Ime Udoka Is Not Here To Talk About The Past
8:59 AM EDT on April 27, 2023
Consume enough new-coach press conferences—and thanks to my time at NFL Network I have consumed more new-coach press conferences than anyone should—and the contours and traditions become familiar, even rote. There is the smiling owner, who says this is the start of the team's bright future. There is the general manager, nodding and agreeing with everything their boss says. There is the new coach, who will talk a lot about the draft, building for the future, but also winning now, and, as always, discipline—all the catchphrases that fans want to hear. And so there was little surprise when all those expected motions were gone through on Wednesday when the Houston Rockets announced their new head coach, Ime Udoka.
Udoka, less than a year ago, was one of the hottest head coaches in the NBA after taking the Boston Celtics to their first NBA Finals in more than a decade. Then in September the news broke, first via ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, that the Celtics would be punishing Udoka for, well, at first nobody was saying why. The Athletic's Shams Charania came in and said the cause was Udoka having an "improper intimate" relationship with a Celtics staffer that was also "consensual." But Charania later changed his description of the relationship, saying that, at one point, team leadership believed it was consensual but the woman "recently accused Udoka of making unwanted comments toward her." Wojnarowski, in an article, only called the relationship "intimate." All of this left fans or just those who wanted to know what happened in the position of trying to read between the lines of what various people within the NBA's orbit were insinuating. No surprise, that involved Stephen A. Smith yelling on live TV.
Seven months later, almost no new details have emerged. (Wojnarowski's recent report on Udoka's hiring said that Udoka "used crude language" to talk to a "female subordinate" before having an "improper workplace relationship with her.") In fact, the only comment of substance has come from Nia Long, the film and TV actress who got engaged to Udoka in 2015, and has a son with him. She told the Hollywood Reporter in December that she pulled her son out of school when the news broke and went on to add: “It was devastating, and it still is. He still has moments where it’s not easy for him. If you’re in the business of protecting women—I’m sorry, no one from the Celtics organization has even called to see if I’m OK, to see if my children are OK. It’s very disappointing.”
But Wednesday, because it was a new-coach press conference, was about the future, not the past, and certainly not the Celtics. The Rockets clearly took a lesson from the Portland Trail Blazers, whose introductory press conference for their new coach went viral when they shut down questions from reporters about how much investigating they did—if they did any at all—into Chauncey Billups, who was named in a sexual assault lawsuit in 1997. So the Rockets let the questions be asked, but nobody except Udoka gave meaningful answers, and no moment summed up that dynamic—Udoka saying all the right things, his boss not so much—as when one reporter asked Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta what he would say to those who felt like Udoka's second chance wasn't warranted.
Fertitta responded: “Then they’re not a good Christian person, if somebody thinks that. We’re a forgiving society, and everybody makes mistakes. And, you know, some things maybe we shouldn’t forgive people for. But I think what happened in his personal situation is definitely something we forgive for."
(Fertitta conveniently left out that the vast majority of us still don't know what happened, and anyway it is not us who have the right to forgive Udoka; it's the people he harmed.)
Fertitta went on to add that it was OK because he had discussed the situation with a woman. Two women, actually. "I discussed it with the president of my organization, who is a woman, and she was very comfortable with the situation," Fertitta said, "as well talking to [my ex-wife] Paige about it. And we're a forgiving world and anybody that isn't forgiving, then shame on them." For clarity, though Fertitta did not say her name, the president of the Rockets is Gretchen Sheirr.
Udoka is with a team that, for now, isn't considered anywhere close to being an NBA contender. He didn't even wait until the draft lottery to see if the Rockets would get the top pick and Victor Wembanyama. Perhaps the lack of outrage is an acknowledgement of this: He's fallen far, he's been punished, and hopefully he won't do whatever he did again. I can live with that.
What I cannot ignore is the ick of the entire NBA machine swirling around Udoka—the desperation to make it all go away. The Celtics still haven't given any meaningful details. I can't say they were keeping things private out of respect for, say, Long or Udoka's child because Long herself said the Celtics never called her. Maybe they are keeping things private out of respect for other people involved, but if so that'd be a first. Rockets leadership, when asked directly if they had viewed the NBA's investigation into what happened, were characteristically vague.
“We did diligence, not just on him, but on every candidate we have," said general manager Rafael Stone. "We do it on every important hire. And so what I would say is that we got comfortable that it was an appropriate hire and that we were comfortable in the process. But just the same way I wouldn’t talk about exactly what we did with anybody else, I’m not going to talk about it with Ime. It’s just, in my view, it’s not appropriate.”
Fertitta told reporters they got the OK from "the NBA," whoever that means, saying, "The NBA told me that they felt very comfortable with Ime becoming the coach of the Houston Rockets. And so that made me feel really good."
Udoka has been a part of pro basketball since 2000. He knows the deal. He's getting this because the Rockets are in a bad place; it won't generate controversy like when the then-stacked-with-talent Nets were reportedly interested in him. What bothers me, still, is that the Rockets would like to pretend the rest of us don't know this. As Fertitta said near the start of Wednesday's press conference, "What we like about him is his ability to coach a basketball team." For as much as our sports teams feel like they are ours—playing in publicly funded arenas, promising us players are a part of the community, plastering our cities on their jerseys, clogging the schedule with appreciation nights—they are privately held businesses and their product is making people feel good, which invariably involves winning. Udoka, based just on his coaching resume, would not be stuck at a franchise like this—and a franchise like Houston would have no hope of hiring a coach like Udoka if it weren't meant to be a sort of purgatory.
I hope that all those polished-sounding phrases that Udoka used, about taking responsibility, working on himself, and understanding how his "poor decision" impacted so many people, were true. But he knows, and I know, and you know, and Nia Long definitely knows that his NBA redemption is only contingent on his ability to win games. Asking the Rockets to be up-front about that might be an impossible request, but it doesn't mean anyone has to fall for it.