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On Ime Udoka: The making of an assistant coach

Now in his fourth year on Pop's staff and coming off a summer where he helped bring prized free agent LaMarcus Aldridge to San Antonio, Ime Udoka's notable career continues to silently trend upward. I spoke with former NBA player and coach Sam Vincent about the qualities that Udoka brings as an assistant on the Spurs bench.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Career paths are rarely open lanes to the basket; they require the same patience and development that many Spurs possessions do, with opportunities often presenting themselves in various circuitous ways. It's a notion that's even more truthful for those who join Gregg Popovich's esteemed coaching tree, where international experience and disparate perspectives help make up the fabric of his brain trust.

Ime Udoka, the well-traveled former Spur who joined the team's coaching staff in 2012, can be seen on the sidelines looking much like he did back when he donned the silver and black. His build is still rock-solid, and his stoic gaze ever-wary of detail. As part of a huddle that includes more preeminent names, his lower profile is a curiosity -- as is his future as a coach in the NBA.

Sam Vincent is familiar with what makes up a successful coaching staff, as well as a strong basketball coach. An NBA champion with the Boston Celtics and former Mr. Basketball of Michigan, he made the transition from playing to coaching overseas, before working up the D-League ranks and taking on roles with the Mavericks and Bobcats. Recently his time has been split between following the NBA game in Orlando and coaching in the Middle East. He's currently in Bahrain with the club Al Manama, who have their sights set on winning the league title and advancing to the Gulf championships in Dubai.

Vincent is also uniquely familiar with Ime Udoka, whom he had the chance to coach on the Fort Worth Flyers and on the Nigerian national team between 2005 and 2006. He's stayed in touch with Ime over the years, referred to him as a role model for budding D-League prospects, and seemed a natural person to approach when I wanted to learn more about one of the Spurs' more enigmatic members of staff. He was kind enough to field my questions and give his thoughts on the Spurs, the league at large and, of course, Ime.

It was a real privilege speaking with Sam, and I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

How has it been coaching in Bahrain?

I've enjoyed it. We have about 12 clubs, half of which are pretty strong, that each allow one import player. We play about a 38-game schedule that runs from October to June and leads to the Gulf championship in Dubai for the winner. It's a really cool way to stay involved in the game of basketball.

Are you still able to follow the NBA pretty closely while you're over there?

Sure, I follow the league very closely. I make it a point to get around for the summer league games in Orlando and in Las Vegas, and I have the chance to get involved in those. I also watch the Magic at training camp, so I try to stay as close to as much of that as possible.

What do you think about how the game has changed since the days you played in the league?

Well, it's definitely changed. It's a faster game, a more outside game. If you look at the current success of the Spurs and Warriors, there's still a place for good ball movement and pick-and-roll action and discipline within the offense. But I think overall the league is less post-dominant and has moved onto more creativity around the perimeter from even when I last coached in the NBA.

People sometimes talk about types of coaches, whether someone is a players' coach or an aggressive type who stresses the more granular details. Is there such a thing as a type of coach in your mind?

Yeah, I'd say there is. There are coaches that I think philosophically see themselves as strong in certain areas and tend to build their practice plans or team philosophies around whatever those disciplines are, whether it's someone who focuses on defense and getting stops. Or it could be someone who feels the motion offense is a strength and creates a team around that and is maybe a little softer on defense.

I do think that from a coaching standpoint there are guys bred around the league who believe their strengths are in certain categories and then probably bring those disciplines to whatever coaching situation they're involved in, and I think the winning formula is the combination of different strategies or disciplines that makes a strong coaching staff.

Do you see it then as quite important to have a coaching staff that rounds out the missing strengths of that coach?

Absolutely. I think it's very difficult for even the head coach to try to be the master of all; even if he might be aware of all the different areas of focus, i think having strong assistant coaches who can own those areas and stress them to the guys and work on them daily and break them down. I think that's what makes a strong staff.

What's your history with Ime like? Do you see him fitting into any of those aforementioned coaching molds?

My experience with him dates all the way back to the D-League. Before he even played with me in Fort Worth, he played on the North Charleston Lowgators, and that's where we initially met. I remember him as a solid all-around player -- you know, never the guy who was elite in any one area but more of an all-arounder, a solid defender with a good basketball IQ and a good passer. He wasn't a great shooter from outside, but he could make shots -- and I thought his all-around understanding of the game was really exceptional.

When he joined my team in Fort Worth and I thought he'd made some really good strides. I started using him as a point-forward, someone who could bring the ball up the floor and create for other people, and I thought he was excellent at doing that. And I thought the year he played for the Nigerian national team was the year he made some of the biggest growth. He decreased his playing weight, allowing him to be faster and a better defender, and it helped all of his other attributes shine, as well.

He's a guy with a great all-around understanding of the game and knowledge of what it takes for a player to develop.

Are role players pushed to become students of the game differently than 'star' players, or is that understanding simply part of what helps make them an effective role player in the first place? Does that different perspective benefit them as they move on to coaching?

I think role players develop through their personal characteristics and approach to the game and are not pushed or advised to become those type of players. That natural instinct is what usually extends to making them good coaches because they understand the wide range of skill sets required to make a good team, and they usually sit somewhere in the middle of that chart and possess a better ability to communicate from top to bottom.

You obviously coached Ime in two different situations. As Spurs fans we were more familiar with the calming presence and tonal leadership that he provided -- as good role players do -- during his stint in San Antonio. Did he assume a bigger role on the national team?

He did. He took on more of a leadership role and someone who dominated the ball more and made better decisions. The game we won in Algeria to advance to the world championships in Japan was one in which he played exceptionally well, and was the reason why we won that game. It was the type of game where he was handling the ball and making plays for other people, scoring, getting rebounds, and it was that type of performance that took the team to the next level.

The 2006 run you had with the national team was pretty remarkable, with Nigeria notably defeating Serbia and Montenegro and then going to the wire against Germany, which happened to have peak Dirk Nowitzki on its team.

Yeah, we beat Serbia and Montenegro, and that was the game, given their history and tradition, that nobody expected Nigeria to win. We won that game in Japan and moved on to play Germany, and we lost in a pretty controversial way by one point. We had the ball at the end and drew up a play for Ime to get to the basket. Dirk actually fouled him on the play, but it was a no-call, and we lost.

Had we won that game it would've set us up with a quarterfinal match with Team USA. But I think it was still an experience that showed Ime's leadership and overall IQ on the floor.

Going back to that win against Algeria, I had read some wild things about how that match ended, mostly from this post by (Nigerian player) Gabe Muoneke with a section titled 'Ime the Great'. I assume you were there for that, as well?

I was around for that skirmish. I don't know how Gabe retells that story, but Algeria was the host country for that event and they'd put a lot of finances into securing that game and in efforts to advance to the world championships. The game was hard-fought and came down to the end, and we were playing at a sold-out stadium with maybe 12,000 Algerian fans. After we won, within moments there were hundreds of their fans on the court.

What I remember is seeing a few of my players get hit, a few of my players hitting fans, and it turned into a pretty unique brawl in that we were 12 players and two coaches in a complete storm of fans and chaos. I remember the riot police escorting us into the locker room, where we were pretty much barricaded, with a lot of noise -- it was a pretty violent scene and some time after that we got an escort to the embassy, where we stayed until we could get out of the country the next day.

That's an incredible story and it's fortunate that everyone made it out of there in one piece. Have you kept in touch with Ime over the years? Do you talk coaching much?

I have. Our families are very close and we try to stay in contact as much as possible. Ime and I saw each other in Vegas Summer League and the summer before that. We've exchanged ideas and talked coaching philosophies, I think the thing that's really cool is I had a chance to work with Avery Johnson and, him being a disciple of Gregg Popovich, a lot of our coaching and defensive philosophies and offensive structures really are the same. It's off of a similar format which I learned from Avery, that he learned from Popovich and that Popovich learned from Larry Brown and it's a kind of system that's had success everywhere.

Do you have a prediction for who wins it all this year?

Oh, that's tough. How about I round it down to the final four teams -- I think out of the West, Golden State has proven they're legit and not a flash in the pan, so I'll go with them. And I think San Antonio has proven that their success has stood over time, so I see it being those two dueling it out. Then out of the East, I don't think you can bet against LeBron and that, in the end, they'll be there. Then it comes down to either Toronto or Atlanta and, if it came down to it, I'd give the edge to Atlanta over Toronto.

Sam closed by wishing Ime the best of luck and saying that he hopes to see the Spurs in the NBA Finals this year. I think we can all cosign on that.