After the most glorious free-agent haul in Laker history, Ime Udoka came to training camp hoping to win a spot on a star-studded team that already had 12 players with guaranteed contracts. It was a little like a studio guitarist hoping to join the Beatles at their peak.
Udoka survived the first round of roster cuts but was waived Oct. 23, five days before the start of the season. Now he's back, proving that his time was worthwhile -- and showing just how difficult it is to kill the dream of playing in the NBA.
Udoka had been playing for the Charleston Lowgators of the National Basketball Developmental League, but after Kobe Bryant sprained his right shoulder Monday night, the Lakers signed Udoka to a 10-day contract. He got the call at 5:30 p.m. EST Tuesday, caught a 7:15 flight, arrived in Los Angeles at midnight, took a physical at 8 a.m. Wednesday, went to 10 o'clock shoot-around and played six minutes against the Denver Nuggets that night.
He made it to the NBA ... even if his stay could be over by Friday.
"It's what I've always wanted to do," Udoka said. "When I left camp I could have gone overseas and made more money. But it was my goal to get here. I went to the minor league, knowing that something like this could happen if you're just patient and wait your turn. Unfortunately, Kobe got hurt. But it also helped me out and brought me back up here."
A player can be signed to a second 10-day contract. After that he must be signed for the remainder of the season or released.
"With 10-day contracts, you want to play well and set an example of what you can do," Udoka said. "Hopefully, if I do what I'm supposed to do, I can stay on for the rest of the year."
The dream lives, but the calendar is the enemy.
Reporters flocking to Kareem Rush and Brian Cook after Monday's game against Cleveland. With so many Laker superstars injured, where else were they supposed to go?
It was an interesting change of pace for the younger, often overlooked Laker players. Normally they walk off the practice floor without a word from the assembled media, and they get dressed in silence after games.
Cook's locker is next to Bryant's -- and Bryant's typical overflow crowd. Cook said, "Usually I have to shoo [reporters] out of the way." Monday, after his 13-point game against the Cavaliers, they were there to see him.
The understanding tone coming from Gary Payton in the wake of the injury wave. As the sole standing superstar, Payton resolved to put whatever issues were bothering him aside and take a leadership role.
"We never figured that this would happen," Payton said of the injuries. "But it did. And now I've got to come out here and adjust to them. What I'm going to do, I am going to adjust to them. Now we've got guys that aren't confident shooting them shots or making them plays, and now we've got to give them confidence to do that. That's what we're here for. That's what I'm here for. Don't be scared to give them the ball, don't try to do things all on my own."
Coach Phil Jackson found it easy to reconcile this Payton with the guy who had a flare-up after a loss at Minneapolis on Jan. 6.
"Gary's a player that doesn't like to lose," Jackson said. "A lot of times after a loss they're going to find something that irritates them in a loss and it's going to activate them or motivate them. ... Some players curl up, some speak out. Gary's one of those players that's going to speak out."
Faces in the Crowd
Donald Trump, David Spade, Tony Danza, Will Ferrell, Queen Latifah, Cobi Jones, Ato Boldon, Monday vs. Cleveland.
John McEnroe, Michelle Kwan, Kristen Davis, Tommy Lee, Christian Slater, Ron Silver, Wednesday vs. Denver.
Terrell Owens, Richard Roundtree, Vince Neil, Rob Reiner, Friday at Sacramento.
In a Word
As in done for the season, Bryant's initial thought after Cleveland's Kedrick Brown landed on his shoulder Monday night and Bryant heard "snapping and popping sounds." It turned out that the damage wasn't that bad. But if it had been worse, there was the possibility that it could have been Bryant's last game in a Laker uniform ... and an era would have been done.