Ime Udoka couldn’t hang with Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers, but worked way to Celtics coach

Celtics coach Ime Udoka talks to guard Jaylen Brown along the sideline during Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka talks to guard Jaylen Brown along the sideline during Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
(Jed Jacobsohn / Associated Press)

It was only 10 days with the Lakers, but you can tell Ime Udoka thinks it should’ve been more.

“I played well enough to probably stick,” Udoka said.

Nearly 20 years ago, he was an undrafted rookie trying to find an NBA home after being one of the final cuts on a Lakers roster loaded with Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone.

An injury to Bryant opened the door for Udoka to sign with the Lakers on a 10-day contract, playing four games during the stretch before being forced back into the NBA wilderness.

“We enjoyed Ime and liked him a lot,” said Jim Cleamons, an assistant on that Lakers staff. “He was competitive and understood. The only problem was that most of the guys had guaranteed contracts. It’s a numbers game. . . . We as a staff loved his competitiveness. His heart. His character. I’m sorry we couldn’t keep him.”


So he had to figure it out some other way.

While Udoka eventually carved out a place for himself in the league in Portland and San Antonio, the Lakers had the first shot and it just didn’t work.

But for the Boston Celtics’ first-year coach, moving in a straight line never was an option, a playing and coaching career that zig-zagged around the NBA leading him here to the NBA Finals and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series against the Golden State Warriors.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich confers with guard Ime Udoka along the sideline during a game in 2008.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

“I figure whatever route I’ve taken, it was going to start somewhere. That was my belief in myself, and so if it wasn’t L.A., it would have been somewhere else,” Udoka said. ”I had a few call-ups that fell through on the way, so I was very close for a while. … You know, there were ups and downs along the way, and if not for that situation, I was going to kick the door down at some point regardless.”

Udoka is the kind of coach now that more and more teams happily would open the door for, an accomplished NBA role player with the ear of modern players.

“The way that he played and the way that he coaches is the exact same,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “He brings that same mentality that he had on the court off the court, and when you’ve got a coach like that, it’s kind of hard not to follow the lead and follow that energy. You heard [Jaylen Brown] say it, the energy is going to shift. It’s all about energy. If the energy’s right, you’re going to rock with it. If it’s not, then you’re not.

“It’s plain and simple. I think his energy has been contagious to us all.”

It’s not a stretch to think the Lakers looked at Udoka’s success in their decision to hire Darvin Ham, another former NBA role player and first-time coach.

Including Ham, nine current NBA coaches are former players without an All-Star appearance. A 10th, Doc Rivers, made the All-Star game once.

Udoka played 316 games, scoring more than 20 points just once.

It makes sense, players who survived by doing the little things able to make it as coaches. If players don’t have elite talent, they must have elite intangibles — intelligence, communication and relationship skills.


Udoka brings all of that to the bench just like he did to the Trail Blazers and Spurs — and could’ve brought to the 2003-04 Lakers.

“The intensity that he brings, the tenacity, kind of the edge I would say he brings to not only just the games that we play but anything he does,” Celtics forward Grant Williams said. “When you think of Ime, you think of the ultimate competitor in the sense of he’s going to challenge you if you’re soft, he’s going to try to bait you into stuff, he’s going to continue to bring that edge and be mad at you if you’re not bringing it yourself.

“At all times I feel like he’s ready to compete and ready to go at it with somebody.”

Ime Udoka (5) celebrates after the Trail Blazers scored in the second overtime against the Grizzlies on Jan. 27, 2007.
(Jim Weber / Associated Press)

As a player, there wasn’t a lot of flash — Udoka’s most-viewed highlight video on YouTube features made free throws and layups. Some members of the 2003-04 Lakers team said they didn’t even remember Udoka played with them, the stint was so short.

But now, as the Celtics coach, he carries a determinedly serious aura through these Finals — a calm and confidence that his players believe tracks directly with the kind of on-court performer he was.

“He’s a grinder,” Celtics guard Payton Pritchard said. “He’s a hard-nose guy, and our team has taken that persona on, especially on the defensive side of things. So we’re going to go out there, and we’re going to compete and leave it all on the floor. I think that’s how he was as a player and is as a coach now.”


For Warriors coach Steve Kerr, his time as a role player also enabled him to watch great coaches interact with great players.

“I can’t relate to anything Steph Curry is feeling on the court,” Kerr said, “but I can relate to the moments I saw my Hall of Fame coaches collaborate with those stars. That’s been very helpful.”

Udoka’s 10-day stint with the Lakers — and Phil Jackson, whom Kerr also played for — might not have informed much of who he is as a coach today, but it does speak to his work ethic. He’s someone willing to fight for a job in the league from its most meager starting point.

“Talking about where he started, 10-day contracts and things like that, he’s obviously had to work his way to get here,” Celtics star Jayson Tatum said. “And he carries that sense of toughness with him and does instill that into the group every day. Proud of him.

“I’m happy that we have him as a coach. He’s a much better coach than he was a basketball player, and I think he knows that.”