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How Ime Udoka and Damon Stoudamire’s struggling days growing up made the Boston Celtics the toughest team in the NBA

Ime Udoka learned to play tough in a Midnight League (12 am to 3 am) created by Damon Stoudamire's father.
Pacific Tigers head coach Damon Stoudamire and Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka

Damon Stoudamire and Ime Udoka

Damon Stoudamire didn't hesitate to quit his job and join Ime Udoka in Boston as his assistant coach. The two share a history of struggle and hard upbringing that forged a friendship for the ages. It's also the origin story of the Celtics' newfound toughness and resilience. 

Ime Udoka and Damon Stoudamire’s friendship

Right after Udoka got the head coaching job, he immediately called his friend Damon to become his assistant. At that time, the former Portland Trail Blazers star focused on coaching the Pacific Tigers, a job he’s had since 2016. Leaving that to take an offer was a risk, but Stoudamire didn’t have to think twice. He knew that working again with his former teammate was special. Unknown to many, their relationship goes way back to when they were still trying to reach their dreams.

Udoka grew up in a struggling household, but he learned from his father that having pride was the most important thing, even if that meant skipping some meals when Vitalis Udoka had no work. Ime turned to basketball as an escape. He played at a Midnight League, 12 am to 3 am, going up against much bigger kids. 

Willie Stoudamire, Damon’s father, started the program to keep troubled kids off the street. Udoka learned that playing with kids who got nothing to lose meant being on the receiving end of rough plays and wayward elbows. But Udoka continued to play until he couldn’t. It was a vital moment in his life that would be useful in his career as a head coach.

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Celtics’ toughness crucial for the series against GSW

Stoudemire built a reputation as someone as tough as nails. His highlights include daredevil drives to the basket despite his 5’10” frame. After all, he wouldn’t be called Mighty Mouse for nothing. Udoka’s rough upbringing and his thirst to succeed made him a credible leader because he had experienced it all before.

When Udoka preached defense to his players, it didn’t get through at first. Boston was in disarray, and many talks about how the team’s superstars weren’t sharing the ball. Fortunately, the players responded, and they turned things around just in time. Udoka wanted and demanded accountability from his players. Jaylen Brown appreciated that in his rookie head coach.

“Ime got us on the same page because there were no tiers. He addressed us all on the same level.”

Jaylen Brown, The Ringer

Now, the team is playing beautiful music together and creating nightmares on defense. Isiah Thomas was turned into a believer.

I don’t think there’s a coach in the league, that could have handled the disruption they had between Tatum and Brown and Smart, and bring those three back together after such a public altercation, and then lead them to the Finals.

The Celtics have the players they need. They just need to have the right leaders to bring out the best in them. Good thing Ime Udoka and Stoudamire are on their bench. Tatum, Brown, Smart, and the rest could learn a lot about toughness and not giving up. 

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