So, Gregg Popovich. How has Ime Udoka handled his assignments as a member of your San Antonio coaching staff?
“He sucks,” Popovich says with a chuckle, “and you can quote me.”
It’s a display of affection from a veteran, Hall of Fame-bound coach toward a first-year assistant coach for a Spurs team that begins a quest for their fifth NBA championship since 1999 against Miami.
It’s also a glimpse at the playful side of the man whom television viewers see mostly as a reluctant and somewhat grumpy interview subject during games.
” ‘Pop’ is actually hilarious,” Udoka says. “Having played for him, I knew that. Everybody sees him in the interviews and thinks he’s gruff or doesn’t have a personality. Behind closed doors, it’s totally different. He has a dry sense of humor. He’s very funny.”
Udoka slipped into an advantageous position when Popovich hired him as a member of his coaching staff last summer.
“Other than finishing this thing off by getting a ring,” the former Jefferson High and Portland State standout said, “you couldn’t ask for more from the first year of coaching.”
It was a relationship born from Udoka’s playing days. The 6-6, 220-pound swingman — whose best NBA season was with the Trail Blazers in 2006-07, when he averaged 8.4 points and 3.7 rebounds in 75 games — spent three seasons playing for Popovich and the Spurs, from 2007-09 and in 2010-11. When Popovich lost a pair of assistants, Jacque Vaughn and Don Newman, after last season, he beckoned his former player.
“We’d talked about the possibility in the past,” Udoka says. “Pop knew coaching was something I wanted to do after I was done playing. I ran into him during the Las Vegas Summer League last summer. He let me know something could be opening up.”
Popovich hired Udoka with the idea that the conscientiousness he displayed as a player would carry over to his coaching.
“Ime has been just as we thought he would be,” Popovich says. “He’s a pro. He enjoys the discussions, the arguments about pick-and-roll and post defense and all that kind of junk. He understands what’s to be gained from watching (video) and figuring things out that way. He’s at work all day, either in coaches’ meetings or watching (video) or on the court, trying to get better at his craft.”
Udoka played last season in Spain, and his agent was entertaining offers to return there for this season when Popovich came to him about a coaching spot.
“I had to decide in about two weeks,” Udoka says. “It was a difficult decision, but I knew it was a great opportunity for what I want to do in the future. It just came a few years earlier than I had planned.”
So Udoka, 35, finds himself coaching five players who were teammates during his time with the Spurs, including Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Duncan, 37, and Ginobili, who turns 36 in July, are older than Udoka.
“The guys have reacted great to him,” Popovich says. “He has earned their respect, so much so that in his first year I put him in charge of 10 (opposing) teams. He is responsible for scouting reports for them, telling me what he thinks we should do against them. We talk about it, then he addresses the team (at shootaround), giving them the scouting report. He is doing the whole nine yards. He has been wonderful, he really has.”
Is it normal for Popovich to drop that much responsibility on a first-year assistant?
“Not quite that much,” he says. “But Ime had some coaching experience, working with his AAU teams in the summertime. He had been on the court in a teaching capacity. When we went to training camp, I’d put him at this station or that station, and you could see very quickly he felt comfortable. I let him dive in at the same pace as Jacque Vaughn. I see some of the same things in Ime that I saw in Jacque.”
Udoka has been grateful for the opportunity.
“I was familiar with the system and many of the players, so that part made it a seamless transition,” he says. “The chance to work with Pop and do all the things he lets me do, I’ve enjoyed it a ton. Pop is a defensive-minded coach, and (ex-assistant coach) Mike Budenholzer was the mastermind of the offense this year, so I’ve gotten a little bit of everything.”
Udoka has soaked up whatever he can from Popovich. Ime was thrilled to sit next to the veteran mentor on the Western Conference bench during the All-Star Game at Houston.
“It has been different coaching with him as opposed to playing for him,” Udoka says. “We’ve spent a lot of time together in meetings and (video) sessions and dinners on the road. You see a different side of him. The preparation, the attention to detail — it’s a unique, first-hand look at why he is so good at what he does.”
The only negative for Udoka through the season has been separation from girlfriend Nia Long and their 1 1/2-year-old son, Kez. Through the last nine months, Nia, an actress, has spent time doing a movie in Toronto and working as part of the cast of Showtown’s “House of Lies.” She has kept their Los Angeles home as a base.
“It’s tough, and I’m missing a lot of Kez’s growing up,” Udoka says. “But they came to San Antonio a few times during the season, and they’ll be here at some point for the finals. I’m with them whenever we are in L.A. playing the Lakers or Clippers, so actually, I’ve gotten to see them a bunch. But Nia and I are both having careers and are on the go. I’m in one part of the country, she’s in L.A. or filming in Toronto. We just try to make the most of our time together.”
The Popovich coaching tree has extended in recent years to include such as Vaughn, Doc Rivers, Mike Brown, Vinny Del Negro, Avery Johnson, Monty Williams and now Budenholzer, recently hired in Atlanta. That’s not counting general managers Kevin Pritchard (Indiana) and Sam Presti (Oklahoma City).
Udoka would love to be another arm of the tree. He would prefer staying in the pros than moving to the college level, too.
“Coaching is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do other than playing,” he says. “I want to pursue a career coaching in the NBA, because it’s all about basketball there. I’ve enjoyed working with college kids and the AAU stuff I did in Portland, but there are so many extra things to worry about — study hall, getting kids to class, recruiting, all that stuff. I want to keep it just to basketball.”
Does Popovich see in Udoka the potential to be an NBA head coach some day?
“Absolutely,” he says. “Ime has the toughness and the mind to where he understands how to maintain discipline. A lot of coaches will give in and do what’s easy. He knows how to handle players. He has been able to stroke them and stay on them at the same time. That’s a really good quality.
“The players know he cares about them, but he can make demands and they respond to him. That’s important for a head coach. Players have great ‘BS antennae.’ If they think you don’t know what you’re doing, they’re going to call you out immediately.”
There’s absolutely no BS about Gregg Popovich, of course. Ime Udoka? It’s safe to say that he doesn’t suck, either.