CHICAGO — Ekpe Udoh’s nose was buried in “Becoming” by Michelle Obama hours ahead of the Utah Jazz’s tipoff against the Chicago Bulls on Saturday at the United Center.
Also, after every home game at Vivint Arena, the Jazz center religiously yells out some form of encouragement to those around him before exiting the locker room.
“Y’all have a good evening,” Udoh waved at teammates and media members following a March 4 loss to New Orleans.
“Pray for the ones in New Zealand,” he insisted after the Jazz’s 120-100 victory versus Minnesota on March 14.
He once even recommended a Sam Cooke documentary on Netflix, and you can’t forget about Donovan Mitchell’s favorite Udoh catchphrase of “peace and hair grease.”
“We all feed off of the positive vibe that he gives off,” Mitchell said. “There’s never a cloudy day with Ekpe and I think that’s one of the greatest things about him as a teammate.”
Sure, Udoh only averages 1.4 points and 1.2 rebounds in 5.3 minutes per game, but his locker room presence is certainly felt behind the scenes as well as his 18.13 player efficiency rating when he does get minutes.
“Whether he comes in the game or not, he has that urgency and you feel that when he comes in,” Mitchell said of Udoh. “Myself, every time I come out the game, I pretty much ask him, ‘What does he see? What can I do better?’ There are times where he’s like, ‘You’re not doing anything,’ or ‘You did this well, but you can do this better,’ and I think we all feed off of that.”
Udoh recently delivered a solid third-quarter stretch during Monday’s win at Washington where he recorded a block, then a tomahawk putback dunk followed by another swat that ignited his teammates during the 10 minutes he logged in the 116-95 win versus the Wizards.
“The group that we have and Ekpe kind of personifies it. Guys that are just dialed in,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “You hear Coach Alex Jensen was telling Georges (Niang) the other day to stay ready, stay ready, you never know when it’s going to come.
“I can remember as a player, going ‘OK, coach. Yeah, I got you.’ There’s obviously part of you that wants it to be today but to be ready in those moments like Ekpe was against Washington and Georges for the last few games has come in ready,” he continued.
Udoh, 31, certainly isn’t your average NBA player in terms of just playing basketball. Ekpe’s Book Club has become widely popular among Utah fans, even getting a personal Twitter shout-out from former First Lady Michelle Obama. Jazz owner Gail Miller also attended a February session where she shared life lessons and advice in a wide-ranging conversation with Udoh at the team’s practice facility.
In the wake of the fan controversy in Utah, teammates consulted him for a powerful Fred Hampton quote worn by Jazz and Brooklyn Nets players on March 16. The gray T-shirts featured an image of black and white hands clasped together with a Hampton quote below that said, "You don’t fight racism with racism, you fight racism with solidarity.”
Knowing that background about Udoh is why it wasn’t a big deal to see Udoh zoned out while reading Obama’s memoir before the final game of a four-game road trip in the Windy City after falling to Atlanta on Thursday.
He takes pride in bringing that positive energy with the previous path he took to reach the NBA.2 comments on this story
“I’m just grateful for the opportunity,” Udoh told the Deseret News. “The other day, I had a shirt on that said, ‘I’m my ancestor’s wildest dreams.’ I was only able to meet my grandparents once and just to see how hard my parents fought to give us a great opportunity, and here I am living out probably my ancestor’s dreams and they’re living through me, teaching me along the way. I’m grateful for that.
“You’ve got to continue to push everybody’s mental,” he continued. “We can’t just sit at home and take whatever we’ve learned through school, we have to continue to search for that knowledge and whatever field or whatever you love out of life because knowledge is endless.”