Celtics' Ime Udoka joins Steve Kerr on a short list, but with an asterisk

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Celtics' Udoka among the wave of impressive Black coaches in NBA originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

SAN FRANCISCO – Ime Udoka has spent the week being showered in flowers. Deservedly so. He’s only the third first-time head coach since 2006 to lead his team to the NBA Finals, getting there with the Celtics. One of the other two is the man coaching the opponent.

Steve Kerr accomplished the same feat in 2015, leading the Warriors into The Finals and to their first championship in 40 years. Impressive, to be sure, but not as socially and culturally significant as Udoka’s feat.

For Udoka represents not only his good name but also the community of Black basketball coaches, a group routinely overlooked and often neglected but now claiming earning opportunities at a rapid rate.

He’s widening eyes opened by the likes of Tyronn Lue and Monty Williams, who have earned reputations not only for relating to players but also strategic acumen. Udoka, after all, succeeded Brad Stevens, who quickly was labeled a genius but during eight seasons never took Boston beyond the Eastern Conference finals.

Defense is the difference between Stevens and the man he hired as his replacement.

“There's not a guy who comes on the floor who isn't giving 110 percent on that side of the ball,” Draymond Green said of the Celtics during Finals media day Wednesday. “You have to give a lot of respect to Ime. That's not a much different squad than we've seen the past few years, or at least two years or three. It's not a much different team.

“Yet more has been required of them, and they have answered that bell. You have to give a lot of credit to him.”

Like Lue and Williams, Udoka was a fringe player in the NBA, playing 316 games, with 80 starts, over nine years. He spent nearly a decade as an assistant coach, the first seven under Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs. He interviewed for three vacant head coach positions – Pistons, Pacers and Cavaliers – and was rejected at each stop before landing with the Celtics last June.

Udoka was one of seven Black head coaches hired last summer, partly because the NBA was attuned to the social and racial equality movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020 but mostly because the applicants were qualified. That doubled the number of Black coaches in a league in which 75 percent of the players are Black.

One of the new coaches, Jason Kidd, in his third head-coaching stint, led the Mavericks to the Western Conference finals for the first time since he was a player in 2011. Another, rookie Willie Green, led the Pelicans through the play-in tournament and into the postseason for the first time in four years.

Warriors assistant Mike Brown was hired by the Kings, where he will replace Alvin Gentry, another Black coach. When Darvin Ham was hired by the Lakers, he became the 15th Black head coach in a 30-team league – making it the first time ever that half the league’s head coaches are Black.

“You had to overachieve, or you never got the opportunity again and no one really talked about that,” Andre Iguodala said Wednesday. “Just kind of how the headlines looked, when you portray Black coaches historically, it hasn't been in a fair light. Where the other side, you had that term ‘the good ol' boys' club,’ where you're just recycling the names over and over again.

“Tyronn Lue has done an incredible job of kind of silencing those critics in terms of being a very welcoming type of coach, a players’ coach. But he knows his stuff, his X's and O's. He's probably one of the most feared coaches in the league in terms of when an opposing team goes up against them, their antenna goes up in terms of the scout. You rarely see that type of energy towards the opposing coach.”

That may be where Udoka is heading. Boston was 18-21 as he integrated his systems, and there was some midseason grumbling. The noise silenced as the Celtics posted a 33-10 record over the final three months. Their plus-13.5 net rating during that span was the league’s best.

Udoka credits the two seasons with the 76ers and Nets, following his time with the low-maintenance Spurs, for enabling him to guide such an astonishing in-season turnaround.

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“Seven years in San Antonio and the foundation and the base of who I am as a coach and who I was as a player was beneficial,” he said Wednesday. “But to leave for those two years was probably just as much, if not more, invaluable for my preparation to be a head coach due to a lot of reasons. Some situations, obviously, in Philadelphia with winning on the line and getting fired after that; Brooklyn, an intense situation with a win-now mentality and superstar players. I think all that bode well for me going forward.

“San Antonio is a little bit of fairy tale, boy scouts, and do whatever you ask. I needed to get back to the real side of the NBA that I was in as a player. I think that helped me navigate some of the things earlier this year.”

Udoka is winning over Boston, which can be tough town, particularly for a Black man. Moreover, he’s among a group bringing real equality to the NBA and eradicating long-held beliefs rooted in prejudice.

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