Udoka Helped the Spurs Land Aldridge
In early July, LaMarcus Aldridge truly had a hard time making his free agency decision. Narrowing down his list of teams wasn’t too difficult, but he struggled with his choice once he was down to two potential suitors. He was torn between the San Antonio Spurs and the Phoenix Suns.
“That was what I was weighing: Go to Phoenix, be the face and the guy, or go to San Antonio and probably win sooner and be more blended in,” Aldridge told Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports. “That was my issue.”
Aldridge would obviously go on to choose San Antonio, but initially he had doubts about how he’d fit within their system, whether he’d get enough touches and if he’d have to change his style of play. He didn’t have those concerns about Phoenix, where he’d be the top option and focal point. The Suns even went out and signed Tyson Chandler (and brought him to their meeting), which intrigued Aldridge since he prefers playing alongside defensive-minded centers.
But, at the end of the day, the Spurs had a secret weapon that really helped them throughout the recruiting process. While Aldridge met with head coach Gregg Popovich twice, it was another Spurs coach who ended up selling the big man on joining San Antonio: assistant Ime Udoka. Once Aldridge had made up his mind, he admitted to Spurs general manager R.C. Buford that Udoka is the person who ultimately swayed him.
“I told R.C. Buford, I said, ‘Ime got the deal done,’” Aldridge told Amick. “Pop (indicating that he’d remain the coach in the coming years) was very important to me, but Ime put in a lot of work on that.”
Causal basketball fans may be wondering, ‘Who is Ime Udoka?’
For those who don’t know, he is a former NBA player who played seven seasons in the league, suiting up for the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs and Sacramento Kings. He was a journeyman, who only averaged 5.2 points and 2.9 rebounds throughout the course of his career.
Udoka’s best season was in 2006-07, when he started 75 games for Portland and averaged a career-high 8.4 points and 3.7 rebounds. But more importantly for this story, that’s when he met Aldridge, who was a rookie with the Blazers. Udoka took Aldridge under his wing and helped the young power forward with his transition to the NBA. He only spent one year with Portland, joining the Spurs for the 2007-08 season, but he stayed close with Aldridge over the years.
Udoka spent three of his final four years playing in the NBA with the Spurs. Popovich enjoyed having Udoka on his team, and then offered him a job as an assistant coach in 2011. Udoka turned down overseas opportunities to continue his playing career to take the gig on the sidelines with the Spurs and he has been with the organization ever since. He doesn’t get much attention and, to be honest, some people may know him more for his relationship with Nia Long (he’s been with her since 2010 and they have a child together) than his basketball resumé.
However, his relationship with Aldridge is what’s making headlines today since it really gave the Spurs an edge when they started recruiting the power forward. Udoka was part of the Spurs’ pitch meeting in Los Angeles (where all of Aldridge’s meetings took place). But, after all of the meetings, he also accompanied Aldridge on the big man’s flight home to Dallas, essentially continuing San Antonio’s pitch and answering any questions that the four-time All-Star had. This may have been the most important meeting of Aldridge’s free agency. All of those concerns that Aldridge had about fitting in with the Spurs and having to change his game? Udoka eased them during that flight.
“It (the meeting process) was done; I was down to two teams, Phoenix and the Spurs,” Aldridge told Amick. “I thought (Udoka) was staying in San Antonio for the summer, so I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a jet going to Dallas. You could get a flight from Dallas to San Antonio (to head home).’ So he was like, ‘Cool.’ So he gets on the jet, and I’m like, ‘We’re leaving. You should buy your flight (to San Antonio from Dallas) on the plane. Go buy your flight.’ He was like, ‘I ain’t buying no flight.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He’s like, ‘I live here (in Los Angeles) right now. I’m flying just to answer any questions that you have.’ I was like, ‘Man, you’re crazy.’ I said, ‘Get off the plane.’ He said, ‘No, I’m going to answer any question that you have.’ So I’m like, ‘You don’t have to do this. Don’t do this.’ He’s like, ‘Nah, I’m not getting off.’
“So we rode – and I had my kids with me and my mom – so they sat in the front of the plane and him and I went to the back of the plane and talked the whole flight. It was just conversation, about the system, about me. It wasn’t really a lot of questions. It was just him telling me how I’m going to fit in. Everybody was making this big fuss about how I’m not going to be able to take shots anymore, or be the scorer that I am, and he was just telling me, ‘We need a guy to score down there. Tim (Duncan) is older, and we need a guy to command a double team down there.’ So I was like, ‘Maybe I’m not a Spur, because I’ve been averaging 23 (points per game) for the last three to four years, and maybe I don’t fit into y’all’s system of ‘let’s all average 17 (points per game).’ And he was like, ‘No, we’re not trying to change who you are and make you average 16 or 17. We want you to be you, because you’re going to help us be better and vice versa.’ He kind of reaffirmed that they didn’t want to change me, and that who I am is ok.”
In other words, without Udoka jumping on that flight and talking Aldridge through his decision, it’s very possible that the star forward would have joined the Suns (who, by the way, had a similar “secret weapon” in Earl Watson – a former Aldridge teammate who remained close with him and had recently been hired as an assistant coach with the Suns).
Aldridge admits that things may have been different without Udoka’s involvement.
“He was huge,” Aldridge told Amick of Udoka’s role in the process. “As you said, I played with him, and when he played with us, him and I were really close. And even when he left to go to the Spurs, when we played against them we still hung out and he would get me into the practice facility so I could get in the cold tub. He has always been really cool with me, and I thought he played a vital part in this. If I had questions, I would call him. And when things weren’t looking as good (during the Spurs’ pursuit), him and I would talk for an hour or two, just going over everything. He would maybe reaffirm some things that I didn’t understand, or I didn’t think were accurate.”
Udoka may have been a role player who made a limited impact on games during his playing career, but he was the Spurs’ centerpiece of their pitch to Aldridge and helped San Antonio land one of the summer’s biggest free agents.
Thomas Opens Up to Basketball Insiders
If you missed it on Friday evening, Basketball Insiders caught up with NBA veteran Tyrus Thomas and chatted about getting close to full strength, receiving interest from several NBA teams and gaining confidence after his short stint with the Memphis Grizzlies last year. You can read the full story here, and here were some of Thomas’ quotes:
On his health: “Physically, I’m doing fine now. I’m in San Antonio training and just the biggest thing right now for me has just been conditioning and strength, just getting back to 100 percent. In hindsight, when I signed with Memphis, I think I was only at about 50 percent. So right now, it’s been just getting my body all the way where it needs to be with strength, weights and conditioning. That’s really my main focus right now and if I can get those things where I want them to be, the other things won’t be so hard.”
On interest from NBA teams: “I talked to my agent and we are just trying to see what’s the best fit. I would love to be on a training camp roster. What I do understand is that now I have to take a different path than [in the past] and a different path than I’m used to. I’m sure that I’ll be healthy enough to do what I have to do to make a team if I do make a training camp roster.”
On his brief time in Memphis: “My stint in Memphis was good. Mentally, that was great for me. I had only been working out maybe nine or 10 weeks before I got that stint in Memphis, so that was good for me mentally. It let me know that I still have something left in the tank to be able to get close to where I wanted to be that quickly.”
Thomas has had an interesting journey since being amnestied by Charlotte in 2013 (which included a serious surgery that was potentially career-ending) and now he’s determined to return to the league. Read his full interview with Basketball Insiders by clicking here.
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