Editorial Note: The author of this piece can be reached on Twitter @Velodus.
On Wednesday afternoon, Ime Udoka was introduced as the next coach of the Houston Rockets alongside Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and general manager Rafael Stone. It was the first opportunity that reporters have had to question Udoka in the months since he was suspended and ultimately let go of as the coach of the Celtics for, according to Shams Charania, having an improper workplace relationship with a female staffer that featured Udoka “making unwanted comments” to her.
The specifics of Udoka’s actions are unknown beyond that Shams report, however, as both the Celtics and Udoka have been cagey about what happened since he was suspended. Knowing that, one might think that the reporters at that press conference would’ve grilled Udoka and Fertitta, would’ve asked them question after question after question about not only what happened in Boston but how the Rockets could justify hiring someone who has serious questions around whether they could be trusted to maintain a proper workspace.
Instead, that’s not what happened at all. Over the course of a 36-minute press conference, Udoka, Fertitta and Stone were asked a total of 28 questions by Houston media members, and of those 28, only seven had any relation at all to Udoka’s incident in Boston. To show what that looks like, I decided to paraphrase all 28 questions and list them below, with only the questions that were relevant to Udoka’s misconduct being highlighted.
1. What can you tell us about the Boston situation?
2.Why did you want to be here?
3. Did the Rockets have access to the Celtics investigation on Udoka?
4. Can you elaborate on some of the work you did in your time off?
5. How has your hard work impacted the way you coach?
6. Did you know the GM or owner beforehand?
7. What is your developmental plan for these young players?
8. What is the timeframe for phases for the team?
9. When did the Rockets get in your radar for a new coaching job?
10. Do you speak Spanish?
11. Have you had any talks about what you would like to add to the team?
12. Do you feel like the Celtics were justified in how they treated you?
13. How would Fertitta evaluate the drafting done in the last three years?
14. How much has what you’ve been through in the last year made you a better person?
15. Can you share any insight with how you look at the new staff?
16. What can people expect of your coaching style?
17. What excites you about the current roster?
18. How do you balance holding players accountable with balancing that the players are young?
19. What do you say, Tilman, about a report that you weren’t going to spend as much money as other owners?
20. What are some of the key lessons that you learned from coaching Brown and Tatum?
21. How important was the alignment between you, the GM and the owner?
22. Can you provide more info on the practice facility?
23. Can you talk about your ability to be a mentor to the players?
24. How important is it for you, Ime, to look abroad for talent?
25. How did it make you feel that the players in Boston had your back?
26. How do you plan to implement the Spurs’ team-first culture?
27. Tilman, have you seen any negative backlash to this hire?
28. Ime, Jeff Van Gundy said you have a special way of pushing players, how do you make that all work?
It’s incredible but not surprising how much Udoka was treated with kid gloves by the press, because of those seven relevant questions, a few of them were flat out softballs and almost all of them were either passive or light on specifics – meaning that it wasn’t exactly difficult for Udoka to come away unscathed.
Here was a situation in which the Rockets were hiring a person after they had been let go for misconduct so vague and cryptic that no one is entirely sure what happened. And not only were they hiring this person, they were hiring him not even a full year after the circumstances that led to his ouster, meaning those reporters came in on Wednesday with zero evidence that Udoka had rehabilitated himself at all. That’s the kind of situation that you’d think would have led to tough, probing, exploratory questions from the media. Instead, the press conference felt like a coronation.
What made the press conference particularly frustrating to watch was that of the few questions Udoka, Fertitta and Stone were asked that were probing, none stepped up with any real answers. When Udoka was asked if he could reflect on his time in Boston, he refused, saying that his apology statement from months earlier was all he had to say on the subject. When Stone was asked if the Rockets had access to the independent investigation of Udoka that the Celtics commissioned, Stone offered that they did their “due diligence” but refused to answer the question on the grounds that doing so would be “not appropriate.” And when Fertitta was asked about any potential backlash to the hiring, he had the nerve to admonish anyone who doubted the hire, saying that anyone who did so was “not a good Christian person” and that they should be ashamed of themselves. These were all unacceptable, insufficient answers that didn’t exactly convey to me that the Rockets were operating in the good faith that they claimed they were.
And yet, there were no follow-ups to any of the non-answers that were given. Udoka spent much of the press conference highlighting the importance of accountability while at the same time being so literally unaccountable as to be unwilling to give the slightest detail about what happened in Boston, and yet that ironic hypocrisy went unchecked. And just like that, Udoka’s nebulous misbehavior – which was bad enough to make a team that had just gone to the Finals with him send him packing – will largely become an afterthought during the remainder of his time in Houston.
The lack of curiosity over Udoka’s dismissal in Boston is monstrously disappointing, but it’s not surprising. Last year, in a press conference that took place two days before returning to the field for the first time since being suspended for sexual misconduct, Deshaun Watson was asked only two questions over the course of a 16-minute session that had anything to do with his off-the-field transgressions. Otherwise, they were all football questions. In neither Udoka’s press conference nor Watson’s did the reporters fulfill their job of holding a male sports figure accountable after they had more or less been exiled due to their misbehavior. In fact, in neither instance did the reporters seem all that interested in why they had had to go away at all, with sports instead taking priority.
Udoka’s press conference, like Watson’s, exposes how out of their depth sports reporters, both on a local and national level, often are when it comes to questioning sports figures about things that aren’t specifically about sports. The fact of the matter is that Ime Udoka is not a robot who only exists on game day. He’s a human being, and not just a human being, but a human being who may very likely have – in some form or another – hurt another human being while he was a member of the Boston Celtics. And that same human being has now been welcomed as a member of the Houston Rockets, where he will now work with other human beings, other women, and he has entered that position after having to offer almost no public accountability or take any meaningful responsibility whatsoever.
That shouldn’t be acceptable to reporters, and until that changes, until sports reporters can do a better job of preparing to question sports figures who are asking for a second chance, the more those figures will bank on offering non-answers to a few questions and then comfortably moving on. And the more the women those figures have mistreated will be little more than expenditures on those figures’ hasty, predetermined road to redemption.