The pinnacle of Ime Udoka’s professional career came on one of the saddest days of his life. Hours before he made his first start for the Trail Blazers, Udoka laid his father to rest.
The former Portland State star had been informed just hours before the game that he would be starting and has been penciled into the starting rotation in every game since.
Born Aug. 9, 1977 in Portland, the same year the Blazers won a championship, Udoka has been destined since birth to be a Portland Trail Blazer.
He played high school ball at Jefferson High School and went on to play for the Portland State Vikings during the 1999-2000 season.
Udoka was one of the most talented guards to ever wear a Vikings uniform. In 24 games he led the team in scoring with 14.5 point per game, grabbed 7.3 rebounds per game, dished 3.0 assists, had 38 total steals and 13 blocks. He was named first team all-Big Sky Conference and Big Sky newcomer of the year. Not just a scorer, Udoka filled up the stat line with his excellent overall play.
During the peak of Udoka’s success, scouts and coaches from the NBA started sniffing around the South Park Blocks looking to get a view of this rare Portland talent. With five games left in the season, Udoka tore his ACL and had to put his NBA dreams on hold.
Since then, though, the 6-foot-6, 215-pound shooting forward has traveled all over the world to play basketball–to Spain, the Canary islands, France, Nigeria, Charleston, Fort Worth, L.A., New York and now finally back to Portland.
”It really doesn’t matter where I am at, my goal is to play in the NBA,” Udoka said. “Being in Portland now, I’m definitely happy to be home.”
Udoka received his first call to the NBA when the L.A. Lakers’ Kobe Bryant was hurt two years ago. He played in only four games and did not start. The next year he was called up and played for the New York Knicks, playing eight games. However, his statistics where negligible and he was demoted back to the D-league.
Udoka finally got another chance this summer.
After attending open workouts every summer at the Trail Blazers’ facilities, Udoka was able to build good relationships with the coaches and players. On the last day of signings after Aaron Miles failed a physical with a sprained ankle, Udoka was given his shot as a daily NBA player.
”People ask me am I surprised to be in the NBA,” Udoka said. “Obviously, starting was a stretch, but the NBA was always my goal. But my faith, I had no doubt I would be here. So that’s basically what I tell them, whatever your dreams are, work hard and eventually you can achieve them.”
With his ultimate dream finally coming to fruition, disaster struck. During the Blazers’ first preseason game at Seattle, Udoka’s father died due to heart complications. Feeling shocked and lost, his family urged him to go on the road trip rather than stay at home to mourn.
”It was the best therapy I could have had. It was good to stay on the court and play because if I was sitting at home everything would have been going through my mind and it would have made me crazy,” Udoka said.
The adversity and pain only made Udoka fight harder to achieve the dream that his father shared with him.
”He was one of my biggest supporters, critics, everything, so he was happy and that was one of the reasons I stayed, was to play in front of him,” Udoka said. “It is sort of bittersweet, the fact that I’m here now starting, because now he isn’t here to see it.”
Lead assistant coach Dean Demopoulos loves the attributes that Udoka brings to the Blazers. After assistant coaching for Hall of Fame Temple coach John Chaney for 18 years, Demopoulos has an eye for hard-working players.
”He is a fundamentally sound basketball player that’s tough, that’s smart, that defends and understands what winning basketball is about. I don’t know who taught him, I don’t know how he learned it, but it jumps out at a guy like me,” Demopoulos said.
Demopoulos sees the hardships that have befallen Udoka as having made him stronger.
”He has been through the fire. It’s like a metal that has been tempered. Where it is heated and sharpened and heated and heated and heated. It’s called ‘tempered,’ it makes it stronger and gives it a sharper edge,” Demopoulos said. “The kid’s been tempered, he’s been through things.”
Starting for the Blazers on a nightly basis, Udoka has shown them good reason to keep him around. Averaging around 9 points, four rebounds and two assists a game, Udoka is playing solidly. He is also leading the team with a .413 three-point percentage.
”I knew what I could bring to the team as far as some veteran leadership, defensive presence and the things I do. ‘Cause we got a bunch of young guys I felt I was a good contrast to what they had,” Udoka said. “But to crack the starting lineup, I’d be lying to say that I thought I would come in and start.”