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More than the Game—In the locker room and beyond, Utah Jazz center Ekpe Udoh builds community
As he left the locker room, Ekpe Udoh offered a little bit of wisdom. The Utah Jazz center does this after every game, shouting out some aphorism or piece of advice to his teammates and to reporters on his way out the door. Wear your seatbelt. Call your mother.
“All right, y’all,” Udoh said on Monday. “Pay some people some compliments tomorrow. Be grateful.”
With that, he walked out the door.
“I got a little wisdom up here,” he says. “I just try to pass it down.”
Udoh did not log any playing time during the game that night, but he still found a way to leave his mark on the locker room. Whether it’s advocating for social justice, mentoring a teammate, leading a book club discussion or denying someone at the rim, the 31-year-old doesn’t need big minutes to have a big role with the Utah Jazz.
“He’s a unique and uniquely talented man,” head coach Quin Snyder said. “We all have opportunities to learn from Ekpe. He’s a leader.”
The Golden State Warriors drafted Udoh with the sixth overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Three teams and five years later, Udoh was out of the league and looking at his options overseas. He signed with the Turkish club Fenerbahçe—and the decision changed him forever.
“My time in Istanbul changed my life as far as how I look at the social issues of the world,” he said. “Just being able to get outside of the United States and seeing how people lived and were treated wherever I went, being able to get into the history of the cities and countries we were going to, it changed how I see the world.”
Udoh was beloved in Turkey. He helped Fenerbahçe reach the EuroLeague championship game his first year with the club. He won the title and was named EuroLeague MVP a year later. All the while, Udoh embraced Turkey and its people.
“I got into their history and started to speak out a little bit,” he said. “It’s almost like giving a voice to the oppressed. They’re not allowed to tell their stories.”
Udoh returned to the NBA in 2017, signing with the Utah Jazz. But he brought a new awareness with him. He stays actively involved with causes that are important to him: the work of Nadia Lopez, a middle school principal in one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods; a literacy program in his home state of Oklahoma; a farming project to make fresh food more affordable; the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
“It’s important for athletes to use their platform but it’s also important to respect the ones who have been doing it in the streets and the field,” he said. “Allow them to use your platform. Nowadays, they want to put the athletes on that platform to speak for whatever community. I don’t think that’s fair. Do what you can, and if you’re not really in the field get someone who is doing it and build something with them. Allow them to use your platform.”
Jazz head coach Quin Snyder sees Udoh’s impact on the court every game.
“Ekpe finds a way to lead,” the coach said. “It’s a role he has embraced.”
Whenever the reserve center’s number is called, he seems to be ready to provide an important defensive stop for the Jazz.
“Any time we need him, he’s there,” Snyder said. “We’re lucky to have him on the team.”
Even when he doesn’t get into the game, the veteran’s role with the Jazz is crucial.
“I lean on Ekpe for just about everything,” Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell said. “From the mental aspect, dealing with adversity to what he sees on the court. I ask him every game, ‘How am I doing? What do you see? What am I doing well? What am I not?’ And he’s real honest with me.”
“I just keep it 100 with him,” Udoh said. “When he’s doing good, praise him. When he’s doing bad, get on him. But there’s always a positive to it and there’s a lesson to be learned. He listens, so it’s easy.
“And then just talking to him about life. There’s more to life than this game. That’s really it. And it’s great to see the way he’s growing from the beginning of last year.”
Ekpe’s Book Club
While many of his teammates prepare for a game with music pumping through their headphones, Udoh prefers a different approach. You can find him at his locker, reading a book.
“Whatever situation you may be in, you can flip it with a book,” Udoh said. “You can learn any trade. You can learn about history. You can read sci-fi. You can go anywhere you want. People’s ideas coming to life—it’s special.”
Udoh can churn through a book in a day or two, but he didn’t always enjoy reading. His father, Samuel Udoh, tried to instill a passion for literature into his son, taking him often to the library as a child. It wasn’t until about five years ago, though, that Udoh came around. He started reading newspaper and magazine articles sent to him by a friend. Soon enough, he was reading everything he could get his hands on.
“A switch went off,” Udoh said.
Udoh was playing for the Milwaukee Bucks and an assistant coach suggested he read “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch. That’s when Ekpe’s Book Club was formed.
“Ever since then we’ve been rolling,” Udoh said
Udoh started the club in Milwaukee, took it with him to Turkey and is now continuing the tradition in Utah. This season, Udoh has added a new element by bringing in the authors of the books the club reads. Udoh’s next discussion, featuring Utah author Camron Wright, will be streamed on utahjazz.com and FaceBook Live on Thursday evening.
“This Author Talks series provides another layer to open up the discussion and allows people to get involved,” Udoh said. “It’s all community building. It’s bringing people together for a cause, an interest, an idea.”
Whether it’s in a locker room, a book club or anywhere in between, building community is what Udoh is all about.
“You know, I always try to pass it on,” he said. “That’s the thing—you’ve just got to pass on greatness, pass on positivity and, day by day, you make a change.”