By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst
They will never need to hold a telethon for Emeka Okafor. Dude graduated with a finance degree in three years with honors and a 3.8 overall GPA at Connecticut, where he led the Huskies to the national championship in 2004. (I know this acutely because during the evening the Huskies beat Duke in the national semifinals at the Final Four, my wife turned to me at some point in the second half and said ‘we have to go to the hospital. It’s time.’ It took some time -- maybe he wanted to see the end of the game -- but our first born was delivered the morning of the national championship game between UConn and Georgia Tech.)
All of this to say, Emeka Okafor is a smart guy who would get along just fine without basketball. Except, he can’t. Which may explain why he’s in New Orleans this morning with the Pelicans, on a 10-day contract signed Saturday, at 35, more than four years removed from the last time he played in the NBA, with the Wizards in the 2012-13 season.
He played well in Washington, but a herniated disc in his neck, which was diagnosed before the Wizards sent him to Phoenix in October, 2013, for Marcin Gortat, kept Okafor -- the second pick overall in the 2004 Draft, by Charlotte, after Orlando took Dwight Howard first -- kept him from ever playing for the Suns, or anyone else. Rehabbing to get back on the court, the former Rookie of the Year winner Okafor paused to first get married (many of us who cover the league know his wife, Ilana, who did PR for the NBA for many years) and then have two beautiful kids.
But his thoughts were always toward a return to playing. The problem was, out of sight, out of mind. As 2014 turned into 2015 and 2016, teams moved on, though the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat all talked with him over the years. Finally, in 2017, Okafor was cleared to play, and signed a camp deal with the 76ers last fall. He didn’t make it out of preseason, but he opted to continue his comeback with Philly’s G League team in Delaware, the 87ers (“the first time I heard he was gonna be my roommate, I was really shocked,” said his Sevens teammate, Julian Jacobs, “‘cause when he got drafted, I was in, like, fourth grade”).
Okafor played in 26 games for Delaware, averaging 6.8 points and 4.7 rebounds. The Pelicans came calling after losing DeMarcus Cousins for the season with an Achilles’ tear a week ago. Nothing is guaranteed other than the next 10 days, which is a new place to be for a guy who’s been a starter and made man almost all of his basketball career. But Okafor will take the leap. He’s strong enough again now to handle the landing.
David Aldridge: You have a beautiful wife whom we all love, and two beautiful kids, and I know you probably have the first dime you made playing pro ball. So, why? Why are you doing this?
Emeka Okafor: You know, when I first got injured, the goal was to always come back. It never dawned on me that, hey, man, I’m done, let me quit. When I’m embarking on the rehab process, I didn’t plan on it taking four years. I didn’t plan on taking four years off. The whole time my mind was like, I gotta go back, I gotta go back, I gotta go back. I never lost that hunger to play and I still felt I could play. When it came finally time to actually get on the court, I tried out for some teams. Understandably so, they were like, hey, man, you’ve been gone for four years. There were questions on whether I could do it, why I was doing it. Are you going to quit in the middle of it? So the G League was the option as a proving ground to demonstrate the want to and the capability to play. I was like, okay, I get it. If this is what the process dictates, I want to get back. And if this is the way back in, this is what I have to do. Long story short, the goal was always to come back and play. I wanted to play. I felt I could play. As an athlete, I think we all have this drive that just keeps us going. For me, I wasn’t going to stop unless the situation forced me to stop. I just couldn’t lay down and go ‘okay, I’m done.’ I think I can go unless I’m told otherwise, or forced otherwise.
DA: You were pretty decent in camp for the Sixers. How disappointing was it you couldn’t stick there, after all the work you’d put in just to get back on the court?
EO: This has been a learning process for me. To be fair, I thought that me getting back in would a little be easier than it was. I was like, okay, with my experience and what I’ve done, I thought I would be at a minimum contract, that a team would take a chance. I didn’t really, until I put myself in the eyes of a GM, in terms of being gone, and I saw all the work, I understood the business aspects and the risks associated, and the concerns associated with me getting back in. In understanding that, I understood the time frame of when my window of opportunity would actually be. Once I understood rosters and contracts and guaranteed dates, and when 10 days were able to start, and trade deadlines, there’s just all these other aspects of the NBA that I didn’t know about, because it didn’t pertain to me during my career. Now, at this point, when I was trying to get back in and I saw all these workings, I was like, okay, this is a completely different animal than what I thought ... especially since call-ups don’t start until Jan. 5th or 10th, or whatever it was, and I understand from the point of a GM, hey, let’s see if this guy even wants to do it, or if he can do it. I understood that no one’s going to jump out immediately. I understood the lay of the land. I didn’t really take it personally.
DA: Besides the obvious opportunity, what was appealing about New Orleans to you?
EO: I’ve been here. The city’s familiar, the GM’s familiar, the staff’s familiar, the arena’s familiar. To be honest, my thought process was, just for the sake of being comfortable, if I could somehow land in a place where I’ve already been, that would be pretty cool. The fact that that worked out is awesome.
DA: You know the game and how the game has evolved since you’ve been out, with every big being a stretch four or five now. How have you incorporated some of that into your game?
EO: I’ve been working on threes and dribbling skills. I haven’t implemented the three yet. I’m capable of doing it. But, to be fair, there’s certain classics that never go out of style. Being able to screen and roll hard, play solid defense and rebound the basketball and finish around the rim, there’s always gong to be a need for that, no matter what happens. I feel like that’s my core value, to be able to do that extremely well. That’s going to be able to fit somewhere and somehow, in whatever era you’re going to be in. Especially in the pick and roll dominated game, you have to be able to set screens very well, and you have to roll. The ability to set screens, roll hard and finish at the rim, whether it be dunking or being able to finish with finesse, is what’s going to open your shooters and your stretch fours and whatever else you’re trying to set up. That aspect is still important. And being able to defend and rebound the basketball. Those have been my core values and I’ve made sure that I’m solid in that foundation. But I understand the way the game’s gone. I’m going to work on these other aspects and be able to use them when necessary. It’s in my back pocket. If it’s needed, I can pull it out and use it.
DA: How do you plan when you’re on a 10-day contract?
EO: Literally, you can’t. I was in Grand Rapids getting ready to play the Drive, and I got a call: hey, man, we need you on a plane in seven hours. Granted, the road trip I was on was only for one day, so I packed two or three pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear, a shirt or two, and that was it. That’s what I have with me right now. And it’s like, okay, now I’m in New Orleans, and it’s like, figure it out. New offensive scheme, new teammates, new whatever. Granted, it’s the same city but it’s like, bam. And coming from a place of guaranteed contracts, guaranteed playing time, I knew where I fit in. There was no volatility. To just, straight up, volatility, seat of your pants, figure it out as you go. No real compassion. Well, it’s compassion, but it’s like, the window of what you can do is like, all right, produce now. Right now. It’s interesting. It’s a different side. It’s an adventure for me. I’m enjoying it. It’s giving me a well-rounded basketball experience and given me perspective and even more appreciation for the grind. But iit is different. You can’t plan for it. JYour mindset, to be honest, is just stay ready. My whole thing is, be prepared for your opportunity, so when your opportunity presents itself, in whatever fashion, you’re ready. Because you’re not going to know what’s going to happen . You have to be prepared to be prepared.
DA: Did you have to have any conversations with your family about this, or did they just say, go?
EO: Ilana, she’s awesome. I’m very fortunate to have her as my wife. Great mother. She wanted me to be back damn near more than I wanted to be back. Her dad was a ref (former Supervisor of Officials Ronnie Nunn), and she worked in the NBA. She knows the business. She knows what it is. There was no conversation necessary, ‘cause she already knew the deal. It was like, all right, this is what we’ve got to do. She was with me the whole rehab process. She understood the drive and what I was going for and why I was doing it. She understands how special a thing it is to be part of the NBA. If there’s a chance, you want to be part of it as long as you can. It’s a very special experience. It’s everybody’s dream to be there. If you have access to it, you just don’t stop. You don’t just lay down. You go until you can’t.
DA: You ever played for or on the same staff with Alvin? I know you weren’t playing in Phoenix, but I didn’t know if your time there overlapped.
DA: So what has he said to you about expectations and what he wants from you?
EO: Ah, nothing. Literally, I haven’t talked to him. There hasn’t even been time. It might have been the 24-hour mark today. Right now, and even that’s marked by plane time and travel and sleep. Right now, I’m at the practice facility, getting ready to go over the plays.
DA: I think a lot of guys want to go out on their own terms. I wonder how important that was to you: that no matter what happens, just getting back on an NBA court and being able to play allows you to say, at least, I made it back, and if it’s this year or next year or whenever, if I leave, it won’t be because of injury; it’ll just be because it’s time.
EO: My thing is, go until you can’t. Go until it just doesn’t make sense anymore. I don’t feel like that time has come. My injury happened, and I was like, no, I still can go. Work back and give it your all, and if it doesn’t work out, hey, you tried. What are you going to do? It’s sports; stuff happens. But until that moment, you just go until the horn stops.
DA: What do you think you can provide to a team -- and I don’t mean the Xs and Os, skill sets part. I mean as a guy, as a person, as a teammate.
EO: Just wealth of knowledge and experience. In terms of professionalism, how to be a basketball professional. I think I’m very good at that. My thing is, I’m always trying to, people have helped me out and taught me. I’m trying to help and teach young guys. Whether it’s basketball, life, or just any aspect. Letting them know, make sure you enjoy what’s going on. Or giving them certain aspects of their game. Making sure that people grow, whether it’s on the court or off the court, making sure they’re aware of certain pitfalls that may or may not happen. You see the road. And younger guys, they don’t see the big picture, see the road. They might get caught up in some obstacles that may not be as big as they perceive, or get caught up in stuff that’s really, really not important. So just making sure that they know, this is what you need to worry about. This thing here is minor. This is the big picture.
DA: Who were some of the guys that really helped you?
EO: My rookie season, I had Brevin Knight. He was a good vet. And I had Steve Smith, also, my first year, he was a good vet. And the rest were actually very, very young teams. Bernie Bickerstaff, he was an awesome first coach. A lot of these lessons, you don’t even realize at that time. You realize it later: oh, man, that’s what they were talking about. Little conversations that happened between players on the court. In the offseason. I was in L.A. a lot and would play pickup. Just certain conversations you’d hear, people just talking. At various points in your life you’d reflect back and be like, okay, that’s what they were talking about. When I talk to these guys, I know they may not understand now, but at some point they’ll be like, ‘okay, that’s what Mek was talking about.’ Because I’m like that: ‘okay, that’s what Brevin was talking about. That’s what Bernie was talking about.’ And Nazr Muhammad was a good vet. Juwan Howard, he was a good vet.
DA: I couldn’t help but notice, if you parlay this into a second 10-day or for the rest of the season in New Orleans, on March 13, y’all do play Charlotte.
EO: I haven’t even looked. Now is now. I’m a planner. I like to have things organized and plan. This is very outside the way I operate, in terms of being sporadic and flying by the seat of your pants. I think it’s good for me, because it makes me have to operate out of a different mindset. Literally, my thing is, this 10-day, now. That’s it. Where are we now?
DA: But if you are still there in March, you’d get to play Dwight one more time. And that would be cool, right?
EO: I’ll cross that bridge when I hopefully get to it.
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