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Made in Oregon: Portlandís own Ime Udoka

By Wayne Thompson
TrailBlazers.com
Rip City Magazine


It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Ime Udoka was born to be a Trail Blazer. Afterall, he came into this world August 9, 1977, just in time to hear the chirps and chimes of Blazermania.

As Portlanders celebrated the Trail Blazers' only NBA championship that summer of '77, a North Portland couple, Vitalis and Agnes Udoka, welcomed the birth of their third child, Ime (pronounced ee-may).

Talk about environmental pre-conditioning, Ime's mother, seven months pregnant with Ime in the womb, participated in the Trail Blazers' championship victory parade in downtown Portland.

Destiny doesn't always work this way, but Ime Udoka's life, from childhood to adulthood, has been all about trailblazing in pursuit of his hoop dream -- a playing job in the NBA.

From Portland's Ockley Green Middle School to Nigeria, with 12 stops in between, Udoka never wavered: "I never let myself think it wouldn't happen," he says. "I never lost confidence. I believe in myself."

Nevertheless, Udoka bucked enormous odds. Undrafted free agents without contracts looking for jobs on NBA teams have about the same chance of making the cut as astronauts applying for a flight to Mars.

Udoka is an expert on such odds. Having participated in three NBA fall training camps (2000 with Portland, and 2005 with both Philadelphia and Cleveland), and having played with various NBA summer league teams, Ime experienced the same result: He got waived.

That Udoka's journey would end with a job with his hometown team -- the Portland Trail Blazers -- is one of the most heart-warming stories in the NBA this season.

Add to that the sudden death of Ime's dad, Vitalis, 59, from complications from diabetes and high blood pressure, and you have a story about the courage, character and spiritual toughness of a young man on a mission.

Vitalis death happened on the very night Udoka was to make his Trail Blazer debut in a game against Golden State. A native Nigerian, Vitalis Udoka came to the United States at age 26 and attended Portland State. He was a career laborer, working various jobs in the city. Imeís mother is retired after a 20-year career with U.S. Bank.

"My parents have been my inspiration, seeing how hard they worked to support our family," Udoka said in an interview with Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune.

"My father and I were very close. Iíve been on the road a lot the last few years, but we talked all the time," Udoka told Eggers. "He was one of my biggest supporters as far as my dreams to play in the NBA."

Three days after his father's death, Udoka got the nod to start a pre-season game at the Rose Garden before friends and family. He played 35 minutes against Portland's rival Seattle, scoring 16 points on 6 of 9 shooting, including two-three pointers. He also added 5 rebounds, 4 assists and held high scoring Rashard Lewis to just 12 points, as Portland defeated the Sonics, 103-95.

"This was a very emotional game for me," Ime emphasized. "I kind of felt my father's presence on the court that night, like he was there with me."

"My dad was so excited for me to be back in this city playing for the team Iíve pulled for all my life. Thatís the most disappointing thing about his passing," he told the Portland Tribune's Eggers. "I have a good shot to be playing for this team, and heís not going to be here to see it."

The Ime Udoka story has that Frank Merriwellian feel -- a dedicated young athlete getting a chance to play -- and even to start -- for the team he rooted for throughout the 1990s, with Clyde Drexler his all-time favorite player.

"I wore No. 22, Clyde's number, all through high school at Jefferson," Udoka told Trail Blazer radio voice Brian Wheeler during an interview for the Rip City Magazine program.

Ime first got interested in basketball at the age of 10, inspired by his older brother James, who later played basketball at Benson High School and his sister Mfon, who in the 1990s became a star at Jefferson High School and DePaul University. She later played with the Detroit Shock, Houston Comets and Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA.

Growing up in North Portland, Ime grooved on basketball, relishing in the exciting exploits of Blazermania II, and rooting for the Clyde Drexler/Terry Porter-era Trail Blazers that twice made it to the NBA Finals in the early 1990s.

"Watching how the fans got behind the team and the way the city embraced them is what made me concentrate on playing basketball," he says. "Blazermania gave me goose bumps."

But it was "Clyde the Glide" who became his role model.

"He was just a great player overall," Udoka told Brian Wheeler "...Clyde was an all-star and was one of the 50 greatest players. He caught everybody's eye with his flair for the game; taking off like 'Clyde the Glide' is what every kid remembers," Udoka recalled.

"Me, being a wing player, I looked to him and that's my whole reason behind playing basketball. I started on the playground and I would act like I was Clyde Drexler out there."

Meanwhile, Udoka's personal journey in pursuit of his hoop dream went from Ockley Green to Jefferson High School, to the College of Eastern Utah, to the University of San Francisco, to Portland State University, to Charleston, S.C. and Fort Worth, Tex. of the NBA D-League, to the Adirondack Wildcats of the USBL, to Fargo, N.D. of the IBA, to Spain and France for stints in European pro leagues, to Las Vegas and L.A. for countless summer league games, and finally to Nigeria where he led the Nigerian team last summer in the FIBA World Championships.

In between, Udoka had brief cups of decaffeinated Java with the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks -- just enough, he said, to whet his appetite for the real thing.

A second-team All-4A tournament selection during his senior year at Jefferson High, which lost 54-48 to Churchill in the finals of the 1995 state 4-A tournament, Udoka was determined to make a name for himself.

At Eastern Utah Junior College, Udoka averaged 14.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 4.5 assists as a sophomore and recorded the first triple-double in school history -- 25 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists.

He didn't get a chance to play at San Francisco as a junior in 1997-98, so he transferred to Portland State, and thus was forced, under NCAA transfer rules, to sit out a year.

It was during that 1998-99 season -- his redshirt year at PSU -- that Udoka first grasped that he had the skills to play in the NBA. That's when Ime worked out in Portland, under the tutelage of then-Trail Blazers' assistant Coach Tim Grgurich, with a lot of NBA players, such as Bonzi Wells, Damon Stoudamire and Jermaine O'Neal.

"Working out with those guys definitely gave me confidence. I was surprised a little that I could hang with those guys," Udoka said.

Ime was the leading scorer and rebounder during his senior season at Portland State, averaging 14.5 points and 7.3 rebounds in 24 games. As a result, he earned first team All-Big Sky Conference honors.

He had some memorable games at PSU, scoring a career-high 29 points in a loss to an Oregon Ducks team led by Fred Jones, now with the Toronto Raptors.

"Ime was by far he was the best player on the floor that night," said former PSU Coach Joel Sobotka in an interview with The Oregonian's Mike Tokito. In another game that season, Udoka narrowly missed a triple-double with 14 points, a career-high 13 rebounds, and nine assists vs. Cal State Northridge.

Along the way, Udoka had setbacks in his quest to make it to the NBA. They began in the midst of a great senior season at Portland State. Just when he was beginning to think he could make a run at the NBA, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee with a month to go in the season. The injury required surgery and it cost him a chance at post-season honors and kept him from participating in the NBA camps and workouts so vital to players hoping to get drafted.

Like many players in a hurry to make it in pro ball, Udoka rushed back from surgery and got an invitation to participate in the Blazers' training camp in October. But he was not healthy enough to compete at that level and was cut.

Later that season, he caught on with the Fargo-Moorhead Beez of the International Basketball Association, averaging 12.3 points and 6.4 rebounds in 12 games, but he injured the knee again -- again tearing the ACL -- which required another surgery.

Still determined to get to the NBA, even though proper rehabilitation of the knee would take him out of the professional game for nearly two years, Udoka rehabbed the knee and took a night job loading and unloading boxes at Federal Express.

Once healed, his next stop was the Charleston Lowgators of the NBA D-League, where he averaged 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds in 50 games, as well as a few games with the Adirondack Wildcats of the USBL. Those stops earned him his first shot with the NBA -- a 10-day contract with the Los Angeles Lakers to pick up slack for the injured Kobe Bryant.

Udoka appeared in four games with the Lakers, scoring a total of eight points, but it was his first real taste of the show. Little things mattered, such as the sound of his name read being over the P.A. system along with Shaquille O'Neal and the rest of the Lakers. He liked it.

After the 10 days, though, Ime went back to Charleston and finished the season, averaging 16.9 points and 7.2 rebounds. He ranked third in the D-League in scoring and seventh in rebounding.

Disappointed that his Laker trial didn't open the door he was knocking on, Ime next chose Europe, starting the 2004-2005 season with Gran Canana in Spain where he played 15 games, averaging 8.1 points and four rebounds. He moved next to Vichy in the French ProA League and put up impressive numbers (24.2 points and 8.4 rebounds in nine games).

Those numbers earned Udoka another NBA fall training came invite, this time with the Philadelphia 76ers. When that fizzled, he tried out with the Cleveland Cavaliers, again getting bumped because the Cavs were loaded with players under long-term contracts.

Undrafted free agents in professional basketball are handicapped when it comes to their NBA dreams, Ime has learned. When a team scouts, drafts and signs a player to a long-term contract, the tendency has been to stick with that player through thick and especially through thin.

Not only has the franchise invested dollars in that drafted player, but there is also an ego investment (coaches, general managers, player personnel directors and scouts don't want to admit they made a mistake in the draft).

With those obstacles, it has become very difficult for non-contract free agents to beat out players the team has drafted and signed.

So when Udoka caught a break from the Trail Blazers this fall, he also was defying NBA nature. Ironically, Ime's invitation to the Trail Blazers' camp happened only because another former Jefferson High School star, Aaron Miles, who had been invited to camp, didn't pass the Trail Blazer physical because of an ankle sprain.

So it was long odds, indeed. First, Aaron Miles, not Ime Udoka, was the player the Blazers initially wanted, and, secondly, Portland had 13 players under contract, all of whom had been first round NBA draft choices, so it wasn't exactly an easy fit for any free agent to slide into.

The Blazers, of course, were familiar with Udoka's game. At Fort Worth last season, where Trail Blazer rookies Martell Webster and Sergio Monia played for a couple of weeks, Udoka was the star and thus Blazer coaches had a chance to see him up close.

Ime averaged 17.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 45 games for the Fort Worth Flyers, and was named to the NBA D-League all-star first team. During the season, he became the all-time leading scorer in NBA Development League history when he scored his 1,853rd point. He also was the winner of the league's prestigious Jason Collier Sportsmanship Award.

As a result, he got his second taste of the NBA as the New York Knicks picked him up April 6 for the remainder of the season. He averaged 2.8 points and 2.1 rebounds in eight games.

He also got waived again.

And last summer, Ime tried his hand at international ball, leading Nigeria in points (14.2), rebounds (5.2) and assists (3.7) in the 2006 FIBA World Championships.

Later that summer, things began looking up for the minor-league veteran with the big NBA dreams. He played summer-league ball for the Knicks, who wanted to bring him back for training camp in October, but after the Knicks signed Jared Jeffries, Udoka asked for his release and had tryouts with Dallas and Golden State before opting to sign a make-good deal with the Blazers.

Now 29, Udoka has become an integral part of the Trail Blazers, having started every game for Portland through the first half of the regular season.

Regarded by his coaches as Portland's best perimeter defender, Udoka has drawn the toughest assignment in most every game. In the first 40 days of the season, for example, Trail Blazer Coach Nate McMillan called on Ime to defend some of the NBA's greatest offensive threats, namely LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Vince Carter, Lamar Odom, Michael Redd, Grant Hill and Rashard Lewis.

"They're all really tough assignments, " Ime says, "but what I appreciated about it is that guarding them reaffirms for me that I have been prepared to play in this league. Yes, they're great players, but I haven't felt overwhelmed in playing them."

"What I like about Ime's defense," says McMillan, "is that he doesn't fall for a lot of head fakes and shake and bakes. He's learned sound defensive fundamentals," such as keeping his feet on the floor, moving quickly laterally, and keeping the player with the ball in front of him.

Blazer assistant coach Maurice Lucas likes Udokaís versatility. Lucas told the Portland Tribune's Kerry Eggers, "Itís surprised me, the multiple positions he can play. His basketball IQ is real high."

A lot of people along the way have kindled Ime's fire for the game. The Drexler Blazers made him a fan; Joel Sobotka, his coach at Portland State, gave him insights; Damon Stoudamire, who mentored Udoka in summer sessions, gave him tools and bolstered his confidence, and, of course, the Udoka family gave him love and faith in himself.

Sister Mfon was a big influence. "When I was developing my game, she would take me on the court and give me pointers," Udoka said. "She's 6-1 and a power player. I was more of a finesse player then. She taught me how to be aggressive. She schooled me good," Ime mused.

Mfon and Ime also are answers to a trivia question: Name a brother-sister act who have played in the NBA and WNBA?

It hasn't been easy for Ime. He has been a solid player, if not the star, in just about every level of basketball there is, yet his chances of making it to the NBA seemed rather hopeless this fall until destiny struck.

"What kept me going," Udoka said, "is what I learned from all of those basketball experiences -- that I could hold my own no matter the competition. So I knew I could play in the NBA. It was just a matter of getting the chance."

Wayne Thompson was The Oregonian's Blazers beat writer from 1970-73 and sports editor from 1977-1979. You can email Wayne at mlou4jazz@aol.com.
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