MIAMI — Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka had to pay his dues before being given the keys to run an NBA team from the sideline.
After former coach Brad Stevens decided to hang it up after eight seasons and head to the front office, the franchise had a paramount decision to make in the offseason of 2021.
Could the Celtics afford to hire a first-year head coach to lead a team on the cusp of greatness? That was the million-dollar question once Udoka’s name began circulating as a potential candidate.
A year later, that question is answered.
Udoka guided the Celtics to the NBA Finals for the first team in 12 years. It took several interviews and heartaches before he landed one of the precious 30 NBA gigs.
“The one thing I would say is the disappointment of coming in second a few years really hurt,” Udoka told Yahoo Sports after the Celtics defeated the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday. “But if you told me I’d have to wait for Boston and get [bypassed] by some of the ones that I got beat out on, it’s a no-brainer for me. I’m happy to be in Boston.”
Turns out, Udoka is one of the — if not the most — prized offseason pickups. The Celtics struck gold, but who were the other teams he finished second at in their coaching searches?
“Do you really want me to tell you? Detroit, Indiana, Cleveland,” Udoka told Yahoo Sports. “I can go down the list. That was tough because I believe I was ready. But I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of an organization that’s pushing for winning and championships. You can be in a lot of different situations. There are only 30 teams and I get that, but to not be in a rebuild and being in an expectation pressure-filled situation, I wouldn’t trade that in 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 with Philadelphia under Brett Brown and lastly in Brooklyn with Steve Nash before making his way to Boston. His coaching journey followed after a seven-year NBA career.
“I was always confident once my name started getting out there,” Udoka told Yahoo Sports. “We had some success. Obviously, being in San Antonio helped that. The interview process started and there was a lot of interest, so it was just a matter of time. I was a finalist in a few destinations. So, I always had total faith in that it was a matter of the right fit.”
Though disappointed with each interview being accompanied with rejection, he took the process in stride and looked inward.
“You try to improve and you get feedback from the interviews and what your weaknesses are perceived as,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I think for me, it’s easy. My career as a player, a journeyman, a role player that only had two guaranteed contracts out of my whole NBA career, it prepped me for that. It’s always been about putting your head down and grinding it out and figuring out a way to get it done. You don’t place the blame on anybody or any situation. You figure out how to get it done. That’s what I try to really impart on the team, but for me it’s, shake it off and keep it moving.
“I was in a great situation of learning in San Antonio. I had some great interviews and improved throughout the process, but it was a matter of fit. And so I couldn’t be more happier with this group.”
Now, Udoka is credited as a defensive mastermind, an excellent communicator who remains poised 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. Before, the talk was that certain people of color were not qualified to do their jobs or whatever the excuse was. 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. Look at Monty Williams in Phoenix, look at Dallas with Jason Kidd. You look at all these coaches around the league, and I’m happy to see that they’re finally getting an opportunity. Black coaches and people of color are deserving and they’re capable of getting the job done just like anybody else.”
Udoka was a firm believer when he accepted the job that the tandem of Jayson Tatum and Brown could work long term toward championship aspirations.
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.
“That trade talk was loud, and most of it came from Boston fans,” Brown told Yahoo Sports. “It’s a city that doesn’t tolerate excuses. But in reality, early in the season we had a new coach, we had a new front office, I missed about 15 games early in the season and that caused us to not be clicking on all cylinders like we wanted to be. People were impatient, so I understand. But fast forward, we got healthy, we got everybody 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 going into the series.
Udoka and Brown both take the perceived underdog status in stride.
“We’ve been who we’ve been all year and our defense travels well and carried us through the playoffs,” Udoka told Yahoo Sports. “We’ve played Golden State well this year. We blasted them at their place, had a tough loss at our place early in 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’re smart, experienced and they’ve got a lot of firepower. I’m excited and looking forward to the challenge.”