Celtics

Ime Udoka calls out teams that passed on him as he leads Celtics to the NBA Finals

Udoka, who's in his first year as the Celtics' head coach, was passed on numerous head coaching jobs in the past.

Ime Udoka quickly won over the locker room in Boston in his first year as the Celtics' head coach. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Ime Udoka’s first season in Boston got off to a bit of a bumpy start, but now it’s nearing as good of an ending as anyone could’ve asked for.

Udoka coached the Celtics to a Game 7 win over the Heat to win the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday, making him the fourth coach in the last eight years to reach the NBA Finals in his first season.

While the Celtics judged correctly on Udoka, there were apparently several other teams that didn’t. In an interview with Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes, Udoka shared that he was close to getting other head coaching jobs prior to Boston hiring him in 2021 as he spent nine seasons as an assistant coach.

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“The one thing I would say is the disappointment of coming in second a few years really hurt,” Udoka told Haynes of the process he went through to become a head coach. “But if you told me I’d have to wait for Boston and get [bypassed] by some of the ones that I got beat out on, it’s a no-brainer for me. I’m happy to be in Boston.”

Udoka also shared which teams had him No. 2 on their lists before saying how “proud” he was to be a part of the Celtics.

“You really want me to tell you? Detroit, Indiana, Cleveland,” Udoka said. “I can go down the list. That was tough because I believe I was ready. But I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of an organization that’s pushing for winning and championships. You can be in a lot of different situations. There are only 30 teams and I get that, but to not be in a rebuild and being in an expectation pressure-filled situation, I wouldn’t trade that in any day.”

The Pistons’ job has been filled by Dwayne Casey since 2018, but the Pacers and Cavaliers have had to hire multiple head coaches in recent years. Indiana hired Nate Bjorkgren in 2020, but fired him in 2021 and hired Rick Carlisle shortly after. The Cavaliers hired John Beilein in 2019, but he didn’t even last a full season before he got fired. Cleveland promoted interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff later in 2020.

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Udoka began his coaching career under one of the best to ever do it. He was a part of Gregg Popovich’s staff with the Spurs for seven years before joining Brett Brown and the 76ers in 2019 and then Steve Nash’s Nets in 2020.

Udoka, who played for 13 teams over 13 years in numerous leagues, cited his playing career and his time with the Spurs as things that helped him improve as a head coach candidate.

“You try to improve and you get feedback from the interviews and what your weaknesses are perceived as,” Udoka told Haynes. “I think for me, it’s easy. My career as a player, a journeyman, a role player that only had two guaranteed contracts out of my whole NBA career, it prepped me for that. It’s always been about putting your head down and grinding it out and figuring out a way to get it done. You don’t place the blame on anybody or any situation. You figure out how to get it done. That’s what I try to really impart on the team, but for me, it’s shake it off and keep it moving.

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“I was in a great situation of learning in San Antonio. I had some great interviews and improved throughout the process, but it was a matter of fit. And so I couldn’t be happier with this group.”

With Sunday’s win, Udoka became the first rookie coach in NBA history to win two Game 7 matchups. Starting point guard Marcus Smart credited Udoka for the team’s 3-0 record in elimination games, saying that their coach “embodies everything that we embody.”

“It’s been fun,” Smart told reporters of playing under Udoka following Game 7. “He’s taught us things that we could learn and we taught him things. We knew that him being his first time, it wasn’t going to be easy. It was going to be hard. That’s just how it is, and that’s just the team we are, and that’s the mentality we picked up from him.

“He did not want it to be easy. He didn’t ask for it, he didn’t cry about the circumstances. He didn’t cry about where we were in the standings early on in this year. He just stayed on us to keep going. When you’ve got a coach like that, it’s kind of hard not to follow because you don’t want to be that guy that’s the one, oh, man, here we go, we this, we this, when everybody else is moving forward.

“I’m just happy for him. His first year to be able to get to the Eastern Conference finals after the beginning of the year we had and then get past the Eastern Conference finals, man, it’s amazing.”

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