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An N.B.A. Coach’s Journey from FedEx to the Top Job


BOSTON — Ime Udoka was always willing to offer instruction. But his players sensed that there were limits to how much he felt he could teach them. Sometimes, he needed to show them.

So Udoka would hop on the phone and summon old friends from the neighborhood. These were former high school teammates, hoopers he knew from the playgrounds and even a few pals who had played overseas. The request from Udoka became a familiar one: Could they swing by practice and toughen up his guys?

“They were older, stronger and smarter, and they would just run us off the court.” said Mike Moser, who played for the first team that Udoka coached. “But you’d learn.”

Udoka grew up in Portland obsessed with basketball, a student of the game who skipped his prom to play hoops. He emerged as an N.B.A. prospect at Portland State, only to tear up his knee before the draft. Odd jobs followed, including a stint with the Fargo-Moorhead Beez of the International Basketball Association. After he wrecked his knee again, Udoka spent much of the next year loading trucks for FedEx, hoping for another crack at the N.B.A. He cycled through training-camp invites and 10-day contracts.

I-5 Elite’s first recruit was Moser, who, as a 15-year-old forward, was awe-struck that an N.B.A. player — from his hometown, no less — was showing interest in him. Udoka worked with Moser at the Trail Blazers’ practice facility and invited him courtside for games. But Udoka also challenged him. From his spot on the bench, Udoka noticed that Moser tended to stand around when teammates launched shots. Udoka wanted him to pursue offensive rebounds.

“Stop watching, Moser,” Udoka would growl. “Stop watching.”

Moser eventually got the message. (Really, he had no choice.) Later, as a sophomore at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Moser emerged as one of the country’s leading rebounders.

“It wasn’t hard to get on them and hold them accountable,” Udoka said.

Sometimes, he added incentives. The team, Moser said, was scuffling through an uninspired practice one afternoon when Udoka paused the proceedings: Who wants $100? Winner of the next scrimmage takes the prize.

“And it was $100 per player, man,” Moser said. “Ime was not cheap.”

The temperature in the gym went from lukewarm to molten.

“There were some prison fouls going on,” Moser said. “But that’s how he encouraged us to be — a tough, hard-nosed group.”

Jackson recalled being on the road for a tournament with I-5 Elite when his college recruitment was heating up. Back at the hotel one night, he was on the phone with a college coach who was curious about Udoka: What was he like to be around? At that very moment, Jackson said, Udoka surfaced from around the corner cradling a heap of sweaty uniforms.

“The guy is in the N.B.A.,” Jackson said, “and he’s washing our clothes at the hotel.”

As it became clear to him that he might have a future in coaching, Udoka worked at his craft, attending coaching clinics organized by the N.B.A. players’ union. In 2012, Gregg Popovich, the coach of the Spurs, called to offer him a job as an assistant. Udoka wrestled with the decision: Did he want to close the book on his playing career?

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