Udoka eager for next chapter

Isiah Thomas was the first to plant the seed. Nate McMillan helped water it. When Gregg Popovich echoed the sentiment, suggesting to Ime Udoka two years ago that he might consider going into coaching once his playing days were over, a retirement plan was hatched to fruition.

“Pop told me, ‘I hope I get a chance to hire you some day,’ ” Udoka said. “That made the decision to stop playing a lot easier.”

This week, Popovich got his wish. Udoka, who last played in the NBA in January 2011 with the Spurs, was hired as the team’s newest assistant coach, the first step in a a new career path the 35-year-old former small forward has been plotting for several years.

A veteran of 316 games over seven NBA seasons, parts of three of which were spent in San Antonio, Udoka joins a Spurs coaching staff depleted by the loss of Jacque Vaughn (Orlando head coach) and Don Newman (Washington lead assistant).

Because Vaughn’s spot on the staff was considered “extra,” created specially for him when he became available in 2009, Udoka — a 35-year-old coaching rookie — is expected to be the team’s only bench hire this offseason.

“I ran into Pop in Las Vegas during Summer League (in July),” said Udoka, a Portland native. “He let me know the deal with Jacque, that he was probably leaving. He told me a good opportunity might be there (in San Antonio).”

Udoka joins a staff that includes a pair of longtime Popovich assistants, Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown.

Though new to the coaching game, Udoka believes his varied NBA experiences — with stops as different as San Antonio and Sacramento — have prepared him for a variety of situations.

From his previous stint with the Spurs, Udoka learned the value of meticulous preparation.

“Taking care of your own business, that’s one thing you learn with Pop,” Udoka said. “If you have pride and just do what you do, you’ll be successful, whether the shots fall on any given night or not.”

In a press release announcing the hire, Popovich praised Udoka’s “outstanding work ethic” and “a natural inclination to teach.”

Thomas, who coached Udoka in summer league and for eight games of 2005-06 season with the Knicks, was the first to put the coaching bug in Udoka’s head.

“He said, ‘You don’t score 20 points a game, but the young guys seem to respect you and respond to you,’ ” Udoka said.

Since his retirement in 2011, Udoka had been living in Los Angeles, where his girlfriend, actress Nia Long, and their 9-month old son reside. The Spurs’ history as a proving ground for future NBA head coaches helped lure Udoka back to the game he loves.

“You see their family tree all over the league,” Udoka said. “It’s a great opportunity. You know they’ll help you develop.”

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