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No dream is deferred

Ex-Demo and Vik, Ime Udoka has played worldwide, but now he's with the Blazers - right where he wants to be
by: MELISSA MAJCHRZAK, Ime Udoka gets to the net despite Andrei Kirilenko of the Jazz in a preseason game in Salt Lake City on Oct. 19. After playing around the country, in Europe and for Nigeria, the 29-year-old rookie’s happy at home — and impressive.

These are the most bittersweet of times in the life of Ime Udoka.

The former Jefferson High and Portland State standout is on the verge of his greatest basketball triumph - making the roster of the Trail Blazers, the team for whom he rooted throughout his childhood.

Udoka is back home, playing in front of the hometown fans, friends and family members.

Except for his father, Vitalis, who died Oct. 17, hours before Ime was to make his first preseason start for the Blazers.

'We were very close,' says Ime, a 6-5, 220-pound swing man who is expected to see action tonight in Portland's final exhibition game at Sacramento. 'I've been on the road a lot the last few years, but we talked all the time. He was one of my biggest supporters as far as my dreams to play in the NBA. He was so excited for me to be back in this city playing for the team I've pulled for all my life.

'That's the most disappointing thing about his passing. I have a good shot to be playing for this team, and he's not going to be here to see it.'

Udoka sat out the game on the night of his father's death. Since then, the unsigned free agent has gone about upgrading his position from a player scrapping for a roster spot to one who likely will have a distinct role on the team come opening night.

In the five games he has played, Udoka has averaged 13.5 points while shooting 56.4 percent from the field. He scored 16 points in each of his first two outings, against Utah and Seattle. In a rematch with the Jazz on Monday at the Rose Garden, Udoka collected 11 points, four rebounds and three assists and hit a clutch 3-pointer and a

2-pointer in the closing minutes of a 114-110 victory. He spent much of the game guarding All-Star forward Andrei Kirilenko, who had only 11 points on 2-of-7 shooting in 38 minutes.

It seems almost a foregone conclusion Udoka has earned a roster spot. An important role with the Blazers, too?

'Wow, you'd have to talk to Steve (Patterson, the team's president-general manager) about that,' coach Nate McMillan says. 'I don't do contracts. But Ime has been solid. We're doing a lot of things with him. Look at what he has done against Rashard Lewis and Kirilenko, two of the best small forwards in the West. He is much smaller than those guys, but he has played big.

'He is doing everything on the floor. He's scoring, he's distributing, he's rebounding. We'll talk about it as an organization, but he has my vote right now.'

Another 'aye' comes from Kevin Pritchard, Portland's assistant GM-director of player personnel, who says Udoka reminds him of an accomplished swingman of a previous era, Mario Elie.

'Ime is a 'glue' guy,' Pritchard says. ' We need some consistent behavior in our locker room and on the floor. Whether he plays one minute or 40 minutes, he is going to be the same guy every day. He's a very mature person and a very mature player. With a young team, you need that. He calms guys down, or if guys are too loose, he tightens people up. For our culture, he's a great fit.'

Portland is loaded with promising young talent at Udoka's natural position, shooting guard, with rookie Brandon Roy and Martell Webster. There is more room at small forward, with Darius Miles facing potential knee surgery and unlikely to open the regular season on the active roster. It appears Udoka, Webster and Travis Outlaw will share time at the 3 spot, which is fine with Udoka.

'I want to show them I can guard bigger guys,' he says. 'When I was with New York last year, (coach) Larry Brown threw me on Paul Pierce and Stephen Jackson. I think I did pretty well.'

'I've had a fire burning'

Assistant coach Maurice Lucas likes Udoka's versatility.

'It's surprised me, the multiple positions he can play,' Lucas says. 'His basketball IQ is real high. He has played very well for us thus far. I like his attitude. I would like to see him make it. He would help us.'

Udoka is no kid. At 29, he has had cups of coffee with the Knicks and the L.A. Lakers but still qualifies for rookie status. He is a journeyman who has played in the International Basketball Association, the U.S. Basketball League and the National Basketball Development League, along with stints in France and Spain. He had failed tryouts with Philadelphia and Cleveland, but has never lost his resolve and has continued to improve his game.

'Since my senior year at Portland State, I've had a fire burning,' he says.

Vitalis Udoka was a native Nigerian who came to the U.S. at age 26 and attended Portland State. He was a career laborer, working various jobs in the city. Ime's mother, Agnes, is retired after a 20-year career with U.S. Bank. They had three children - James, 31, and Mfon, 30. (Mfon and Ime became the first brother-sister act in the NBA and WNBA when Mfon played for the Houston Comets.)

'My parents have been my inspiration, seeing how hard they worked to support our family,' Udoka says.

Player makes it to world level

After graduating from Jefferson in 1995, Udoka spent time at the College of Eastern Utah and the University of San Francisco before transferring to PSU for his senior season. He was the Vikings' best player before suffering a knee injury that ended his season a month early. He ended up reinjuring the knee the next year and bounced around the minor leagues for a while until he regained his health.

Last year was the best of his career. He was an all-NBDL first-team choice with Fort Worth and finished the season with the Knicks, averaging 2.8 points and 2.1 rebounds in eight games. Then he led Nigeria in scoring, rebounds and assists in the world championships last summer.

Udoka played summer-league ball for the Knicks, who wanted to bring him back for training camp in October. After they signed Jared Jeffries, Udoka asked for his release and had tryouts with Dallas and Golden State before opting to sign a make-good deal with the Blazers.

'Portland was the best fit,' Udoka says. 'They had some spots available and were bringing only 15 players to camp. I was familiar with the coach and players and blended in well. I saw an opportunity.'

The last two weeks, he has made the most of it.

'Ime brings the same game to practice every day,' center Joel Przybilla says. 'That's what this team needs. He makes the game simple for everyone else. If you ask me, he has a role on this team, for sure.'

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