HOUSTON – Ime Udoka is everything the Houston Rockets were looking for in a coach, and owner Tilman Feritta insists they aren’t concerned about the behavior that led to his year-long suspension from the Boston Celtics.
Udoka was introduced as Houston’s new coach Wednesday after serving a suspension this season following the disclosure of an inappropriate relationship with a female staffer.
“The NBA told me that they felt very comfortable with Ime becoming the coach of the Houston Rockets,” Fertitta said. “And so that made me feel really good after a lengthy, lengthy conversation.”
When asked about the opinion of some fans who don’t think Udoka deserves a second chance after what happened in Boston, Fertitta forcefully defended his new hire.
“They’re not a good Christian person if somebody thinks that,” he said. “We’re a forgiving society and everybody makes mistakes. And some things maybe we shouldn’t forgive people for but, but I think what happened in his personal situation is definitely something we forgive for.”
Udoka didn’t provide specifics of what happened in Boston but said he's remorseful for what he did. He said he spent the last year working to become a better person and mending his relationship with his 11-year-old son Kez.
“Having that time off and really a full understanding of how many people you impact by a poor decision, that’s where you start with the ownership and accountability,” he said. “I preach that for the players and so I have to take responsibility for my part. I took leadership and sensitivity training and (did) some counseling with my son to help him improve the situation that I put him in.”
“You can grow from adversity and think I’ve done that this year,” he continued.”
The 45-year-old Udoka, who took the Celtics to the NBA Finals in his only season there, takes over for Stephen Silas, who was fired after three dreadful seasons.
The Rockets had the worst record in the previous two seasons and finished tied with the Spurs for the second-worst record this season, earning another lottery pick in this year’s draft.
Udoka takes over a team that made the playoffs in eight straight seasons before the trade of James Harden in January 2021 led to a complete rebuild. General manager Rafael Stone said this month that he plans to pursue some veteran free agents this offseason to add to Houston’s young talent as the Rockets try to turn things around.
The Rockets hope to build their team around Jalen Green, the third pick in the 2021 draft and Jabari Smith, taken second in 2022. And they’ll get to add another top player this year as one of three teams with the best odds to win the draft lottery and get the No. 1 pick at 14%.
“It comes down to the players and I think we have a tremendous amount of young talent and the sky’s the limit as far as that,” he said. “They talked about cap space and some of the flexibility we have, and I think they’ve done a great job of building for the future. So, I’m excited to be part of that and look forward to the moves we can make coming up in the draft and free agency.”
Udoka led the Celtics to a 51-31 record in his one season in Boston. The Celtics finished the regular season on a 26-6 run and beat Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Miami in the playoffs before falling to Golden State in six games in the NBA Finals.
Udoka wasn’t drafted and played professionally in Europe ahead of a seven-year NBA career that included short stints with the Los Angeles Lakers, Knicks and Trail Blazers before he spent three of his last four years with the Spurs.
He then joined coach Gregg Popovich’s staff as an assistant, working with San Antonio from 2012-19. Udoka then spent one season each as an assistant with the 76ers and Nets before being hired to replace Brad Stevens in Boston.
Udoka was a candidate to replace Nick Nurse in Toronto before being hired by the Rockets over candidates that included Nurse, Sam Cassell and Frank Vogel.
Fertitta and Stone said Wednesday that they believe the Rockets have moved from phase 1 of their rebuild to phase 2 where they hope to have a winning record and contend for a playoff spot next season.
“I’m expecting a lot from these guys here,” Fertitta said. “It’s time to get on the right path. Over the course of this process, we got to really interview some great coaches and it was a tough decision, but it wasn’t because it was one person that we just felt like was an exceptional candidate to take us to the next level.”
Kevin Porter Jr. was the only player to attend the press conference, and Udoka joked that he was trying to get a leg up on the other players with the new coach.
“I see I got a smart player here,” he said. “He’s trying to get some playing time already — only guy that showed up.”
Houston’s roster is one of the youngest in the NBA.
“I’m just trying to expedite the process of becoming professionals,” he said. “To the players, one of my first messages would be youth is not an excuse.”