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Terry Francona stands as the best Red Sox manager of your lifetime, your dad’s, and any other generation’s on your family tree for many reasons. One of the most important is that he could relate first-hand and viscerally to so many experiences and career stages his players were going through.
Francona experienced the game from various vantage points as a player and manager before arriving in Boston in December 2003 and writing out the lineup cards that changed history 10 months later.
He was a hotshot prospect with the Expos (Sports Illustrated profiled him and some kid named Ripken before the 1982 season), a young player frustrated by injuries (knee problems derailed his career), a journeyman just hanging on (the 1988 Indians had five future big-league managers on their roster), an upstart minor league manager who masterfully dealt with a most unusual circumstance (managing Michael Jordan in Double A in 1994), and a big-league manager undercut by a hopelessly flawed roster (he was 78 games under .500 in four years with the Phillies).
It’s not just that Francona had seen it all. He’d pretty much experienced it all by the time the Red Sox hired him at age 44.
To a lesser degree, it seems to me a similar wide range of experiences also serves Alex Cora well. And while the parallel isn’t exact, the Celtics’ hiring of 43-year-old Ime Udoka as coach Wednesday came with that same distinct right-person/right-time feel.
Udoka paid his dues and then some as a player, bouncing around to five NBA teams in a 316-game career spread out over seven seasons. His professional career began with a stint in the G-League (then the D-League) and included sojourns to Spain and France.
He played with superstars (four games with the 2003-04 Shaq/Kobe Lakers, and three seasons with Tim Duncan and the Spurs) and names that require some basketball-reference.com surfing to remember (teammates with the 2005-06 Fort Wayne Flyers included Von Wafer, Vonteego Cummings, and Jamario Moon).
As a young coach, he was the beneficiary of just about the best apprenticeship possible, joining Gregg Popovich’s staff with the Spurs in 2012 at age 35 and spending eight seasons at his side, including on the ’14 champs.
He spent a year on Brett Brown’s staff with the Sixers, working with Joel Embiid and Al Horford, and spent this past season as an experienced assistant for novice head coach Steve Nash to lean on with the Nets. Perhaps you noticed during the playoffs that Udoka often was more animated on the sideline than Nash, especially when the Nets were on defense. I’m not suggesting he’s a miracle worker, but he did persuade James Harden to play defense, which wasn’t thought possible.
There’s just so much to like with this choice. He’s a former player, a person of color (he’s the 18th coach and sixth Black coach in Celtics history), and a seasoned assistant overdue for a chance. Not only does he have experience playing with and coaching stars, he’s already familiar with the Celtics’ stars.
Udoka was an assistant for Team USA at the 2019 World Championships, where he built a relationship with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart, all of whom reportedly were consulted by Brad Stevens and endorsed this hiring. Even if you favored another candidate — Chauncey Billups seemed to have a lot of fans around here — it’s hard to find a flaw in this choice.
Sure, Udoka has never been a head coach before, but that’s not worth sweating when it comes to the NBA. Nash did a nice job with the ego-laden Nets in his first season. Stevens had never spent a moment in the league before the Celtics hired him. Popovich was a head coach at someplace called Pomona-Pitzer before linking up with Larry Brown and beginning his NBA coaching career way back in 1987-88 as Brown’s lead assistant.
There are things we cannot know about Udoka until the season is well underway and we begin to accumulate anecdotal knowledge on his strengths, weaknesses, and approaches. It’s easy to presume he’ll demand that the offense moves the ball well and willingly (the ’14 Spurs were the best-passing team since the ’86 Celtics) but will he succeed better than Stevens did this season at getting that message across?
How will he repair a defense that regressed this season, in part because of effort? Will he be adept at drawing up inbounds plays? Will he tolerate Smart’s curious shot selection? How will he get through to the players when they’re worn out on the second night of a back-to-back in January?
Those answers will come beginning in October. But there’s already so much evidence that Udoka is up for this. Endorsements don’t get any stronger than the one Popovich gave to ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz in a 2015 story, saying this about Udoka:
“He exudes a confidence and a comfort in his own skin where people just gravitate to him. He’s a fundamentally sound teacher because he’s comfortable with himself, he knows the material and players read it. Often times, I’ll say, ‘Ime, can you go talk to so-and-so? Go talk to Patty Mills, go talk to Timmy [Duncan], go talk to Kawhi [Leonard].’ And he’ll do it better than I would do it — and I’m not blowing smoke. The only thing I don’t like about him is that he doesn’t drink, so I can’t enjoy a glass of wine with him. He’s really boring at dinner.”
I suppose the last part of that quote would be mildly troubling if the Celtics were looking for a sommelier. But they’re not. They’re looking for a strong new voice, a coach who can connect with his players, someone who can maximize the abilities of Tatum and Brown and get the most out of the rest of this talented but disjointed roster.
No, Udoka wasn’t a star. But he’s been in the orbit of many in his wide-ranging and varied basketball life, and his own experiences are beyond valuable. Like Francona all those years ago, he knows first-hand how difficult his sport is, how to pick himself up after failure, and how to get on the same wavelength with people of different statuses and situations.
Ime Udoka has never been here before, as the head coach of an NBA team. But he’s been there, man. He’s been there. In this new experience, the Celtics are about to benefit greatly from his old ones.
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