Melvin Ely throws his head back until his cornrows reach the nape of his neck. He begins to laugh as Emeka Okafor pokes his head into the locker room.
“Okafor in 04?” Ely says. “Nah. 04’s over man. Okafor in 05.”
Okafor, who is in the middle of his pre-game routine, hardly acknowledges Ely’s endorsement. Okafor grins briefly, gives a quick glance at the media that has collected in the locker room, shrugs, and continues with his workout.
During the month leading up to the start of the NBA season, the Bobcat marketing team peppered Okafor’s face on billboards and commercials around Charlotte. The signs read “Okafor in 04!” On television, Bobcats’ commercials concluded with the power forward saying, “I’m Emeka Okafor and I approved this commercial.”
Immediately, he was the face of the franchise and embodied the hope that someday, Charlotte would again be a respected franchise like it was when Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson were Hornets.
Most would think becoming the hope of a franchise would be accompanied by immense pressure. But much in the same way Okafor shrugs off Ely’s joke, he nonchalantly answers questions about the pressure to perform.
“Pressure doesn’t really affect me,” he says.
With the way he’s played, it’s hard not to believe him.
Through December’s end, Okafor has averaged 14.8 points and an Eastern Conference leading 11.7 rebounds, displaying an offensive arsenal many scouts believed he didn’t have.
“A lot of people are surprised about his ability to make shots and his range,” Bobcats head coach Bernie Bickerstaff said. “I’ve always given credit to coach (John) Thompson (the former Georgetown coach) and coach (Jim) Calhoun (currently the coach at Connecticut). Although they may not have wanted their players to take those shots on the collegiate level, they’ve given them reps in practice in shooting the basketball to prepare them for the next level.”
Still, Okafor’s rebounding ability has been his crowning achievement.
Flashback to the day after Christmas at Madison Square Garden. The Bobcats are visiting the Knicks and find themselves down 16 with 9:06 left in the fourth quarter with Okafor looking on from the bench.
Bickerstaff glances over and gives a quick nod. Okafor enters the game.
Okafor starts with a put-back dunk over New York power forward Kurt Thomas. It’s a thunderous jam that is a harbinger of what’s to come.
Okafor adds a layup and a free throw before another put-back slam comes. Five minutes after Okafor enters the game, the Bobcats trail the Knicks by only two.
New York goes on to win the game, but every Knick sings the praises of Okafor, who has finished with 23 points and 15 rebounds.
“He’s been playing outstanding basketball,” said Knicks forward Kurt Thomas. “His teammates really look for him on the offensive end and he rebounds the ball very well on both the offensive and defensive ends. He’s playing extremely well for being the young player he is.”
Young by age, but not in terms of maturity.
In a basketball era with high school kids jumping directly to the NBA, players getting into fights with fans and players demanding the spotlight, Okafor is exactly the type of player the NBA needs right now.
“(He’s) a player who you have no concern about,” Bobcats head coach Bernie Bickerstaff says. “Some guys are just that way.”
Okafor’s that way because of where he came from.
His father, Pius, left a war-torn Nigera in 1974 for a better life in America. He paid bills working in many low-paying jobs before going back to Africa several years later where he met his wife, Celestina, a nurse.
Since then, Pius has earned a doctorate in pharmacy and Celestina continues to work as a nurse. Both have instilled in Okafor the meaning of an education and just how lucky he is.
“I don’t know what they did (in raising me),” Okafor says. “But whatever they did, it worked.”
Especially in the classroom, where Okafor’s prowess has become stuff of legend.
An academic All-American, Okafor graduated a year early from Connecticut with a degree in finance. His crowning achievement in the classroom was a paper on the differences between the college and pro basketball game.
“I was comparing Plato and Machiavelli to leadership styles in the NBA,” Okafor says. “Plato said leaders have some kind of inner goodness.”
“That would be like Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan or Larry Bird. These guys have the leadership within. They drew people toward them, they followed them for that reason. College is more Machiavellian. Colleges have to wheel-and-deal. They have to show one thing, but really do another.”
It was a brilliant paper that garnered praise from professor and attention from the media. So much was written about his academic ability people began to believe he didn’t fully enjoy college.
“I’m talking to reporters and everyone thinks I go straight from the library to the gym and they tell me not to miss out on the social life,” Okafor said. “I did all that. I was a regular student. I was just a regular student that happened to play basketball.”
He played so well that he led Connecticut to an NCAA championship in 2004. So well, that he was the No. 2 pick in last summer’s NBA draft. So well, that the 23 points and 15 rebounds Okafor notched in the game against the Knicks – both game highs – came on a night when Okafor didn’t play his best game.
“He’s not there yet,” Bickerstaff says, “but great basketball players, winning basketball players, even on bad nights, they find ways to contribute.”
This story originally appeared in the January 2005 edition of The New York Sportscene.