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IME UDOKA PREACHED ACCOUNTABILITY — WHY DIDN’T HE PRACTICE IT?
In sport’s fraught workplace culture, the Celtics are right to suspend their head coach for having an in-house romantic relationship, even if his one-season ban erodes progress in their NBA title hunt
Wait, this doesn’t happen in Boston. When a head coach has an intimate affair with a member of the team’s staff, it’s supposed to be in L.A., where Phil Jackson once shacked up with the owner’s daughter by the beach. “I fell hard,’’ said Jeanie Buss, who grew up to run the Lakers. The Celtics are built to be devoid of dysfunction, which happens in Brooklyn, where Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving probably are inventing novel ways to sabotage a franchise as we speak, assuming Steve Nash doesn’t kill them first.
If anything, amid the NBA’s Twitter-driven swirl of soap operas, Boston is the rare organization that avoids drama, does the right thing, drafts wisely, constructs from within, refines a culture, eschews the superteam syndrome and seemed positioned to win championships after reaching the Finals in June. Or so we thought until an absurdist offseason of needless chaos, which has reached a crisis point with the suspension of their head coach for the entire 2022-23 season.
It wasn’t long ago when we were admiring the mind and authoritative powers of Ime Udoka. Now, we’re wondering what the hell he was thinking, and whether the Celtics lost their championship opportunity in a bedroom of sex and candy.
How does a team screw up a great thing? First, the Celtics made public a willingness to include one of their three cornerstones, Jaylen Brown, if necessary in a blockbuster deal for Durant that never happened. Why break up the triad of Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart when they’d finally bonded as winners and were just getting started as contenders? “Smh,” tweeted Brown, as in “shaking my head.” But that was a mere fleck of fuzz compared to the earth-moving news this week. Seems Udoka, whose revelatory tough-love mantra is grounded in personal accountability, has been doing the Udoka Dokey with a female Celtics employee. An improper relationship, the team is calling it, and Udoka has been suspended for the entire season.
If he ever returns at all, stunningly enough. “A decision about his future with the Celtics will be made at a later date,” the team said.
“I want to apologize to our players, fans, the entire Celtics organization, and my family for letting them down," Udoka said in a statement to ESPN. “I am sorry for putting the team in this difficult situation, and I accept the team's decision. Out of respect for everyone involved, I will have no further comment.”
So a team that can’t have any screws loose in the formidable Eastern Conference — Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t appreciate being an also-ran in Milwaukee … Philadelphia could be serious at last if Joel Embiid remains healthy and a recommitted James Harden avoids rappers and strip clubs … Miami remains scary with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo … Cleveland is legit after the Donovan Mitchell deal … Brooklyn rates a mention as long as Durant is in uniform — will move forward without its leader. Usually, threats to a contender’s season involve injuries, chemistry issues or refusals to be vaccinated for the coronavirus.
What we have here is unprecedented even by sordid NBA standards: A team could be dragged down because a coach allowed his eyes to wander at the office and hooked up accordingly, contrary to all good reason.
Upon initial impact, a ban for the entire season seems harsh. Don’t sports figures in all leagues receive softer suspensions for more severe infractions, such as committing felonies? Didn’t the NBA initially suspend Robert Sarver for only one season, despite his racist and misogynistic barrages, before he caved to pressure and announced he would sell the Phoenix Suns? Also, if every coach who has slept with a team employee was sent away for a season, you might be surprised how many interim coaches are filling in. Didn’t the Lakers win three championships while Phil and Jeanie were a hot item? Her father was concerned about factions developing in the front office, but realistically, how could Jerry Buss order his daughter to stop living with the coach when he was the Hugh Hefner of sports? Besides, all of that happened in the early 2000s, ancient history as workplace behavior is viewed now in an evolving world.
We are entrenched in 2022, people. Keep in mind: This is not a league ban. Celtics owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca, with president of basketball operations Brad Stevens, determined Udoka broke the team’s code of conduct. He might have been a Coach of the Year candidate last season, but he’s still a 45-year-old employee who must obey the company handbook. When Robert Kraft was charged with soliciting prostitution in 2019, in a rub-and-tug massage parlor in a Florida strip mall, he wasn’t an New England Patriots employee; he owned the damn team and proceeded without an NFL punishment after prosecutors dropped charges. An in-house romance could have wide-ranging ramifications. Nothing can bring down a sports franchise quicker than a scandal in the hallways — ask Sarver and Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder, among others.
Even if Udoka and the staff member shared a consensual relationship, as has been reported, an internal power dynamic could poison a workplace in no time. And even if Udoka and his longtime partner, actress Nia Long, were separated recently, as reported, the couple had been engaged since 2015 and have an 11-year-old son. All the way around, such a dalliance was a horrible idea, and if Udoka thought it wouldn’t explode into a scandal, he hasn’t been following the news headlines lately. The Celtics began their internal review after the woman accused Udoka of “making unwanted comments” toward her. There are two sides to every story, but at this level, there is only one side.
The story quickly reached gossip sites Thursday after Long, who was celebrating Boston’s conference title on Instagram as recently as late May, turned to social media to reflect. Posting a video narrated by a zen-wellness site, Omology, she conveyed a message: “When you see people change their whole life and start walking down a path of enlightenment, hugging trees, connecting with nature, loving themselves, embracing positivity, letting that light shine, understand one thing: that light that you see, understand one thing about that light: they had to go into the darkness to get it. No shadow, no light, know shadow, know light.” Udoka will have plenty of time to hug trees himself, as he’s hammered on social media about “fumbling Nia Long and a 2-1 Finals lead in the same year.”
It’s a disastrous blow to a team that responded remarkably well to his no-crap leadership style, which not only was urgently needed in Boston but was desperately suited to a league in which players think they’re entitled. Was Udoka, a disciple of Gregg Popovich, a head coach who actually was in charge of his locker room? Said Smart, who matured as a team leader and was named the league’s best defensive player: “There are times when I turn the ball over, and he’ll pull me aside and say, ‘What the f— are you doing? Get your team together!’ I’m good with it.” When Udoka arrived in town last year, he announced there would be no double standards for the team’s stars, Tatum and Brown. “The point I wanted to get across was I am not one of those coaches who won’t say anything to the superstars, but will get on the young guys and role players,” Udoka said during the Finals. “That’s how you lose credibility. We’ve all been there, where coaches have done that and the whole team is looking at the coach like, ‘OK, but the main guy is doing it and you aren’t saying anything?’ So my approach is equal opportunity as far as holding them accountable, if not more for Jayson and Jaylen, because they have more required of them.”
His words were set into motion early in the season, when Smart ripped Tatum and Brown after a loss because they “don’t want to pass the ball.” It was Udoka’s first major test. Could he glue back the shattered egos and change habits? Or would the Celtics disintegrate into disarray, still carrying remnants of Irving’s meltdowns before he fled to Brooklyn? Udoka went to work, using team meetings to show game tapes that revealed the mistakes of every player. There would be no double standards. Weeks later, after a 25-point loss in New York, Udoka said every one of his players lacked the mental toughness to win close games. In defeat, he was building unity. “Ime got us on the same page because there were no tiers,” said Brown, per The Athletic. “He addressed us all on the same level.”
In short order, the Celtics blossomed into a powerhouse with a 28-7 run. No team played better defense. No team believed in itself more. They took that faith to the playoffs, where Tatum dominated in a sweep of Durant and the Nets, and Boston didn’t stop winning until succumbing to the savvy and Stephness of the Golden State Warriors, who won the last three games of the Finals. Suddenly, the Udoka Method was the new blueprint for NBA coaching. No first-year coach ever had won multiple Game 7s in his first postseason, with victories over the Bucks and Heat. His life story — he’d survived an underprivileged upbringing in northeast Portland, where gangs and drugs were the norm, his father struggled to keep jobs, and young Ime listened to Trail Blazers games on the radio because the family couldn’t afford cable TV.
Now, he vanishes from his profession, likely until next summer. After navigating the abrupt coaching transition from Stevens, who moved upstairs and made shrewd deals that led to the East title, the Celtics must adjust to the well-regarded but unproven assistant, 34-year-old Joe Mazzulla, whose only head-coaching experience came at Fairmont State in West Virginia, where his 2019 team lost to Mercyhurst in the first round of the NCAA Division II tournament. The acquisition of veteran guard Malcolm Brogdon will help, but forward Danilo Gallinari is out for the season with a torn ACL and big man Robert Williams continues to suffer knee problems. Why doesn’t Stevens return to the bench? Maybe he will at some point.
For now, how does Udoka deal with life in the darkness? Will he rebuild his family situation? And if he does return to the Celtics next season, what happens the next time he preaches accountability? Will his players tune him out? Or will the world already have canceled him?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.