Former Jefferson High star has the potential to be a head coach
SAN ANTONIO -- Ime Udoka whips his spiffy black Mercedes s550 into the parking spot in front of a posh downtown eatery and turns the keys over to an an attendant. It's a trendy ride, but Udoka likes it for its comfort and drivability.
It's a fitting metaphor for Udoka's career as an NBA player and coach. The one-time Jefferson High and Portland State great has always been more about substance than style, a feature appreciated by his peers and coaches.
Now Udoka is working for the best -- future Hall-of-Famer Gregg Popovich -- with a San Antonio franchise that is generally regarded as the best in pro basketball. Such reputation is in no small part attributable due to stability provided by Popovich and R.C. Buford, the general manager who has been with the team's front office for two decades.
Popovich's coaching tree in the NBA is considerable. Those who have played or worked for Popovich with the Spurs include current head coaches Doc Rivers (L.A. Clippers), Mike Brown (Cleveland), Monty Williams (New Orleans), Brett Brown (Philadelphia) and Mike Budenholzer (Atlanta) and general managers Kevin Pritchard (Indiana) and Sam Presti (Oklahoma City).
Udoka and Chad Forcier -- a former assistant at Oregon State and the University of Portland -- are among those who hope to be added to the list some day. They'll get a good reference from Popovich when the times comes.
"Chad has more experience than Ime, but you can tell they're in the same mold as the other people we've had in here," Popovich says. "They have the intelligence level. They command the respect of the players. They have a feel for the game. They enjoy it, it's in their blood and they're willing to work at it."
Udoka and Forcier couldn't apprentice under a better mentor than Popovich, whose depth is so much more than the gruff exterior viewers see during quarter-break interviews on TNT.
"It's been the privilege of my life," says Forcier, 40, a Rainier, Wash., native who is in his seventh season as a member of Popovich's coaching staff. "Pop is a phenomenal leader, has a brilliant mind in all sorts of areas that go way past basketball. He's exceptional in terms of understanding, reading and feeling people, with just great instincts. He's really wonderful with people."
" 'Pop' is the best coach in the league," says Udoka, 36, in his second year on Popovich's staff after retiring as a player in 2011. "He's so good with the X's an O's and with his discipline, but where he's really special is with his communication with the players. He knows how to push all the right buttons."
Forcier spent five years as an intern with George Karl during his time with the Seattle SuperSonics and later coached six years with Rick Carlisle -- two in Detroit and four in Indiana.
Udoka played for Larry Brown in New York, Phil Jackson with the Los Angeles Lakers and Nate McMillan in Portland.
Those are some great names with which to cut your coaching chops, but none offer the qualifications of Popovich, who has the longest tenure among any head coaches in the four major pro sports leagues (NBA, NFL, NHL and major leagues).
During Pop's 18 years, the Spurs have won four championships. They reached the NBA finals last season and owned the league's best record (31-8) entering Friday's home date with the Trail Blazers.
Forcier was a prodigy of 19 and a Seattle Pacific student when he began working for Karl in 1992. With the Sonics, one-time Blazer assistant Tim Grgurich "was my mentor," Forcier says.
After stints with coaches Eddie Payne at Oregon State and Rob Chavez at Portland, Forcier hooked on with Rick Carlisle in 2001. He joined Popovich in 2007.
When Budenholzer and Brown left after last season, Forcier and Udoka moved up the chain on Popovich's staff, though Forcier says his duties in player development have remained unchanged.
Forcier's main thrust is to work with younger players on shooting, passing and dribbling skills before and after practices and during pregame.
"I'm still doing exactly what I've always done, which is what I love to do and feel I do best," Forcier says.
Popovich doesn't take Forcier's contributions lightly.
"He's a dual guy on our staff," Popovich says. "Besides player development, he's on the court when we're doing drills and in all our coaches' meetings, arguing about what defense to use on the pick-and-roll against LaMarcus Aldridge -- though nothing seems to work."
Popovich doesn't rank his assistants, but veteran Jim Boylen, Udoka and first-year aide Sean Marks -- a short-term Trail Blazer during his playing days -- sit next to him on the bench during games and are involved in preparing the game plans.
Udoka, Boylen and Marks divide San Antonio's 29 opponents, convene with club scouts and video coordinators and put together a report to go over with coaches and players during walk-throughs and shootarounds.
In his first year as coach last season, Udoka served as workout coach for Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw. This season, Udoka's duties has switched to Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter.
Forcier was Udoka's pregame workout coach during his three years as a player with the Spurs.
"I've known Ime since he played at Portland State," says Forcier, whose younger brother, Todd, is the sports performance specialist on the Blazers' training staff. "It's been really fun for me, first to see him make the NBA, then stick around as a player and get to coach him as a Spur.
"Now, getting to coach with him has been great. Anyone who knows him knows he's an All-American guy. They don't come any better. The characteristics that served him well as a player -- tenacity, work ethic, integrity -- will help him in his pursuit of learning how to build a coaching career."
Forcier drinks, so he catches no grief when Popovich -- a wine connoisseur who has ownership in "A to Z" and Rex Hill vineyards in Oregon -- convenes his assistants for dinner on off nights on the road. No such luck with Udoka, who swore off alcohol (along with pork and red meat) in the late 1990s.
Wine "is almost a pre-requisite," Udoka says, smiling. "Pop kills me about it every dinner. When the waitress comes for the order, we go around the the table, and he'll say, 'This guy is boring. He doesn't drink. Give him some water.' "
The ritual dinners are part of an important sub-culture in the Spurs coaching family.
"It's a camaraderie type of thing," Udoka says. "It's part of who we are, and who Pop is. I don't know of any other coaching staff that goes to dinner together at every city. It's a huge deal with us. I've really enjoyed it. He picks the wine wherever we go, and he picks up the dinner tab, too. Can't complain."
Popovich welcomes suggestions from his staff members. Sometimes, he'll even take their advice.
"When you have a veteran team and are secure in your position, you let your assistants do more," Udoka says. "He lets you grow. He wants to hear your opinion. You can't say that about every NBA head coach. That's helped me so much. We all have a voice and a huge responsibility."
With the loss of Brown and Budenholzer, Popovich has found himself leaning on Udoka at times during games.
"I'm missing a lot without Brett and Bud there," Popovich says. "They always gave me great things to think about.
Ime has been somebody I've very quickly looked to for suggestions while the game's going on."
Of Forcier, Popovich says this: "I take his suggestions. I want his suggestions. If he wasn't giving me any, I'd be on top of him."
Popovich does a masterful job of managing the minutes of veterans Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker during the regular season, pacing his team to prepare for what has often been a lengthy playoff run.
"He sees the big picture," Udoka says. "He has all the bases covered. Then when playoff time comes, we're into grinding. You wouldn't believe the hours we spent preparing for each round last year. We had plan A, B, C and D ready with each specific matchup. I got a good look at why he's had so much success."
Popovich likes the way Udoka has embraced the business.
"In his first year, Ime just learned the routine for a coach and what it all entails on a 24-hour-a-day basis when you sleep, when you watch (video), when you prepare for practice and all of those things," the veteran mentor says. "He's been fantastic in being a pro and understanding how many minutes a day it takes to be prepared, how difficult it is to win in the league and what has to be done."
After the playoffs, Udoka had a whirlwind summer. He was head coach of the Spurs' summer league team in Las Vegas, joined three other NBA assistants as head coach of a team in the Adidas Nations junior camp in San Diego and flew to Argentina for a week to join Ginobili working with South and Central American talent in the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program.
"I didn't have much of a break, but I needed the experience," Udoka says. "I had Kansas' Joel Imbiid (who may be the No. 1 pick of the 2014 draft) at Adidas Nations and worked with some big Brazilian kids in Argentina who will eventually play in the NBA. It was all good for me, but what I gain the most from is when I go into head-coaching mode, put plays together and run a team."
The only negative to Udoka's job is the time he spends away from actress/girlfriend Nia Long and their 2-year-old son Kez, who live in Los Angeles.
"You miss a lot of the every-day things for sure," Udoka says. "That part is tough. But you make the most of the time you have together."
Udoka has the potential to be an NBA head coach, Forcier believes.
"He has the ambition to do that and the qualifications, too," Forcier says. "He has a great demeanor, a great way of interacting with players that will be effective when he gets his opportunity."
Popovich says Forcier has been offered prominent roles on other staffs.
"He's had one to three offers each of the last two years to be on somebody's bench and be a No. 2 or 3 assistant, and he's opted not to do it," Popovich says. "He loves San Antonio."
As he moves through his 14th season as a full-time NBA assistant, Forcier hopes his head-coaching opportunity will come some day. If not, he'll still pinch himself at his lot in life.
"The longer you're around this business and the more you learn from great people, you start to get your ideas solidified," he says. "You think about the opportunity to take what you've learned and do it your way sometime.
"I don't view being a head coach as a be-all, end-all. It's not my measurement of being successful in my career. There are only 30 of those jobs, so they're hard to come by, and there's some luck involved.
"If it never happens, I feel incredibly fortunate to be with San Antonio, with Pop and R.C. and Tony and Tim and Manu. Those five guys. if that's as good as it gets for me, I count it as being really fortunate."