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Old 05-17-2008, 11:18 PM   #1
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Default udoka brings fight to spurs

Udoka brings fight to Spurs

Web Posted: 05/16/2008 10:56 PM CDT

By Jeff McDonald

The windows were rattling now, and for the first time, Ime Udoka was frightened.

He had survived the fistfight, dodged the flying chairs, and though barefoot, had even managed to shrug off the unexplained removal of his shoes.

But now he and his fellow members of the Nigerian national basketball team were back in their already pickpocketed locker room, sitting ducks, with what sounded like the entire city of Algiers banging on the door, desperate to finish the fight they had started.

This was the moment that Udoka first became struck by the notion that he might be killed over a game of basketball.

“That's when you realized this was real life,” Udoka said. “This wasn't American basketball. We didn't know if we were going to make it out of there.”

Udoka is now a first-year reserve forward for the Spurs, a key rotation player engaged in the first postseason fight of his NBA career. After once being forced to slug his way out of Africa, the prospect of Monday's make-or-break Game 7 against the New Orleans Hornets must seem like child's play to him.

That brawl, which came at the African qualifying tournament for the FIBA World Championships in Algiers two summers ago, began as fisticuffs between two players for the Algeria and Nigeria national teams.

That prompted a bench-clearing melee, which prompted dozens of Algerian spectators to rush the floor, which gave rise to a scene that would make the 2004 Pistons-Pacers skirmish look like something from a Three Stooges routine.

At one point, the 6-foot-5 Udoka — in a move more Jackie Chan than Jerry West — had to flatten a guy.

At some point, Udoka lost his shoes.

“It was crazy,” Udoka said. “It was not only players, but fans. There were chairs flying everywhere. I'm big — we were all big guys — but they outnumbered us.”

Born and raised in Portland, Ore., Udoka was eligible for the national team only because his father, Vitalis, was Nigerian. He never envisioned his participation might be harmful to his health.

After brawling on the court, at times one-on-three-or-four, the Nigerian players beat a hasty retreat to the locker room and waited for ... well, they didn't know exactly. They knew they couldn't count on FIBA officials to calm the ruckus. Udoka says they were among the throng banging for blood on the locker-room door.

Two horrifying hours later, police arrived to quell the rabble and restore order. The ordeal did not do much to alter Udoka's basketball future, though it did alter his future travel plans.

“I'm never going back to Algiers again,” he said.

The Spurs are more than happy to keep him in San Antonio.

Undrafted out of Portland State in 2000, Udoka played for 12 professional teams in seven seasons — including NBA stints with New York, Portland and the L.A. Lakers — before landing with the Spurs.

After one season as a starter with his hometown Trail Blazers, Udoka signed a two-year deal with the Spurs in August. As a reserve here, his playing time waned and waxed during the regular season.

As the Western Conference semifinal series against New Orleans has progressed, however, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has leaned on the 30-year-old Udoka with increasing frequency. In a crucial Game 6 victory Thursday, Udoka was the first player off the bench, and responded by making all five of his shots for 13 points.

Recruited primarily for his defensive prowess, Udoka has lately owned a hot shooting touch, making nine of his past 12 3-pointers in the series.

“Ime was huge for us,” Tim Duncan said after Game 6. “He came in and hit some shots and really opened up the floor for us.”

Udoka, who has played at least 21 minutes in each of the past three games, also helped hold New Orleans sharpshooter Peja Stojakovic scoreless in the second half of Game 6. That allowed Spurs super-stopper Bruce Bowen to take a defensive turn on Hornets' star Chris Paul.

“It's who he is,” Bowen said of Udoka. “He did a good job in Portland last year, but nobody knew about him because he was in Portland.”

Udoka's journey to this point has been streaked by personal tragedy. Last season, the day Udoka was to make his preseason debut with the Trail Blazers, his father died suddenly at age 59.

Quiet and reserved, Udoka doesn't come off as a guy likely to go Karate Kid on a bunch of Algerians.

His Spurs teammates, however, can sense the mean streak the minute Udoka steps on the court.

“He has that spirit, that passion,” Fabricio Oberto said. “He fits in well with this team.”

On Monday, Udoka will face the first Game 7 of his career. It will come before a howling, gold-clad crowd in New Orleans, were the Spurs have lost by 18, 19 and 22 points in this series.

Not surprisingly, Udoka appears relatively unfazed by this proposition.

“It's my first time in the playoffs,” he said with a shrug, “but it's just playing basketball out there.”

There is no question that Game 7 will be the game of Udoka's life. It will not, however, be the fight of his life.
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