Ime Udoka’s path from Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers to Celtics coach

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

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

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

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

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

So he had to change his mind.

While Udoka eventually secured a league spot in Portland and San Antonio, the Lakers had the first shot and it just didn’t work.

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

Spurs manager Gregg Popovich consults guard Ime Udoka on the touchline during a game in 2008.

Spurs manager Gregg Popovich consults guard Ime Udoka on the touchline during a game in 2008.

(David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

“I think whatever path I took, it would start somewhere. That was my belief in myself, and if it hadn’t been LA, it would have been somewhere else,” Udoka said. “I’ve had a few calls that fell through along the way, so I was really close for a while. …You know, there were ups and downs along the way, and if it wasn’t for that situation, I would have kicked down the door anyway at some point.”

Udoka is the kind of coach more and more teams would like to open the door to, an accomplished NBA roleplayer with the hearing of modern players.

“The way he plays and the way he trains is exactly the same,” said Celtics guard Marcus Smart. “He brings the same mentality that he had off the pitch and when you have a coach like that it’s difficult not to follow the lead and that energy. You’ve heard [Jaylen Brown] say it, the energy will shift. It’s all about energy. If the energy is right, you’ll rock with it. If not, then you are not.

“It’s plain and simple. I think his energy infected us all.”

It’s not hard to believe that the Lakers had Udoka’s success in mind when they made 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 All-Star appearances. A 10th, Doc Rivers made it to the All-Star Game once.

Udoka played 316 games and only once scored more than 20 points.

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

Udoka benches all of that, just like he did with the Trail Blazers and Spurs — and could have brought it to the Lakers in 2003-04.

“The intensity he brings, the tenacity, a kind of edge I would say he brings not just to the games we play but to everything he does,” said Celtics forward Grant Williams. “When you think of Ime, you think of the ultimate competitor in the sense that if you’re soft he’ll challenge you, he’ll try to bait you into something, he’ll keep bringing that advantage and be mad at you.” , if you don’t bring it yourself.

“I always feel like he’s ready to compete and ready to try anyone.”

Ime Udoka (5) celebrates after the Trail Blazers scored against the Grizzlies in second overtime on January 27, 2007.

Ime Udoka (5) celebrates after the Trail Blazers scored against the Grizzlies in second overtime on January 27, 2007.

(Jim Weber/Associated Press)

There wasn’t much Flash as a player – Udoka’s most viewed highlight video on YouTube featured free throws and layups. Some members of the 2003-04 Lakers team said they didn’t even remember Udoka playing with them because the stint was so short.

But now, as Celtics coach, he carries a decidedly serious aura through these Finals – a calm and confidence that his players associate directly with the kind of performance on the pitch that he was.

“He’s a grinder,” Celtics guard Payton Pritchard said. “He’s a tenacious guy and our team has embraced that role, especially defensively. So we’re going to go out there, and we’re going to compete and keep everything on the ground. I think that’s how he was as a player and that’s how he is now as a coach.”

For Warriors coach Steve Kerr, his time roleplaying also allowed him to watch great coaches interact with great players.

“I don’t understand how Steph Curry feels on the court,” Kerr said, “but I can relate to the moments I’ve seen my Hall of Fame coaches work with these stars. That was very helpful.”

Udoka’s 10-day stint with the Lakers — and Phil Jackson, for whom Kerr also played — may not have said much about who he is as a coach today, but it speaks to his work ethic. He’s someone willing to fight for a league job from his leanest starting point.

“Speaking of where he started, 10-day contracts and things like that, he obviously had to work his way up to get here,” said Celtics star Jayson Tatum. “And he carries that sense of toughness with him and brings it to the group every day. Proud of him.

“I’m glad we have him as a coach. He’s a much better coach than a basketball player and I think he knows it.” Ime Udoka’s path from Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers to Celtics coach

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