ON THE eve of training camp, Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan sat down with Ime Udoka, a 6'5" free agent forward who grew up in Portland, and told him the odds. The team would keep, at most, 13 players, McMillan said, and the Trail Blazers already had that many under contract. "You are going to have to play so well that I go to the owner and beg him to let us keep you," he said.
McMillan knew "not a thing" about the 29 year-old Udoka. He was practice filler, a warm body, a long shot without a shot.
How, then, did Udoka end up pulling down a key offensive rebound in Portland's 110--106 opening-game win over the Sonics? And how did he get in the Blazers' starting lineup, becoming the NBA's most improbable early-season success story, all while mourning the sudden death of his father?
"You're not human if you can't feel good about what Ime's done," Portland assistant general manager Kevin Pritchard says. "Telling him he'd made the team was one of the best basketball experiences I've ever had."
Having played at three colleges—the last of which was Portland State—then in the International Basketball Association, the NBA Development League, Spain, France and, last year, back in the D-League, Udoka stopped dreaming about a long NBA career some time ago. "Just the opportunity to show myself, that's what I dreamt about," says Udoka, who had cups of coffee with the Lakers in 2004 and the Knicks at the end of last season.
His chance came days before the Trail Blazers opened camp, when guard Aaron Miles, who like Udoka attended Portland's Jefferson High, failed a physical because of a sprained ankle. Pritchard had seen Udoka at the FIBA World Championship, playing for Nigeria (where Udoka's father, Vitalis, was born) and averaging a team-high 14.2 points. But Pritchard was struck most by Udoka's versatility. "I saw him move from the three to the two and even play some point guard," says Pritchard.
Udoka didn't play in Portland's first preseason game, but he was set to get his chance on Oct. 17, against Golden State. At the shootaround that morning Udoka talked about how excited his father was to watch him play at the Rose Garden. But a few hours later, at about 1 p.m., Udoka got a call informing him that his father had collapsed at home. By the time Ime arrived, Vitalis was dead. The cause was complications from high blood pressure and diabetes. He was 59.
Udoka missed that game but returned two days later at the urging of his mother, Agnes. He played 31 minutes that night against Utah, scoring 16 points. The next night he had 16 points and five assists against Seattle and impressed McMillan on defense with four steals. "He played well against [Utah's Andrei] Kirilenko and then had a hell of game against [Seattle's] Rashard Lewis," McMillan says. In a rematch with Utah on Oct. 23, Udoka scored 11 points and held Kirilenko to the same.
"Basketball became my therapy," says Udoka, who still has a difficult time talking about his father's death. "It was a sanctuary out there for me."
The coaches began to see in Udoka skills that other players lacked. "They had shooters and young athletic guys, but they needed that Raja Bell/Bruce Bowen type. They needed defense," Udoka says. Management also liked that he fit the new image it was trying to cultivate. "We want good people like Ime on our team," Pritchard says. "We're done being the Jail Blazers."
Vitalis's funeral was on Oct. 26, between road games against the Clippers and the Warriors. Ime was prepared to miss the service, but McMillan and Pritchard let him know that he didn't have to. "You made the team," McMillan told him. "Go and be with your family. This game won't do anything to change how we feel about you."
In Ibo, one of Nigeria's languages, ime means patience. "That is something I have been thinking about a lot lately," says Udoka, who is playing for the veteran's minimum ($771,000). "It fits what I've had to go through. Not everyone makes it to the NBA coming out of college; not everyone gets to be a first-round pick. It's been a long journey. But a lot of guys have started a long career by getting an opportunity like this."
Ime Udoka's emergence as a starter may be the biggest shock of the NBA's first week, but here are some others.
Andrew Bynum, C, Lakers The NBA's youngest opening-night starter (at 19) has been impressive, averaging 10.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 blocks in just 19.3 minutes through Sunday.
Quentin Richardson, F, Knicks After a nightmarish first season in New York he is back in gunslinging form, leading the team in scoring (21.7 points a game)—and averaging 8.0 rebounds.
Mouhamed Sene, C, Sonics This widely panned 2006 first-round pick (10th overall) came to camp as Seattle's third-string center, but an injury to Robert Swift and the ineffectiveness of Johan Petro has made him the starter.
Hakim Warrick, F, Grizzlies A summer spent working out with former Syracuse teammate Carmelo Anthony has paid off: Warrick is averaging 19.3 points, 8.0 boards and 2.7 assists.