After being waived and injured, Mfon Udoka works back into the pros
SEATTLE Ñ Dennis Carline beamed a large smile toward the KeyArena floor as he watched Mfon Udoka, one of his former players at Benson High, in a WNBA game Tuesday night.
Udoka was the first player off Houston's bench and scored six points in a 69-55 loss.
Of all those who have played high school girls basketball in Oregon, Udoka is one of only three in the WNBA (Shaquala Williams and Lindsey Yamasaki are the others).
'That's the thing about high school basketball, you never can tell who's going to be able to stick it out at the next levels,' Carline says. 'It really takes a certain kind of person with the commitment to a dream and the willingness to not give up.
'Dreams don't always fall into your lap. Mfon is a fine example of that.'
Udoka, a 6-foot forward for the four-time WNBA champion Comets, led Benson to the third-place trophy at the state tournament in 1994, then went to DePaul. After four years of college ball, she joined the WNBA in 1998. But her first pro stint lasted just three games before she was waived.
She's spent the last five years working her way back, honing her skills in leagues in the United States, Portugal, Israel and China Ñ not giving up.
'I felt like I didn't get the chance I wanted that first time,' says Udoka, 27. 'I felt like I deserved another shot.'
Udoka is averaging 4.8 points per game and has played in 16 of her team's first 18 games, starting three times.
And she has her eyes on the 2004 Olympics, too. Because her father is Nigerian, she is eligible for dual citizenship and needs only to get a Nigerian passport to play for the Nigerian national team. She plans to play in the African Nations tournament in October in Nigeria. The winning team earns a spot in the Athens Games.
'I'm really excited about the Nigerian team,' she says. 'And I feel ready. One thing I've learned through the last five years is how to have a professional approach. You have to be able to come into a situation and be in control and not let it control you.'
The long road to Houston
After her three-game stint with the Detroit Shock in '98, Udoka found herself looking for a team in a two-league world, as the WNBA and the ABL dueled for talent.
There were plenty of teams with roster spots available. But that didn't last long.
The ABL folded in late '98, and Udoka spent part of 1999 playing in Portugal. Then she tore the anterior cruciate ligament on her right knee and spent nearly two years recuperating, much of it in Portland.
She worked at a health club in Chicago for four months, a stint that helped her stay motivated about playing more pro basketball.
'Working that job definitely wasn't better than playing basketball,' she says with a smile.
She played for Birmingham in the National Women's Basketball League in the spring of 2001, then played in Israel for two months. She flew out of New York eight hours before the attacks on the World Trade Center.
She has played in China the past two winters.
It was this spring, though, that she played her way back into the WNBA while suiting up for the Chicago Blaze of the NWBL. Several players from the Comets, including star forward Sheryl Swoopes, played for the Houston team in that league and noticed Udoka's strong inside play.
In three games against Houston, she averaged 19 points and 12 rebounds. The Comets brought her to camp in May, and she made the team despite the glut of players brought on by the folding of two teams.
'She brings a very strong, physical presence to the team,' says guard Ukari Figgs, who played for the Portland Fire last season. 'That's helpful in this league.'
Udoka scored a season-high 12 points against Phoenix on May 24, while filling a spot on the frequently injured Comet front line. But she has played less than one minute in three of the Comets' last six games.
Van Chancellor, in his seventh year at Houston after 19 seasons at the University of Mississippi, seems to be demanding more from his team, Udoka included.
'Some nights, she plays well and some nights É her experience shows,' says Chancellor, who also is the coach of the U.S. Olympic women's team. 'We're so injured, we just can't get any continuity going. I'm really discouraged.'
Houston, which is battling for a playoff spot, plays in Seattle again Aug. 23.
The future looks bright
Udoka's work to fit into Houston's playing rotation is a daily battle, but she's excited to even have the chance, especially in light of the excess of players from the two defunct WNBA teams.
Once the season ends, Udoka plans to play in a European league while preparing for the African championships and a run at the Olympics. She spent part of Tuesday chatting with Seattle forward Mactabene Amachree, a member of the Nigerian team.
Udoka's career path is an inspiration for more than her former Benson coach, Carline, and future Techsters. It is inspiring her brother, Ime, as well.
Ime Udoka, who prepped at Jefferson High, finished his college career at Portland State and suffered an ACL injury two months after his sister. They rehabbed together.
Ime Udoka played in the NBA's developmental league last season and is scheduled to play for the Trail Blazers' summer league team in Salt Lake City.
'She's definitely been an inspiration to me,' Ime Udoka says. 'She shows you the value of not giving up, of keeping your dream alive.'