Jazz center Ekpe Udoh sat in a Zions Bank Basketball Center chair a little too small for his 6-foot-10 frame. Because he had just finished a yoga session, he was a little physically fatigued. But his mind was sharp, his oversized hands engulfing a copy of “Little Fires Everywhere”, the second novel by Celeste Ng.
That was the scene at Udoh’s book club, the final discussion of a novel featuring as many twists and turns as the title suggests. On a recent Thursday night, 18 members of the club attended and joined in on a lively discussion. The 90-minute session ran the gamut of the book’s issues — race, socialism, societal hangups and custody battles. Udoh’s group took them all on.
“This one was great because people started opening up more about their background and their upbringing and about what they’re going through,” Udoh said. “It’s great when people open up. You get to see the human side of people and that’s special. It’s also special that people can meet up in person and interact with each other in person.”
Udoh’s book club is five years old, having first started it in Milwaukee when he played for the Bucks. He says his process is pretty simple. Udoh picks a book, and announces the new title on Twitter. The first 25 people who sign up get a free copy of the book. There is a schedule, a page goal that needs to be met, followed by a twitter discussion. Finally, there is a meeting, where members can discuss the book in person.
EKPE UDOH’S BOOK CLUB
• Udoh’s book club started five years ago when he was a member of the Milwaukee Bucks.
• His latest book, “Little Fires Everywhere,” by Celeste Ng, featured two in-person group discussions and a twitter discussion.
• His next book will be either “Sing Unburied, Sing,” by Jesmyn Ward, or “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead
Amid this process, Udoh tries hard to eliminate stereotypes. Growing up, he’s always thought of himself as a scholar who also happened to be a 6-10 shot-blocker. He has always wanted his club to provide a means for people less fortunate than himself to have an avenue to read.
Off the court, Udoh’s book club has been a good fit for a franchise that prides itself on community involvement. Indeed, many in attendance at the club meeting said they were lifelong Jazz fans. Udoh took pictures and signed autographs following the discussion. The group took a photo, and the center took the time to talk to members individually.
“It means so much to the community that he takes the time to do this,” Jazz fan and group member Katherine Whalen said. “I’m an avid reader, and my husband [Mark] told me about it. I’ve never read a book like this. I loved the perspective gained from each person. That was the most profound thing about it.”
Udoh’s love of reading was borne as a child growing up in Oklahoma. His parents, Alice and Samuel, are Nigerian and moved to the United States in 1982 in order to pursue their education.
Samuel Udoh tried to drill work ethic and the value of education into his son daily. He told Ekpe getting a degree held paramount importance. He told him and his siblings that getting an education would be key.
“He took to reading as a child and never looked back,” Samuel Udoh said. “I told him, whatever you do, you have to go to school, because that will never fail you. He knew that if he went to school, he would never fail.”
As a result, Udoh’s academic upbringing was rigorous. Long nightime library sessions were the norm. Report cards and academic progress reports were monitored frequently. The elder Udoh preached work ethic daily.
“It was the most important thing to us,” Ekpe Udoh said. “He was just so big on education, he wanted that for his children. I was gifted with God-given basketball ability. But I always knew where the education and work ethic came from. I knew that I had to grind when it comes to life.”
Udoh’s family didn’t anticipate him growing to 6-10 and developing into one of the best defensive players in college basketball, which is what he did after two seasons at Michigan and one at Baylor.
That season at Baylor was historic. Udoh led the Bears to the first Final Eight appearance in school history. Baylor won 28 games that season, and Udoh developed into a sure-fire lottery pick. Declaring for the NBA Draft was a no-brainer, as Udoh was taken at No. 6 by the Golden State Warriors.
Samuel Udoh was against it.
He loved that his son became a great athlete, but was already worried about life after basketball. Ekpe hadn’t yet graduated from Baylor when he declared for the draft, he hadn’t finished his education.
So, Ekpe Udoh promised his father he’d finish school and secure his degree, a promise he went on to fulfill.
“When he graduated, he called me and told me that time is here,” Samuel Udoh said. “I was worried, because I knew there will be a time with no NBA. But when you go to school and complete your education, the rest is history. When he graduated, I said you’ve satisfied me. I’m proud of him.”
Udoh’s book club has lasted five years and four career stops. His most challenging groups came from his time playing overseas in Turkey, mainly because of the time difference from the United States and because his Fenerbahce team’s fan base wasn’t too keen on one of its players having an outside interest. He also counts it as one of his best book club experiences.
“They wanted all of us to concentrate on basketball,” Udoh said. “They didn’t want the players staying up too late.”
For Udoh, his book club is about relationships and fighting narratives. He knows the stereotypes athletes and basketball players can face. He knows his vociferous reading habit is not the norm in a social media-driven world.
But his work ethic will always be there. And he loves building relationships with the members of his club. With the Jazz, he hopes to be off to a good start in both areas.
“It’s special being here and doing this. Take away what I do, I’m still human, I still have a passion to get kids and people to read.”
PELICANS AT JAZZ
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Wednesday, 7 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 16-21; Pelicans 18-18
Last meeting • Jazz 114, Pelicans 108 (Dec. 1)
About the Pelicans • New Orleans will play six of its next eight games away from home. … New Orleans center DeMarcus Cousins has three games of at least 30 points and at least 20 rebounds. … The Pelicans have lost two straight after winning three in a row. … Former Jazz guard Ian Clark is a New Orleans reserve. … Former Lone Peak star Frank Jackson has yet to make his NBA debut for the Pelicans, but is close to being cleared for basketball activity.
About the Jazz • The Jazz haven’t won consecutive games since early December, when they beat the Pelicans and the Washington Wizards. … Utah is 3-15 away from Vivint Smart Home Arena, the worst road record in the Western Conference. … The Jazz and Pelicans will face each other twice more after Wednesday. … Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell scored a career-high 41 points in Utah’s previous win over New Orleans. … The Jazz begin the new year with four of their first five opponents in current playoff positioning