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Canzano: Turns out Portland did make the NBA playoffs
Ime Udoka vs. Erik Spoelstra is a blast.
Ime Udoka would tell you that his early life in Portland was filled with financial hardships. The family was evicted once from their apartment. They lived in a motel for a while. Then, a place where the electricity sometimes got shut off.
The family didn’t own a television. But Ime and his father, an immigrant from Nigeria, would listen to Trail Blazers’ games on the radio. Ime would dribble around and pretend to be on the team. Soon, he grew to 6-foot-6 and spent his time riding buses to gyms, chasing pick-up games around the city.
Basketball must have felt like an escape. Even amid multiple knee surgeries and a pile of doubts about whether he’d ever make it in the NBA. He’s in the Eastern Conference Finals now, as head coach of the Boston Celtics.
Hold that thought.
Erik Spoelstra was a student at Raleigh Hills Elementary and Whitford Jr. High School before attending Jesuit High School. His father, Jon, spent a decade working as an executive with the Trail Blazers and engineered what goes down as the most unusual trade in franchise history.
He traded himself.
The elder Spoelstra was a marketing whiz who orchestrated the franchise’s forward-thinking and lucrative radio and television strategies. He engineered a few other ideas in Portland, too, including the franchise’s long-running promotion that rewards fans for the team scoring 100-plus points in a game. He also helped the team buy a movie theater, where sold out games were shown.
In 1983, Spoelstra approached then-general manager Stu Inman and offered to trade himself as a consultant to the Indiana Pacers for two weeks. The Pacers were bleeding cash and interested in figuring out how to do better business. The Blazers needed a point guard. After much internal debate, an unusual deal was struck — “cash and considerations” went from the Blazers to the Pacers in exchange for six-time first team all-defensive team point guard Don Buse.
The elder Spoelstra was the “considerations” part.
Wild stuff, isn’t it?
Spoelstra’s son, Erik, is now the coach of the Miami Heat. Spoelstra and Udoka will face each other in the next two weeks with a trip to the NBA Finals at stake. Game 1 of their series is scheduled for Tuesday evening in Miami.
It’s Portland State (Udoka) vs. the University of Portland (Spoelstra). It’s Jefferson High (Udoka) vs. Jesuit (Spoelstra). Nevermind that the Trail Blazers didn’t make the playoffs — Portland made the conference finals anyway.
It’s Udoka vs. Spoelstra. I wish the Blazers had done more to try and make one of them their head coach instead of hiring Chauncey Billups. Particularly, Udoka who desperately wanted an interview when Terry Stotts was fired last summer. He didn’t get one. The Celtics hired Udoka instead and he now finds himself on the cusp of an NBA Finals.
The stories in this series are rich for us, aren’t they?
Udoka… loaded FedEx trucks in Portland during the day and played pick-up games at night before getting a 10-day contract in the NBA as a player. He parlayed that into a one-year playing contract with the Blazers, then several seasons with the Spurs. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich treated him like family, nudging Udoka toward a career in coaching.
Spoelstra… wore the No. 30 in high school and college as a nod to Portland point guard Terry Porter. He boxed shoes at a Nike warehouse after graduation. Then he went to Europe to play and got his start on the bench by coaching a youth sports team in Germany.
There are some additional local connections on the Boston side. Two other Portland products, Damon Stoudamire and Aaron Miles, are on Udoka’s staff. Two other assistants, Ben Sullivan (Lake Oswego High) and Garrett Jackson (Westview High) grew up in the area, too. And point guard Payton Pritchard is a West Linn High graduate.
Meanwhile, the Blazers are stuck in draft lottery hell.
I’m not saying that Udoka would have been better off working with Neil Olshey’s broken roster in his first season of head coaching. He’s sitting pretty in Boston today. I’m not saying that Spoelstra — who has two NBA titles in Miami — would have ditched the Heat, either. He’s entrenched there. But I’m certainly doing what a host of Oregonians will do this week — wondering how much better off the Blazers might be with Udoka or Spoelstra in charge.
The answers aren’t always local. Pro sports is supposed to give us the best vs. the best. NBA coaching is often a high-wire act. There are a variety of other variables that contribute to the success of a franchise. But when you look up and see a coaching matchup like the one left in the east, it sure makes you proud, doesn’t it?
The Western Conference Final features the Warriors and Mavericks. They’re coached by Steve Kerr and Jason Kidd, two former Pac-12 stars who combined to win six NBA titles as players. The national attention is bound to skew toward their series. But it’s not the matchup that has my attention today.
I’ll be watching this Udoka-Spoelstra meeting. A Celtics win would be widely celebrated around here because of all the local ties. But Portland is sure to get a win, either way.
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