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It happened, of all places, in a city built on chance. In July, Ime Udoka arrived in Las Vegas as a ballplayer, a 34-year-old small forward weighing offers from two teams in Europe. He left with the idea of becoming an NBA coach.
An out-of-the-blue conversation with Gregg Popovich prompted Udoka to ponder a career change. Weeks later, Udoka, now 35, became a Spurs assistant. What are the odds?
Udoka isn’t sure. But he is sure of this: He hit it big in Vegas. Udoka knows players who retired and idled a few years, not sure what to do next. “I realize how fortunate I am to go straight into coaching,” he says. “It’s very rare.”
Here’s how it went down: Udoka attended the Las Vegas Summer League to watch two first round picks he once coached on an AAU team in Oregon: Terrence Jones (Houston Rockets) and Terrence Ross (Toronto Raptors).
As expected, Udoka ran into former NBA teammates and coaches. What he didn’t expect was a career-altering encounter with Popovich. One Spurs assistant, Don Newman, had left for a job with the Washington Wizards. A second assistant, Jacque Vaughn, was a leading candidate to become head coach in Orlando. The Spurs had one opening, maybe two, and Pop wondered if Udoka might be interested.
“I was excited,” Udoka says. “It was something he had mentioned to me years ago. But that possibility to me was way down the line. With Coach Newman going to Washington and Jacque to Orlando, something opened sooner than expected and here we are.”
The much-traveled Udoka (more on that later) returns to San Antonio for the third time. He played for the Spurs in 2007-09 and again in 2010-11, averaging 4.5 points and 2.7 rebounds.
Though he didn’t post big numbers, Udoka impressed with his basketball IQ, work ethic and inclination to teach, qualities Vaughn once displayed as a backup point guard.
In Udoka, Pop recognized a future coach, a special talent, and encouraged him to switch over after his playing days ended. Udoka liked the idea and didn’t wait for retirement. In the summers, he began coaching the I-5 Elite AAU team in Oregon, comprised of several future college players. He also led clinics at the Top 100 basketball camp in Virginia.
“I’ve done that for the last three years,” Udoka says. “I’ve gone over scouting reports and learned a lot about coaching and a lot about the top players in the country.”
When Udoka touched down in Vegas, a month removed from the Top 100 camp, he was checking with his agent. UCAM Murcia in the Spanish ACB League wanted to re-sign Udoka, and there was an offer from a former team, Auna Gran Canaria, in the Canary Islands. Other conversations followed, none of them about coaching. Then along came Pop. In a blink, Udoka contemplated a career 180.
Udoka is accustomed to sudden turns and twists. His journey to the NBA was a zig-zag of minor league stops and starts, marked with injury and a red-eye shift. He played with the Charleston Lowgators, Adirondack Wildcats and Fargo Moorehead-Beez, touring every outpost in the United States Basketball League and International Basketball Association. He tore his right ACL at Portland State, recovered, then tore it again. He took a job loading boxes for Federal Express, from 2 a.m. until 8 a.m., for 10 months.
Undrafted, Udoka persevered until he made his NBA debut at 26, then hopped around the planet like a Globetrotter. Udoka logged a few minutes with the Lakers in 2004, played a season in the Canary Islands, joined a club in France, jumped to a Development League team in Fort Worth, got in eight games with the Knicks and spent a summer with the Nigerian national team before landing in his native Portland in 2006.
After one season with the Trail Blazers, Udoka played two with the Spurs and San Antonio became like home. Now here he is again, the dawn of a new adventure rising upon him.
“It’s a very unusual feeling,” he says. “For the last 25 years, I’ve been preparing to play. So it’s definitely different.”
Before Udoka committed to coaching, Pop asked, “Are you sure you want to quit playing?”
Udoka considered the question. He weighed another season in Europe against the chance to start his future now, coaching under a certain Hall of Famer, working for a model franchise, learning a system and culture that has produced a litany of NBA head coaches. Udoka also thought of who-knows-how-many had already called Pop, asking for the very job he was offered.
As the numbers turned in his mind, it was as though he heard the sounds of a casino.
Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!