Ime Udoka: A Road Much Traveled

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His column will appear every Wednesday.

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Ime Udoka
(Chris Covatta/Getty Images)

If any Spur can claim a more circuitous road-to-the-NBA story than 26-year-old rookie Gary Neal, it’s 33-year-old guard/forward Ime Udoka.

Neal came to San Antonio after stops in Turkey, Italy, Spain and the Las Vegas Summer League. Udoka made his NBA debut after minor league tours with the Charleston Lowgators, Adirondack Wildcats and the Fargo Moorhead-Beez, two surgeries on his right ACL and a night job loading boxes for Federal Express.

Have bag, will travel. That’s been Udoka’s calling card since he left Jefferson High in Portland, Ore. in 1995. Since then, he’s attended three colleges, played for two NBA Development League teams, one International Basketball Association club, one United States Basketball League squad, one club in Spain, another in France and five in the NBA.

If he were to cash in his frequent flyer miles, the system might go broke. Now here he is, back in San Antonio, and feeling a strong, unmistakable vibe. Deja vu.

"It feels like I never left," he was saying after a recent shoot around. "It feels like old times."

Old times? Udoka hasn’t stuck around in any one city long enough to have that feeling, except, well, San Antonio. He played here in 2007-08 and 2008-09, spent last season in Sacramento, then signed with the Spurs on Nov. 24, in time to celebrate with turkey and dressing. “I was thrilled when I got that call," he says.

And why not? Udoka already knew the system of the league’s hottest team. Neal and fellow rookies Tiago Splitter and James Anderson were learning on the run, thick playbooks in tow. Udoka already knew his way around town. And that’s no small achievement. There may be only one place he knows better.

When Portland celebrated its only NBA championship in 1977, Agnes Udoka was there at the downtown victory parade, seven months pregnant with Ime. If that wasn’t a sign of his future, there were others. As a boy, young Ime took to Clyde "The Glide" Drexler, attended his camps, tried to emulate his moves. An older brother and sister played basketball, too, and Ime decided on a career before he hit puberty.

"People tell you to have a backup plan," he says. "I didn’t have one. For me, there was no Plan B."

In high school, he wore Drexler’s jersey number (22), but Ime wasn’t the tallest, the most athletic or the best. He was just determined, a tireless worker like his father Vitalis, who came to Portland from Nigeria and provided for his family as a laborer. Udoka’s game needed work and got little college attention. "I was a late bloomer," he says.

He played two seasons of junior college ball in Utah, went to the University of San Francisco and sat, then bolted for Portland State, where he was forced to sit one season under the transfer rule. The NBA? In one sense, the league seemed somewhere over the rainbow. In another, it seemed in front of his face. Guys like Bonzi Wells and Jemaine O’Neal all but told him so.

During his redshirt season at Portland State, Udoka began working out with the Trail Blazers as assistant coach Tim Grgurich watched. Wells offered a prediction, “You’re going to have a good senior year.”

Udoka impressed. NBA scouts began to notice and then he tore his right ACL. Months later, he tore it again. Soon, It was rehab by day, hard labor by night. Udoka worked a Federal Express shift from 2 a.m. until 8 a.m. for 10 months. “It was hard,” he says. “But I never had any doubts. It was always, ‘Get back to work.’”

A long grind began. He played in virtually every minor league venue until the Lakers called him up for a few minutes in 2004. Then it was back to the outposts until he got a fling with the Knicks. There was a tour in Europe, camps with 76ers and Cavaliers, a summer with the Nigerian national team in 2006, and finally a call from Portland.

A family celebrated. A family mourned. Vitalis Udoka succumbed to a heart attack at age 59, on the night his son was to make his Blazers debut. Ime followed with 75 starts, 8.4 points a game, a career season. In front of friends and relatives, the kid with no Plan B had delivered with Plan A.

Ime smiles at the memory. …

It’s one hour before tipoff against New Orleans. By accident or design, the Spurs have placed the stalls of two undrafted, NBA longshots next to each other in the locker room. Gary Neal sits in front of one stall with a grin as wide as a house. He’s off to a great start -- he will score 11 points against the Hornets -- but he’s still learning the game, still learning about his teammates.

“Did you know,” I ask, “that Ime didn’t make it to the NBA until he was 26, just like you”

Neal’s face turns quizzical, shakes his head. “I didn’t know that,” he says, and glances at the stall next to his. Ime’s clothes and personals are there. But he is not.

Perhaps Ime is elsewhere savoring the familiar: the sights, the sounds, the smell of the AT&T Center. After all these years, after all those miles, this may be the place that feels most like home.