Few people may be bigger Ime Udoka fans than Godwin Nnanna.
Nnanna, president of the Nigerian American Multi-Service Association, a Boston-based nonprofit, knew about Udoka even before he was named the head coach of the Celtics last year, not because he keeps close tabs on the NBA’s coaching ranks, but because of Udoka’s time playing for Nigeria’s national basketball team.
“So, we as a community were obviously very excited when we saw him coming here,” Nnanna said.
There are a few big reasons for that. Udoka, whose father, Vitalis, came to the United States from Nigeria, is the sixth Black coach in the history of the Celtics. But he’s also the first NBA coach of African origin.
Now, with the Celtics looking to bring home a banner under the guidance of the first-year head coach, the local Nigerian community is beaming at the success of one of their own.
While Udoka’s hire came with a bit of history attached, Nigerians in the NBA are nothing new. Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon broke down barriers when he came from Nigeria to the University of Houston. Giannis Antetokounmpo is known as the Greek Freak, but both of his parents emigrated from Nigeria. When the Celtics took on the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals they faced Victor Oladipo, whose parents are Nigerian immigrants, and Bam Adebayo, whose father is Nigerian.
But it's a big leap from playing in the NBA to coaching in the league.
“It’s a game that has a lot of Black presence, but often don’t have a lot of Black coaches."
“It’s a game that has a lot of Black presence, but often don’t have a lot of Black coaches," Nnanna said.
Recently, there’s been notable change on that front. Half of the league’s teams currently have a Black head coach. But if the Celtics win these Finals, Udoka would become only the seventh full-time Black head coach in league history to earn a ring.
Nnanna hopes that Udoka’s presence can help continue to inspire others and push change among coaching ranks.
“We as Nigerians see ourselves fundamentally as a part of the Black story in America. And he’s writing his history along those lines as being a part of this racial group that has been so present in this game, but also have not had, fundamentally, such a presence in terms of coaching as they ought to be,” he said. “The coaching presence is not reflective of the playing presence, and I think he’s pushing the boundaries of those areas.”
When Nnanna spoke to GBH News, it was still early in the Celtics' season and a lot of uncertainty swirled around just what kind of team Boston would produce. But now that Udoka has guided them to the Finals, that early season excitement around the C’s has gone through the roof.
Cecilia Lizotte was born and raised in Nigeria and came to the states in 1999. Ten years ago, she opened up Suya Joint, a Roxbury restaurant serving Nigerian and West African dishes.
Lizotte, like any other member of the local community, is stoked to see what Udoka’s done with the Celtics.
“I would basically like to say, yeah, Nigerians were born leaders,” she said with a laugh. “So, whether we like it or not, when we come to foreign countries, we work extremely hard to succeed, right?”
Lizotte can relate to what Udoka has to go through as a leader herself at the restaurant, where she’s busy running both the business side and working in the kitchen.
“You get goosebumps. It’s an amazing feeling … to see someone that comes from a similar background [succeeding],” she said. “And of course, it’s tough to lead people, but in terms of even what I do and what he does, I think it’s a huge achievement.”
Lord Aneke was one of Lizotte’s customers this past weekend when he and a couple of buddies visited for a Sunday lunch. He said there’s a saying in Nigeria that goes “No matter what we do, we perform as high as we can.”
“He’s embodying it for us. I think he’s killing it for his first year,” Aneke said. “And being able to get in the psyche of the players, learn the players, figure out how they work together, that’s not an easy thing. … And you can sense a sense of respect that the players have for him as well, you know what I mean? Which makes the chemistry so perfect, right?”
Unfortunately, not everything is perfect for Nigerian basketball right now. Udoka, who played for Nigeria’s men’s national team in the 2006 FIBA World Championships and in the 2005 and 2011 FIBA Africa Championships, spoke out before Game 2 against the government’s decision to withdraw the men’s and women’s teams from international competition, which could keep them out of the Summer Olympics in Paris in 2024. He said the potential for growth and talent level in Nigeria is vast.
“I try to look at the good that I had at the time, but it was a lot of unorganization, last-minute planning, so some of these things aren’t surprising. I talk to the younger guys who have played in the NBA recently with the Nigerian team, and it sounds like a lot of the same things I went through as a player there. So, not a lot has changed, and it is disappointing. Looks [like] a little bit of restructuring at the top would help.”
“I try to look at the good that I had at the time, but it was a lot of unorganization, last-minute planning, so some of these things aren’t surprising,” he said at a news conference before Game 2 of the Finals. “I talk to the younger guys who have played in the NBA recently with the Nigerian team, and it sounds like a lot of the same things I went through as a player there. So not a lot has changed, and it is disappointing. Looks [like] a little bit of restructuring at the top would help.”
Still, Udoka is proud of his background. While he hasn’t seen the excitement over his success firsthand, he’s aware of what people are saying.
“I heard that I've been argued over what tribe my father’s from, and they’re trying to claim him and where I come from, and all that,” Udoka said to some chuckles in the press room on Thursday. “But for me, it’s a source of pride and anytime there’s some firsts, we’ve talked about, it’s a big thing. So coming up through the Nigerian program as a player, although being born in America, it’s a source of pride for me and my father and playing with the [Nigerian Basketball Federation]. So, my sister started that, and I kind of got into it with the world championships and the African championships, so I’m deeply rooted in that and loved my time there, so it’s a source of pride for me, for sure.”
An earlier version of this story originally appeared on GBH News.
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