Hiring Ime Udoka could be major coup for Rockets

Jun 10, 2022; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka talks with his team during a timeout in the second quarter of game four in the 2022 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors at the TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Hiring Ime Udoka could be major coup for Rockets

When the University of Houston needed a men’s basketball coach, Tilman Fertitta, head of the school’s board of regents, turned to Kelvin Sampson, a highly decorated college coach, who carried with him some baggage. That gamble paid off, and now nine years later, will hope for a similar reward after reportedly hiring Ime Udoka as the Rockets’ new head coach.

The baggage Udoka brings to Houston is very different from the baggage Sampson brought with him. Sampson was hired after a six-year exile from college basketball stemming from NCAA violations that ended his tenure at Indiana. Udoka was suspended indefinitely and later fired by the Boston Celtics due to an improper workplace relationship.

For a Rockets team that needs structure and discipline, Udoka was their number one option to replace Stephen Silas. Despite some early season struggles, he led the Celtics to the NBA Finals in his only season as head coach, but there is a reason he was available.

According to ESPN, an independent law firm discovered Udoka used “crude language in dialogue with a female subordinate before the start of an improper workplace relationship with her.” 

“I want to apologize to our players, fans, the entire Celtics organization, and my family for letting them down,” Udoka said in the statement after his suspension was announced. “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.”

He has not uttered anything publicly since.

That will change as soon as he’s introduced by the Rockets, possibly as early as Tuesday. Udoka will have to be forthcoming in order to get through the uncomfortable stuff and put what happened in Boston behind him. The story will only linger if he dances around the questions that are surely coming or avoids them altogether, turning his past into a distraction.

Udoka was at the top of Fertitta’s list when it was clear over the winter Silas wasn’t going to be retained, and the Rockets wasted no time hiring him. After taking close to two months to find their last two head coaches, the Rockets’ search this time around lasted two weeks, and they tabbed Udoka five days after interviewing him.

There are parallels between the team in Boston Udoka took over two years ago and the one he’s getting now, mostly with the high draft picks on the roster, but the Celtics had advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 3-of-5 seasons before his arrival while the Rockets are simply looking to be relevant for the first time in three years.

Hiring Udoka comes with risk, but so did Sampson. The Rockets felt comfortable with him after conducting their own investigation of him with help from the NBA and the Celtics, and if he’s able to put his past transgressions in the rearview mirror, Fertitta could wind up with a home run selection for the Rockets, just like Sampson has turned out to be for the Cougars.

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