Udoka comes home again
Next month, Ime Udoka's only child — son Kez — turns eight years old.
"His birth coincides with my coaching career," said Udoka, 42. "Wow. It just shows how time flies."
The former Jefferson High, Portland State and Trail Blazers player returns to Portland on Saturday with the Philadelphia 76ers for their 7 p.m. Saturday matchup with the Blazers at Moda Center.
Udoka, now the lead assistant for 76ers coach Brett Brown after seven years as an assistant with San Antonio, doesn't get back to his hometown often.
"But I love it every time," he said.
Other than visits with the Spurs, Udoka hadn't returned to Portland since his seven-year NBA playing career ended in 2011. But over the summer of 2018, he came for a week and a half with the son he has with his fiance, actress Nia Long. They visited with Ime's brother, James, and checked out the city.
"I got to show Kez where I grew up," Udoka said. "I took him to the Oregon Coast. It was a fun time."
For seven years, Udoka was a fixture in San Antonio, eventually occupying the seat next to legendary coach Gregg Popovich on the Spurs' bench. There was some talk that when 70-year-old Popovich retires, Udoka would be the heir apparent.
Meanwhile, Udoka had interviewed several times for vacant head coaching jobs — with Charlotte, Orlando, Toronto and Detroit during the 2018 offseason, and with Cleveland last summer. Udoka makes no secret that being an NBA head coach is his ultimate goal. He would not have left San Antonio for many assistant coaching positions. But the situation in Philadelphia was unusual.
Brown had been an assistant for Popovich with San Antonio for 12 years. Udoka had played for the Spurs for 2 1/2 seasons with Brown, then spent his first year coaching with Brown in the Alamo City before he left for Philadelphia in 2013. When Brown beckoned, Udoka decided it would be wise to add something new to his resume.
"It's a good change of scenery, a change of pace," he said. "It was something that was needed for my development going forward — to learn a different system, to experience some different philosophies. Being in a new organization will help me grow as a coach."
When Brown took over the 76ers, they were undergoing a major rebuild. Through his first four seasons, they won 19, 18, 10 and 28 games. As the Sixers acquired good young talent through the draft, things turned around to where they won 50 games in each of the past two seasons. Now they're considered one of the favorites to win the Eastern Conference championship this season. Udoka believes Brown deserves major credit for his patience and tutoring of the team's young talent.
"Brett is passionate, energetic," Udoka said. "He connects well with the guys. He has a tremendous amount of resolve and passion for the game."
How does Brown's coaching style compare to Popovich's?
"They're different personalities," Udoka said. "Brett is more ... what's the word? I don't want to put 'Pop' down ... more jovial, more outgoing. Pop is like that, too, when you get to know him. He's just a certain way to the public.
"Brett is a people person, very accommodating. He learned a lot from Pop, but has his own ideas about the game and how it should be played."
Udoka has been designated as the Sixers' defensive coordinator. Kevin Young serves as the offensive coordinator.
"I game-plan defensively for every team we play, which is a different role than I had in San Antonio," he said. "'Pop' didn't have an offensive and defensive guy, though a lot of teams in the league are going in that direction. With the Spurs, each (of the assistants) took a certain amount of opponents and game-planned offensively and defensively.
"Here for me, it's strictly defense. Defense was natural for me as a player. It's the way I think. I enjoy the offensive side as much or more, so it's not a big deal. But I've enjoyed what I'm doing so far."
Udoka — who owns houses in both Portland and San Antonio — has spent most of his life on the West Coast or Texas. He is renting a townhouse in the 'Old City' area of Philadelphia, right across the bridge from Camden, New Jersey.
"I love the city of Philadelphia," he said. "I've always enjoyed coming to the 'walkaround' cities in the East like Philly, D.C. and New York. I enjoy that vibe. It's night and day from San Antonio."
With players such as Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris, "our talent is off the charts," Udoka said. "Our superstar potential is crazy. It's a nice mix of young guys and some veterans."
Udoka knows what his defensive game plan will be against Portland. The focus will be on guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
"They're right up there with the best in the league — not just backcourts, but duos at any position," Udoka said. "The Blazers have tons of talent. They lost a few players, but their biggest benefit is the consistency with the core group, and that starts with the two guards."
The Sixers have been eliminated the last two years in the Eastern Conference finals. Are they ready to take the next step?
"I think so," Udoka said, "but we don't like to talk about where we want to get to. We have high goals. We're grinding it out day by day, assimilating our new guys and just going through the process of getting there."
Udoka reached the NBA Finals in each of his first two years in San Antonio. The first year, a Ray Allen 3-pointer sent Game 6 into overtime and propelled Miami to a seven-game win over the Spurs. The next year, the Spurs won the championship.
"I got spoiled," Udoka said with a chuckle. "I was this close to having two titles in two years. You take it for granted when that happens.
"It hasn't happened again, but you yearn to get back on that stage where everything is more intense. I'm hoping we can get to the point where I'll get that opportunity again."
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