Antalya Masaj

Boston Celtics Coach Ime Udoka is at the center of one of the most perplexing situations in the N.B.A.

Only a few months after he Antalya Masaj led his team to the brink of a championship, the Celtics suspended him for a year under mysterious circumstances, leaving the team in turmoil just weeks before the start of a new season. An interim coach has taken over, but confusion has taken hold: No one is saying publicly what happened, and people who know Udoka are wondering how he — a well-respected former player who used to work for FedEx — could be in this much trouble.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Martell Webster, one of Udoka’s former N.B.A. teammates. “But rules are rules, and when you sign a contract and you’re on salary, you’re saying that you agree to the rules.”

The Celtics have said only that they were suspending Udoka for the 2022-23 season for unspecified “violations of team policies.” According to two people with knowledge of the situation who were not authorized to discuss it publicly, Udoka had a relationship with a female subordinate.

After the suspension was announced Sept. 22, Udoka, 45, released a statement to ESPN that said, “I want to apologize to our players, fans, the entire Celtics organization, and my family for letting them down.”

The actress Nia Long, with whom Udoka has a young son, asked for privacy in a statement to TMZ.

Udoka, center, coached the Celtics to the Eastern Conference’s second-best record last season after they struggled for several months.Credit…Nick Wosika/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Udoka’s influence in basketball goes far beyond the Celtics, and even beyond the N.B.A.

The youngest of three siblings, Udoka grew up in Portland, Ore., where financial hardship was a way of life for his family. His father, Vitalis, was a Nigerian immigrant who worked long hours as a laborer. His mother, Agnes, would huddle with her children around a gas oven to keep them warm whenever the electricity was shut off at their apartment, according to the Boston Globe.

One constant for Udoka, though, was basketball. He hopscotched around as a college player, enrolling at Eastern Utah junior college and the University of San Francisco before he spent his final two seasons at Portland State, where he was known for his stout defense before a knee injury ended his senior year. He developed a reputation for tenacity and a strong work ethic.

“Ime was incredibly driven to excel at basketball,” said Derek Nesland, one of Udoka’s teammates at Portland State. “He only knew one way to play. And that was really with everything he had.”

Nesland met Udoka as a teenager but became close with him in college. He kept in touch with Udoka after they both left the program, as did other teammates. Even from a distance, the news that Udoka had become a head coach in the N.B.A. was something to celebrate, even though it wasn’t a surprise.

We actually had a group text chat with a lot of our guys that played with him,” Nesland said. “And you had a lot of players who had never rooted for the Celtics in their lives were now all of a sudden Celtic fans, just for Ime. And we all wanted to see him succeed.”

Udoka was not selected in the N.B.A. draft after college and joined the Fargo-Moorhead Beez, a minor league team in North Dakota. A few weeks into the season, he hurt his knee again. He spent months doing odd jobs that included loading boxes for FedEx, then toiled for several years on pro basketball’s periphery in the N.B.A.’ s developmental league and on European teams.

Toward the end of the 2005-6 season, Udoka signed with the Knicks and appeared in eight games — enough time for him to impress Isiah Thomas, then the team’s general manager: Thomas told Udoka that he would make a good coach someday.

Kumbeno Memory, one of Udoka’s closest friends, said in an interview last season that Udoka told him about the conversation with Thomas. “And he was like, ‘I know I’m being a good mentor to some of the younger guys, but am I really cut out to be a coach?’ ” Memory said.

The following season, Udoka signed with the Portland Trail Blazers and got similar feedback from Nate McMillan, then the team’s coach. Webster, one of Udoka’s teammates that season, said in an interview last week that Udoka was a total pro: early to practice, always prepared.

“He was really like a coach on the court,” Webster said. “He wasn’t spectacularly athletic or anything like that, but he always knew how to play the game, and he knew that his mind for the game needed to supersede having athletic ability.”

Udoka spent the next four seasons with the San Antonio Spurs and the Sacramento Kings. He was also moonlighting as an A.A.U. coach in the Portland area with Memory and another childhood friend, Kendrick Williams.

In an interview last season, Udoka said he learned to coach players as individuals at the A.A.U. level. The job, he said, was not one size fits all. Gregg Popovich, Udoka’s coach in San Antonio, also drove that message home.

“How you could coach one guy and what you could say and how you could say it was totally different,” Udoka said. “Pop would talk about the relationship part, and that was what it was — especially at that age. Gaining their trust and showing how much you care about them.”

By 2012, Udoka was out of the N.B.A. and playing in Europe again. After a few months with UCAM Murcia, a club in Spain, he joined some friends in Las Vegas to watch the N.B.A.’s summer league. He was about to turn 35 and wondering whether he wanted to go back overseas for another season.

One afternoon, Popovich called to offer him an assistant coaching job with the Spurs.

“I remember it being a really hard decision, and we’re sitting there talking for hours about it,” Mike Moser, who came to know Udoka through his A.A.U. team, said in an interview last season. “Finally, he decided: ‘I’m going to take it. I’m going to do it. I’m going to coach.’ And I remember being so surprised. But I’ll never forget it.”

Udoka spent seven seasons as an assistant in San Antonio. One of those seasons resulted in a championship. Udoka also had one-season stints with the Philadelphia 76ers and the Nets before the Celtics hired him in June 2021 to his first head coaching job.

Many of his A.A.U. players have remained loyal to him, and vice versa. Two of them, Moser and Garrett Jackson, now work in player development for the Celtics. Jackson was among Udoka’s earliest hires last season, and Moser joined the Celtics this season.

Now it’s unclear whether Udoka will return to the team.

Celtics guard Marcus Smart, right, expressed support for Udoka during the team’s media day last month. Smart was named the defensive player of the year last season.Credit…Andy Lyons/Getty Images

He had surprising success in his first season, leading a team of rising young stars to the N.B.A. finals, where they lost to Golden State in six games. And though several players have supported him while expressing uncertainty about what led to his punishment, the team’s ownership has been less reassuring. Wyc Grousbeck, the Celtics’ majority owner, said the team had not decided if — or under what circumstances — Udoka would be welcomed back.

With so little publicly known about why he was sent away in the first place, it’s difficult for fans, and even those who have known him, to make sense of the situation. A representative for Udoka did not respond to a request for comment. Joe Mazzulla, 34, one of Udoka’s assistant coaches, will be the interim head coach this season.

“There are certain people you run across in life where you could expect this to happen,” said Nesland, Udoka’s college teammate. “I didn’t with him. I can’t imagine what’s going on behind the scenes.”

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