took several interviews and heartbreak before he landed one of the NBA’s prized 30 gigs.
“The only thing I would say is the disappointment of coming second a few years really hurt,” Udoka told Yahoo Sports after the Celtics defeated the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Finals. the Eastern Conference on Sunday. “But if you told me I should wait for Boston and get [bypassed] by some of those I’ve been beaten on, that’s a no-brainer to me. I’m happy to be in Boston.
It turns out that Udoka is one of, if not the most popular offseason pickups. The Celtics went gold, but what other teams did he finish second in their coaching searches?
“Do you really want me to tell you? Detroit, Indiana, Cleveland,” Udoka told Yahoo Sports. “I can go through the list. It was difficult because I believe I was ready. But I couldn’t be more proud to be part of an organization that pushes to win and win championships. You can be in many different situations. There are only 30 teams and I understand that, but not to be in a rebuild and to be in a situation full of pressure, I wouldn’t trade that on any day.
The 44-year-old coach is not new to the coaching fraternity.
He spent seven seasons as an assistant in San Antonio under Gregg Popovich before taking the same role in Philadelphia under Brett Brown and finally in Brooklyn with Steve Nash before moving to Boston. His coaching journey followed a seven-year career in the NBA.
“I was always confident once my name started coming out,” Udoka told Yahoo Sports. “We have had some success. Obviously being in San Antonio helped that. The interview process started and there was a lot of interest, so it was only a matter of time. I was a finalist in a few destinations. So I always had complete faith that it was the right size.
Although disappointed that every interview came with a rejection, he embraced the process and looked within.
“You try to improve and you get feedback from interviews and perceptions of your weaknesses,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I think for me it’s easy. My career as a player, as a journeyman, as a role player who only had two guaranteed contracts in my entire NBA career, it prepared me for this. It was always about putting your head down, figuring it out, and finding a way to do it. You don’t blame anyone or any situation. You know how to do it. That’s what I really try to convey to the team, but for me it’s about shaking things up and keeping going.
“I was in a great learning situation at San Antonio. I had great talks and got better through the process, but it was all about adjustment. And so I couldn’t be happier with this group.”
Today, Udoka is considered a defensive mastermind, an excellent communicator who remains calm and one of the bright young faces in the coaching profession. Black head coaches now make up half the league, a record at any time 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. It used to be that some people of color were said to be unqualified to do their job or whatever the excuse. Man, you give these guys an opportunity and look what they did with it. First-year head coach Ime Udoka took us to the finals. Watch Monty Williams in Phoenix, watch Dallas with Jason Kidd. You look at all these coaches in the league and I’m happy to see that they finally have an opportunity. Black coaches and people of color are deserving and they are able to do the job like anyone else.
Udoka firmly believed when he took the job that the tandem of Jayson Tatum and Brown could work towards championship aspirations long term.
The Celtics have gotten off to a slow start this season, and Brown said he can’t help but hear the calls to trade him.
“That trade talk was loud, and most of it came from Boston fans,” Brown told Yahoo Sports. “This is a city that does not tolerate excuses. But in reality, at the start of the season we had a new coach, we had a new front office, I missed about 15 games at the start of the season and that stopped us from firing on all cylinders like we wanted. People were impatient, so I understand. But fast forward, we’re healthy, we’ve 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 huge betting favorites in the series.
Udoka and Brown both take perceived underdog status in stride.
“We’ve been who we’ve been all year and our defense is moving well and has carried us through the playoffs,” Udoka told Yahoo Sports. “We played well at Golden State this year. We blasted them at home, suffered a tough loss at home at the start of the season. And so it’s a new series. We know who we are and the things we do well, so we’re confident in that.
“The Warriors are a tough team to play against,” Brown told Yahoo Sports. “They are smart, experienced and they have a lot of firepower. I’m excited and looking forward to the challenge.