How Ime Udoka’s Brutal Honesty Turned the Celtics Into Contenders

How Ime Udoka’s Brutal Honesty Turned the Celtics Into Contenders

Look closely, and you’ll notice the grisly scar on the back of Ime Udoka’s scalp. The one in the front has healed to the point that it’s almost imperceptible, although Ime can feel it when he absent-mindedly touches his forehead.

He suffered the injury when he was 4 years old. He was traveling on a city bus in Portland, Oregon, to preschool. His family couldn’t afford a car because his dad was often in between jobs. On this particular day, Vitalis Udoka, a proud man of Nigerian descent, boarded the bus with his youngest child en route to a job interview.

When the bus stopped three blocks from Ime’s school, his father ushered him off and wished him a good day, while he continued in pursuit of the elusive American dream.

Ime knew he should wait for the bus to pull out before he crossed Denver Street, which was always so busy, but the bus driver smiled assuredly and waved him across. Even at 4, Udoka felt a sense of trepidation. He peeked out, saw nothing, then took a step …

The van driving by in the lane adjacent to the bus didn’t see the boy until it was too late. Udoka was clipped in the forehead and sent careening back onto the concrete, where the back of his head squashed like a soft pumpkin. He lay in the street, blood flowing, in a daze. It was only when the ambulance came, and the paramedics tenderly placed an oxygen mask over his tiny face, that Udoka called out for his mom.

His sister Mfon, just one year older, remembers feeling scared, because her brother was gone for so long. “When he finally came home, he was still wearing his hospital gown,” she says.

Ime’s mother, Agnes, retrieved him via the very same city bus that contributed to his accident. They sat side by side, a little Black boy in his gown with an oversized white bandage wrapped absurdly around his skull, and his white mother, quietly holding his hand. “What I remember,” says Udoka, “is everyone staring.”

Ime and Mfon know how it looks. Who sends a 4-year-old off to preschool by himself, asking him to cross a four-lane street at rush hour? But his father needed that job. The family needed that job.

“That was our life,” Mfon says. “We had to be self-sufficient.”

Udoka retains all sorts of reminders of his pocked-mark journey to the NBA—whether it’s the scars snaking across his knee from surgeries on two torn ACLs, or the residuals of his coming of age in Northeast Portland, when the possibility of clothes that fit, a hot meal, and, sometimes, even a home with lights and heat hung precariously in the balance. When bills went unpaid, the Udokas were evicted and took refuge at a local motel.

Ime’s distraction was basketball. Thirsting for physicality, Udoka would finish his high school games at Jefferson on Friday nights, walk two blocks to the Salvation Army, and jump into games at the Midnight League, a pick-up session from 12 a.m. until 3 a.m. designed to keep troubled kids off the streets.

Willie Stoudamire, former NBA star Damon Stoudamire’s dad, started the program. All kids, he believed, started out with similar hopes and dreams. As Willie explains, “You put five young men in a room and you hope they all go in the same direction.”

They don’t, of course. Portland’s streets, like those of most American cities, were littered with temptation; drugs, gangs, crime, violence. When Ime showed up at the Midnight League to play against the kids he grew up with, he traded elbows with Crips and Bloods, absorbing their anger and aggression by hurtling his body in front of them to take a charge, then returning, time and time again, for more. As the state tournament approached, Udoka fought back tears when his high school coach informed him he could no longer play in the Midnight League because he couldn’t risk injury.

This is where Ime Udoka, head coach of the Boston Celtics, comes from. He has made it his mission to transform lottery picks into grinders, convincing them to prioritize defensive stands instead of crowd-pleasing 3-pointers or thundering dunks. He has taken them to heights even they had begun to fret might be out of their reach … until their coach challenged them to embrace a journey that builds resiliency and connectivity, the hallmarks of his own well-worn path to success.

His Celtics players have lauded their coach’s toughness, his disarming honesty, and his résumé as a former player, but how much do they really know about the 44-year-old, who honed his coaching skills as an assistant in San Antonio from 2012 to 2019? Have they noticed the scar on the back of his head?

“Yes,” answers forward Grant Williams. “He got hit by a bus or a car or something. Ime has been through it.”

Williams was talking about Udoka’s circuitous ascent to the NBA, but he just as easily could have been referring to his first season as the Celtics’ head coach.

The 16-19 start. The blown leads. The cracks in the foundation of trust, when, just seven games in, after a particularly egregious loss to Chicago, a frustrated Marcus Smart declared to the world that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown “don’t want to pass the ball.”

Smart’s critique roared through the NBA grapevine. Could their young nucleus survive the public breach of protocol? How would their new coach stop the bleeding?

Udoka wasn’t irritated by Smart’s observation.

“It was nothing I hadn’t said behind closed doors,” Udoka explains now. “But in this case, it was a player saying it publicly. And what Marcus was saying in that particular game was totally invalid. Jayson and Jaylen were drawing a lot of doubles and were making the correct pass each time—including to Marcus—who couldn’t make a shot that night.”

Udoka called Smart in. He reminded him that bad habits—including Smart’s own—wouldn’t dissipate overnight. He told him his star teammates were wounded and embarrassed by his comments. Then he informed his veteran point guard: This is your mess. Fix it.

“Ime told me, ‘It’s out, don’t run from it,’” Smart says. “‘Those are your brothers and they feel hurt.’”

While the rest of the NBA viewed the dust-up as a death knell for Boston’s already tenuous chemistry, Damon Stoudamire, an assistant on Udoka’s staff, claims the incident ignited sorely needed dialogue on culpability, an issue that had been brewing among the young nucleus for close to two seasons.

“We sat down as a team and got it all out there,” Stoudamire says. “Marcus made a statement, then the other guys said, ‘OK, we hear what you are saying, but you need to be accountable too. You gotta take better care of the ball.’”

The Celtics staggered onward. An underwhelming 1-4 West Coast swing in December prompted Udoka to piece together a series of memorable film clips. There was a montage of Brown repeatedly driving into traffic and turning the ball over. Tatum’s was a compilation of failed iso plays that screamed for an extra pass. Rob Williams III sank in his seat as Udoka rolled multiple missed defensive rotations that led Williams to commit needless fouls. No one was spared.

“It was needed,” Stoudamire says. “But we didn’t respond.”

As the losses continued, pundits declared that the stoic Udoka, who never had been a head coach before, was overwhelmed. Willie Stoudamire watched with dismay from Portland. Why hadn’t Udoka imposed his will on those pampered NBA stars? Where was the gritty kid he helped raise, the kid who feared no one? What was Ime waiting for?

Some of Udoka’s assistants shared Willie’s angst, yet Ime harkened back to his mentor, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who always preached time, and place. Udoka, whose first name means “patience,” held off.

“I had my own time frame in terms of changing habits and building a foundation,” he explains. “It wasn’t the time to kick a chair or tip over tables a month or two into the season.”

He believed with added workouts and some tweaks in personnel, the team would find its way. But then came the low point of the season, on January 6, when the Celtics blew a 25-point lead in Madison Square Garden and lost on an RJ Barrett heave at the buzzer. His players trudged off shell-shocked, his staff devastated.

“I think everyone at that point was saying to themselves, ‘Damn, are we going to be OK?’” Stoudamire admits.

In his postgame press conference, Udoka calmly declared that his 11th-place team lacked the mental toughness to close out games. Rob Williams III stepped to the podium and confirmed, “Coach is 100 percent right. We get rattled a lot.” Udoka allowed the players to marinate in their own misery for a day. Then he spelled it out for them: Until you forget about scoring and take ownership of the defensive end of the floor, this team is going nowhere.

They listened, because he had earned their trust. “Ime got us on the same page because there were no tiers,” Brown explains. “He addressed us all on the same level.”

The threat of COVID waned. There was more practice time. Dennis Schröder was shipped out, and Derrick White, a defense-first guard whom Udoka knew from his years in San Antonio, came in.

It took time, but Boston morphed into the top defensive team in the league. The Celtics won 28 of their final 35 games. They have not lost two in a row since March.

Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas watched in disbelief. Seventeen years earlier, he’d invited a young Udoka to Knicks camp. Ime didn’t stick, but left an indelible impression. Ime has often said Thomas was the first person to suggest he go into coaching.

“I don’t think there’s a coach in the league,” Thomas says, “that could have handled the disruption they had between Tatum and Brown and Smart, and bring those three back together after such a public altercation, and then lead them to the Finals. It’s ‘Kumbaya, I love you’ over there.”

Ime concedes that it hasn’t all been campfires and marshmallows. There have been too many brilliant outings followed by mind-boggling lapses. Boston’s inconsistency is maddening, yet one playoff pattern has emerged: The Celtics, much like their coach, seem to thrive when things are most dire.

Vitalis Udoka loved basketball but couldn’t afford cable, so the Udokas settled for mostly listening to the Trail Blazers on the radio.

Ime’s father had two strikes against him in the ’70s workforce: He was an immigrant, and he was Black. He was willing to work hard, but remained stubbornly uncompromising when it came to how he was treated by his employer.

“He couldn’t keep a steady job because he wouldn’t let people discriminate or talk to him a certain way,” Ime explains. “They would make him do three to four times the work and expect him to take it.”

Udoka admires his father for taking a stand. But sometimes, the adolescent Ime adopted a different view. “I used to think, ‘Why not just take it so we can have food?’” he says.

Only those closest to Ime knew he was poor, so when they invited him to dinner, they made sure an opulent spread awaited. Kendrick Williams, his oldest and best childhood friend, said they never discussed it. But he couldn’t help but notice that when they went to basketball clinics, Ime often stuffed bottled waters in his backpack to bring home to his family.

“There was a reason why Ime went to all those free camps, got those free T-shirts and the free shoes,” Williams says. “He cherished that stuff because without it, he might not have anything to wear. And the Midnight League? After they were done, they took those guys to McDonald’s for a burger.”

Vitalis’s volatile job status was offset by the steady influence of Agnes, who grew up on her family farm in rural Illinois, where, her daughter Mfon surmises, she probably never even came across a person of color. Agnes and her friend Lily packed up and drove to Portland on a whim. It was there that she met Vitalis, married him, and had three children in three years: James, Mfon (who played in the WNBA), and Ime. Agnes worked long hours, first at a bakery, later at a bank. She was their rock.

“I learned a ton from my mother about keeping your head down, grinding, and not complaining about any situation,” Ime says.

His nomadic basketball résumé after high school included two years at Utah State Eastern, a year at San Francisco, and his senior season at Portland State.

Udoka’s roommate his senior year at Portland State, Anthony Lackey, was a sophomore and future school Hall of Famer. He showed Lackey around his hometown of Portland, and offered all sorts of congenial college advice.

One day, they played some one-on-one. As Kendrick Williams looked on, the 18-year-old Lackey, with Udoka in his grill, decided to utilize his superior quickness.

“So I made a move and dunk on him,” Lackey recalls. “[Williams] starts talking trash. ‘You gonna let that kid do that to you?’ Now Ime gets the ball, and he’s elbowing me, flashing the ball in my face. He’s beating on me, and I was like, ‘Wait, is this guy mad at me?”’

Once their game ended, Udoka turned to Lackey and casually said, “Let’s eat.”

Those same flashes of intensity crop up on the Celtics sideline. During Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, while the Celtics were getting shellacked by the Miami Heat 39-14 in the third quarter, cameras captured a heated sideline exchange between Grant Williams and Udoka.

“I was supposed to roll fast, and I rolled slower,” Williams explains. “JB threw the ball away. I was arguing if he had thrown a bounce pass, it would have been a successful play.”

An irritated Udoka continued to bark at Williams, who had picked up his fourth foul on the play, and he hollered, “Move on!”

“Ime said, ‘All right, I understand, but you were wrong. Tell me you were wrong,’” Williams said. “He’s kind of stubborn that way.”

The players expect to endure Udoka’s in-game wrath if they don’t play the right way. While former head coach Brad Stevens would also occasionally challenge them midgame, it was rarely visible to the paying public. Udoka is not so discreet.

“There are times when I turn the ball over, and he’ll pull me aside and say, ‘What the fuck are you doing? Get your team together!’” Smart says. “I’m good with it.”

Udoka knows firsthand how fleeting opportunities can be. His quest to make the NBA included stops with the Fargo-Moorhead Beez of the International Basketball Association, two stints with the North Charleston Lowgators, a season with the Adirondack Wildcats, and overseas sojourns in Argentina, Spain, and France. Each time his career appeared to be on life support, he found a way.

“I tore my ACL in junior college and said, ‘I’m done,’” Kendrick Williams says. “It turned me into a student. Ime tore his, kept going, then tore it again.”

Udoka was called up from the D-League by the Knicks at the tail end of the 2005-06 season. Though Udoka didn’t snag a permanent spot, when the coaches wrote plays on the blackboard, he not only absorbed them but articulated them to his teammates. Isiah Thomas was with the team then and marveled at Udoka’s communication skills.

“He didn’t have the talent of a Jamal Crawford or Stephon Marbury, but in a short amount of time, they were going to him and asking him questions,” Thomas says. “And he knew all the answers.”

Udoka played just eight games with the Knicks before he was let go. The next season, he latched on to his hometown Blazers.

Mfon excitedly accompanied her parents to the Blazers’ first preseason game against Seattle, camera in hand, but Ime never got off the bench. She was so annoyed she didn’t take a single photo. Coach Nate McMillan assured Udoka he’d get time in the next one, so the family agreed to reconvene. Instead, four and a half hours before tipoff, Mfon answered a frantic call from her mother. Vitalis had collapsed. He’d suffered a massive heart attack before his children could say goodbye. He would never see his son play for his beloved Blazers.

Somehow Udoka dragged himself to the airport two days after his father’s shocking death to suit up against Utah. He scored 16 points and secured the final roster spot on Portland’s roster.

“I don’t know how he did it,” Mfon says. “I was in bed, inconsolable, crying under the covers while he’s making the most of an opportunity that he knew he might never get again.”

Udoka averaged a career-high 8.4 points and 3.7 rebounds for Portland in 2006-07. Spurs assistant Brett Brown scouted Udoka, loved his toughness, and recommended him to Pop. Just as he had done in New York, Udoka impressed with his basketball IQ and utter disregard for the pedigree of his more decorated teammates.

“He was a street fighter,” Brown says. “He walked into an NBA locker room full of NBA champions, big egos, future Hall of Famers, and they couldn’t help but follow his lead.

“He was our PJ Tucker.”

The Spurs offered Udoka a three-year, $9 million contract, but his medicals showed a piece of cartilage missing from that second ACL surgery, and the team reduced its offer to two years, $2.5 million. A dejected Udoka swallowed hard and accepted it. It proved to be a wise decision. His time with the Spurs as a player convinced Popovich to later hire him onto his coaching staff.

Ime took the money from that guaranteed deal and bought his mother a home. Agnes has been gone 11 years now, but her youngest child still mourns her daily.

Udoka returned to San Antonio in 2012 as an assistant coach and immersed himself in the Spurs culture. He listened as Pop explained the need to avoid micromanaging, to give some leeway to the stars.

“Almost every film session, we’d stop to show Tony [Parker] driving into two people,” Udoka said. “At the start of every game we’d say, ‘Manu [Ginobili] should just throw the ball out of bounds to get it out of the way,’ because we knew he was going to have one of those wild passes.”

This is what prepared him for a Boston roster steeped in talent—and persistent bad habits. Udoka used one-on-one film sessions to highlight them. While the meetings were uncomfortable, they were also collaborative—and long overdue.

“It elevated our game,” Brown says, “and made us realize we still have a long way to go.”

The Celtics listened because Udoka had challenged and gotten the best out of a host of Spurs icons, and, in later stops in Philly and Brooklyn, Joel Embiid and Kevin Durant. He was the guy whom Kawhi Leonard confided in. Although he was no extrovert, Ime was not the quiet, unassuming presence that outsiders mistook him for.

“Quiet people are often timid,” says Spurs CEO RC Buford. “There’s nothing timid about Ime’s message, whether he’s calling out Tim Duncan or LaMarcus Aldridge. His relationships are authentic.”

As Udoka settled in with his Celtics team, his brutal honesty became a new talking point. Hey, that Ime, what a hard ass! Stevens, who now runs Boston’s front office and hired Udoka, said that, too, was often misinterpreted.

“Sometimes we misconstrue and confuse directness for being harsh,” says Stevens. “But the better word is transparent. Just call it like it is. That’s what Ime does.”

The Celtics coach knows he doesn’t have all the answers. He can’t explain why Boston imploded in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Milwaukee, or in a close-out Game 6 against the Heat in the conference finals. He was outmaneuvered at times in the Heat series by coach Erik Spoelstra, a decorated champion. Udoka lets his players know that he, too, is learning as they go.

Tatum confirms that the ups and downs of their season has drawn the team closer. “Even when we lose games, Ime does a really good job of telling us what we did wrong and what we could do better, but also making sure everyone believes in ourselves and the group and gets ready for the next one,” he says.

No one on the Celtics roster has experienced what their head coach has. But you don’t need to be sideswiped by a van, absorb a shot to the chops by a gang member in a midnight pick-up game, or play for more than a dozen professional teams to appreciate the concept of accountability.

“Now when something’s not right, it gets addressed by the players before Ime has to say anything,” Damon Stoudamire notes. “That’s a sign of togetherness.”

Each time the Celtics have been left for dead, their former journeyman coach convinces them to pull themselves up and push onward, bloodied but unbowed.

Sometimes, the scars are worth it.

Jackie MacMullan is one of the game’s most decorated sportswriters, previously working for The Boston Globe and ESPN. She was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.

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