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Suspended Celtics coach Ime Udoka’s once-promising career now in turmoil

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Ime Udoka, the Celtics’ second-year head coach with a once-sterling reputation, was suspended for all of the upcoming season on Thursday over ‘multiple’ unspecified violations of team rules.

Reports say the 45-year-old had an improper, but consensual relationship with a female member of the team’s staff, yet that hardly explains why Udoka is being sidelined for 2022-23, and potentially longer. In the team statement naming assistant Joe Mazzulla as interim coach, Boston said Udoka’s future would be determined ‘at a later date.’ 

The situation is puzzling to many because Boston is sidelining a coach that guided the team to the NBA Finals in his first season over a private, reportedly consensual relationship.

‘My issue is you have his personal business publicized all over the airways,’ ESPN’s Steven A. Smith said Friday, while questioning why a suspension was even necessary.

Celtics legend Paul Pierce, too, argued on Twitter that Udoka’s punishment ‘should just be a fine not a suspension.’

But judging Udoka’s punishment is difficult with so few facts being presented.  

The Athletic raised questions about the relationship Thursday night, reporting that Udoka was accused by the woman of making ‘unwanted comments’ to her, prompting the Celtics to launch internal interviews that ultimately led to his suspension.

Udoka, the Celtics’ second-year head coach with a once-sterling reputation, was suspended for all of the upcoming season on Thursday over ‘multiple’ unspecified violations of team rules

Further complicating matters is Udoka's murky relationship with his long-time fiancé, actress Nia Long, who put out a statement Friday asking for privacy

Actress Nia Long (L) and her Husband Ime Udoka (R) attend the BET's 2017 American Black Film Festival Honors Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 17, 2017

Further complicating matters is Udoka’s murky relationship with his long-time fiancé, actress Nia Long, who put out a statement Friday asking for privacy

Further complicating matters is Udoka’s murky relationship with his long-time fiancé, actress Nia Long, who put out a statement Friday asking for privacy. 

One report, from Bally Sports, claims the couple was ‘separated prior to the current issue,’ but the two appeared to be on good terms as recently as May, when the former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air tweeted video of herself dancing in celebration as his Celtics qualified for the Finals.

TMZ reported that Udoka knew about the impending revelation for months, but neglected to tell Long even as she moved to Boston two weeks ago and began house hunting with him.  

Then there was Udoka’s own statement Thursday, which made a cryptic reference to disappointing his loved ones: ‘I want to apologize to our players, fans, the entire Celtics organization, and my family for letting them down.’

Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens speaks beside owner Wyc Grousbeck, right, during a news conference announcing Udoka's suspension

Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens speaks beside owner Wyc Grousbeck, right, during a news conference announcing Udoka’s suspension 

The Celtics were set to open training camp on Tuesday as a logical favorite to reach the Finals once again, and potentially compete for an NBA-record 18th championship.

Instead, Boston is now faced with questions of leadership, while Udoka is fighting to save his once-promising career.

Udoka’s career, until now, had been a tale of perseverance.

He wasn’t blessed with great physical gifts, but his love for the game and 6-foot-6 frame were a strong foundation as he grew up in Portland, where he ultimately befriended future NBA star and his assistant with the Celtics, Damon Stoudemire.

‘Growing up, one of the things I used to motivate me to get to the NBA was whatever my peers were doing, I was going to do the opposite,’ Udoka told The Athletic in April. ‘Everybody is out partying? Kicking it? Hanging out? I’m going to open gym. I didn’t go to prom. I didn’t go to graduation. I was at the gym.’

He played at three colleges before graduating from Portland State University and ultimately starting his professional career in the NBA’s development league with the Charleston Lowgators.

(L-R) Brian Cook, Jamal Sampson, Kobe Bryant, Ime Udoka, Luke Walton and Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers during pre-game against the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center on January 19, 2004

(L-R) Brian Cook, Jamal Sampson, Kobe Bryant, Ime Udoka, Luke Walton and Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers during pre-game against the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center on January 19, 2004

Brief stints with the Los Angeles Lakers, French teams, and G-League teams would follow, before Udoka began seeing more action with the New York Knicks, Portland Trail Blazers and, eventually, the San Antonio Spurs.

It was in San Antonio, under coach Gregg Popovich, that Udoka developed into a reliable perimeter defender.

‘My thing was to always think the game,’ Udoka said. ‘And if you can’t do that, you out-will your more skilled opponent by being physically and mentally tougher.’

Ime Udoka #7 of the Charleston Lowgators drives to the basket during the game against the Roanoke Dazzle at the North Charleston Coliseum on November 28, 2003 in North Charleston

Ime Udoka #7 of the Charleston Lowgators drives to the basket during the game against the Roanoke Dazzle at the North Charleston Coliseum on November 28, 2003 in North Charleston

After playing briefly for Sacramento and later returning to San Antonio, Udoka received one of the most coveted jobs in coaching as an assistant to Popovich.

The two would win an NBA Title together in 2014, and Udoka would soon come to embody the Popovich ethos of coaching.

‘He assimilated with the Pop philosophy,’ an NBA executive told the New York Post in 2020. ‘Udoka is a person very driven, meticulous, hard on himself. He’s a perfectionist.’

Popovich gushed about his protégé in 2015, telling ESPN: ‘He exudes a confidence and a comfort in his own skin where people just gravitate to him.’

Coach Pop also gave Udoka a back-handed compliment by joking that he’s a teetotaler.

‘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,’ said Popovich. ‘He’s really boring at dinner.’

Udoka quickly became one of the hottest assistant coaching prospects in the NBA, getting prestigious gigs on the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets’ benches, before getting hired by former Celtics head coach-turned-president Brad Stevens in Boston before the 2021-22 season.

At the time, former Udoka colleague Kirk Goldsberry tweeted that Boston made a ‘great hire.’

Patty Mills #8 of the San Antonio Spurs, assistant coaches Becky Hammon, Ime Udoka, and head coach Gregg Popovich watch action against the Indiana Pacers from the bench during an NBA game on October 24, 2018 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio

Patty Mills #8 of the San Antonio Spurs, assistant coaches Becky Hammon, Ime Udoka, and head coach Gregg Popovich watch action against the Indiana Pacers from the bench during an NBA game on October 24, 2018 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio

Udoka greets his mentor, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, before a game in November

Udoka greets his mentor, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, before a game in November

Initial returns, however, weren’t good.

Despite the presence of All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston struggled for much of the first half of Udoka’s first season. The team was around .500 until January, when players began taking his lessons to heart to finish the regular season, 51-31.

‘He definitely set a tone,’ Celtics guard Payton Pritchard told The Athletic. ‘That’s Ime to a T. That’s what we needed.’

The Celtics then steamrolled through the first round of the playoffs, sweeping the hated Nets in four games before hard-fought seven-game series victories over the defending-champion Milwaukee Bucks and top-seeded Miami Heat.

The six-game NBA Finals loss to the Warriors notwithstanding, Udoka’s stock couldn’t have been higher entering the off-season. A young coach coming off a Finals appearance in his first season was likely looking at a significant raise in a renegotiated contract, Smith said Friday.

‘That means he was in the position to get his salary tripled,’ Smith said.

But for all of the positivity created by Udoka’s first year as Celtics’ head coach, the team has faced one obstacle after another in the offseason.

The Celtics Dennis Schroder (center) and teammate Jayson Tatum (right) argued with a little over 7 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Head coach Ime Udoka came out to try and settle things down, as he did throughout the first few months of the season

The Celtics Dennis Schroder (center) and teammate Jayson Tatum (right) argued with a little over 7 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Head coach Ime Udoka came out to try and settle things down, as he did throughout the first few months of the season

Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics and Head Coach Ime Udoka celebrate with the Bob Cousy Eastern Conference Championship Trophy after Game 7 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals on May 29

Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics and Head Coach Ime Udoka celebrate with the Bob Cousy Eastern Conference Championship Trophy after Game 7 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals on May 29

Celtics center Robert 'Time Lord' Williams could miss up to 12 weeks following knee surgery

Celtics center Robert ‘Time Lord’ Williams could miss up to 12 weeks following knee surgery

Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla is a native guy, hailing from nearby Rhode Island

Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla is a native guy, hailing from nearby Rhode Island 

Free-agent acquisition Danilo Gallinari tore the ACL in his left knee over the summer, and earlier this week it was revealed that starting center Robert Williams would need arthroscopic surgery to clean out his left knee. Williams is expected to miss between eight and 12 weeks, but Gallinari could be out for significantly longer.

More pressing is the situation facing Mazzulla, a relatively unknown quantity heading into the season.

The former head coach at Division II Fairmont State, Mazzulla is a local guy, who hails from Rhode Island. He played collegiately under Bob Huggins at West Virginia, where he was once suspended over domestic battery arrest in 2009.

Celtics president Brad Stevens was asked about Mazzulla’s arrest record on Friday, but defended the decision to name him interim coach. 

‘I believe strongly in Joe’s substantivizes as a person,’ Stevens said. ‘He’s been very open with me about how those moments impacted him in every which way and you can see it in the way he carries himself. You could see that for a long time. We’ve had years to get to know him. ‘

Now 34, Mazzulla is being counted upon in Boston, even though his own future in the city may not extend beyond the upcoming season. 

‘It is not easy timing for him or the rest of the staff,’ Stevens said. ‘But he’s an exceptionally sharp and talented person and I believe strongly in him and his ability to lead people, his ability to galvanize a room and get behind him and his ability to organize and understand all that comes with running a team during a season.’

The good news is that Boston’s cupboard is far from bare.

The Celtics return core players like Tatum, Brown, Robert ‘Time Lord’ Williams, Marcus Smart, Al Horford, Grant Williams, and Derrick White. Furthermore, Stevens traded for former Rookie of the Year, Malcolm Brogdon, an experienced, well-rounded point guard who adds significantly to the team’s backcourt depth.

The key for Mazzulla will be getting the same defensive effort from the Celtics players that Udoka did last season, when Boston held opponents to a league-low 43.4-percent accuracy from the field.

Celtics celebrate after Game 7 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals on May 29

Celtics celebrate after Game 7 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals on May 29

As for Udoka, the future is nothing but a mystery. 

There remains a distinct possibility that Boston still fires him – something that even Smith would support. 

‘Incredibly disappointed today,’ Smith said on ESPN’s First Take Friday. ‘Ime Udoka cannot be defended. His actions were egregious, irresponsible to be in the leadership position that he is in. I’m not here to make any excuses or any apologies for his behavior. It is inexcusable, it’s a fireable offense as far as I’m concerned.’

But firing anyone can come with legal liabilities, and without knowing the full scope of the accusations, it’s impossible to say whether or not Udoka will be shown the door in Boston. 

He’s still just 45, and even with the scandal, Udoka’s stock as an NBA head coach isn’t entirely depleted. 

What’s more, the Celtics could feasibly risk losing him to a rival if they do decide to fire him.  

‘In talking to some other organizations today, he may become a candidate or a coach of interest for other jobs that might open or might become open during the season or certainly next season,’ ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Friday. 

The Celtics are apparently in no rush to make a decision, but regardless of how their season plays out, the Udoka scandal will hang over the team for the foreseeable future. 

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