Feeding the big man in New Orleans
NEW ORLEANS -- Emeka Okafor sits on a hallway table inside the Alario Center on a late Wednesday morning. The New Orleans Hornets have just finished practice following their 110-102 victory over the Clippers the night before. But Okafor is still in motion, dangling his long legs off the table and gesticulating in large circles as he talks. He is patient in answering questions but also appears antsy. After all, this break -- before his requisite stretching and after the post-practice meal -- isn't part of his usual pattern. And routines are instrumental to Okafor, as his new teammates have noticed.
"Anytime I see him other than on the court, he's stretching," Hilton Armstrong (also a collegiate teammate of Okafor's) says. "In the morning, he wakes up and stretches. He gets here and stretches. After the game, he stretches. He never sits still."
Then there's his appetite. "Emeka eats once a day -- all day," Morris Peterson laughs. "I think that's the biggest thing about him," point guard Chris Paul adds. "I've never seen anything like it. We went to dinner at training camp and he ordered three appetizers and three main courses. I don't know what it is, maybe he has an extra stomach, but I told him I'll never go to dinner with him and pay for it."
While they may laugh, Okafor's teammates are also quick to point out that the 6-foot-10 center's traits are indicative of how he lives both off and on the court: with constant, methodical ambition. The former Academic All-American, who graduated from the University of Connecticut with a business degree in three years, is arguably one of the brightest minds in the NBA. Now in his sixth season, and his first with New Orleans, the 27-year-old center has been a steady and productive presence for the 16-16 Hornets amidst a season of early coaching and player changes.
Okafor's father, Pius, emigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria in 1973 with less than $100. He worked several odd jobs while earning two degrees before being hired as an oil and petroleum accountant.
Okafor spent his adolescence in Houston before his family (he has one sister, Nneka) moved to Bartlesville, Okla. "We wanted the kids involved in as many things as we could, so I tried to get Emeka into basketball," Pius says. Initially, it didn't take. Pius signed his son up for bowling, baseball, soccer, and track -- pretty much any sport that was offered. The elder Okafor hadn't played sports growing up in Nigeria but quickly took to his son's endeavors.
"He was that crazy parent running down the sidelines," Emeka laughs. "I didn't notice it but everyone would tell me when I was running down the field, he was, too."
By eighth grade, Emeka started to enjoy basketball. People often asked if he had failed a grade because he was so much taller than his peers. The opposite was true. "Our household was very education-first," Okafor says. Pius talks of how in Nigeria, education is valued above everything, including athletics, an emphasis he instilled in both his children. Okafor had once cried over his first B in fourth grade.
The family moved back to Bellaire, a Houston suburb, when Okafor started high school. He was playing football, baseball and basketball but decided to focus on one in order to compete in college. His father loved baseball but Emeka found it too slow. Football was his self-professed "first love" but at 6-7, 180 pounds, his mother, Celestina, worried he'd be mowed over by offensive linemen twice his size. So he chose basketball. By his sophomore year, he was a starting forward on the varsity team.
A top-ranked academic university was the first priority for Okafor, who scored a 1310 on the SATs and graduated high school with a 4.3 GPA. Pius says Emeka hoped to attend Stanford, but they didn't offer him a full athletic scholarship. UNC, Rice, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech and Arkansas all recruited him, but Okafor liked the potential of UConn's program as well as top academic offerings.
"I wanted as many avenues to success as possible," Okafor says. "Basketball is highly competitive and who knows if you'll make it or not. Or even if you're good enough, you might get injured. But with academics you have more leeway. If something happens, you have a backup plan."
That attitude was somewhat of an anomaly, particularly in today's world of one-and-done collegiate players and those who see college hoops as a steppingstone to the NBA. Okafor graduated UConn in three years with a 3.95 GPA and a degree in business, earning Basketball Digest's Player of the Year Award in 2003 for excelling on the court and in the classroom. "You had to respect that he had school first before basketball," says Armstrong. "And he was excellent in both."
Okafor finished his freshman season as the third-highest shot-blocker in the nation. His offensive skills, however, developed slowly. "When he came into college, he had zero offensive skills -- he was a raw defensive talent," says Pistons guard Ben Gordon, Okafor's good friend and college teammate for three years.
"Emeka is that rare, unique guy with a work ethic beyond belief," UConn coach Jim Calhoun says. "He came in with raw skills and left a great basketball player. He just continued to improve." In 2004, Okafor and Gordon led the Huskies to a national championship.
Gordon also lived with Okafor for two years, and early on he noticed his roommate's voracious appetite. "'Mek was one of those guys who would eat three times the serving of what I would eat," Gordon says. "He was constantly eating. I'd have snacks in the room and he'd always dip into my snacks. In the cafeteria, he always went back for more. I never knew where all that food went, but I guess he's a big kid, so he needs his meals."
Okafor arrived at UConn a self-professed "beanpole" but packed on close to 20 pounds of muscle by the time he and Gordon declared for the 2004 NBA draft. He is still a fixture in the weight room and has bulked up to a muscular but lean 255 pounds.
Okafor and Gordon were the second and third overall picks, respectively, and Okafor was the Charlotte Bobcats' first-ever pick. He adjusted quickly to NBA play and became an early franchise favorite while being named the 2005 Rookie of the Year, thanks in part to his 19 straight double-doubles from mid-November to January (he finished the season with 47).
Despite numerous coaching and player changes through his five Bobcats years, Okafor, who calls himself "very adaptable to changing environments," says the team was an ideal fit. "The staff was very good to me, we had a very good coach, and I think I was a good person for that position for that team at the time," Okafor says.
He was working out in Los Angeles this summer when he found out he'd been traded. His agent called after a workout, reporting what he'd heard. Okafor didn't believe him and asked him to double-check. His agent said he'd call him back and when he did a few minutes later, the report was the same. "After he told me, I was like, 'Alright,' got in my car, drove to my next workout, apologized for being late, and told them I'd just been traded," Okafor says.
Some fans balked at the trade, which sent Tyson Chandler to Charlotte. Chandler was a New Orleans favorite and "like a brother" to Paul. While Okafor is outgoing, his personality isn't as open as the tweeting Chandler. Instead, Okafor's play is his communication; he averages 1.86 blocks per game while setting up shop down low. A career double-double player, Okafor averages 10 rebounds per game and 10.7 points per game.
"We thought Emeka had a low-post scoring element to give us a different type of player that would really highlight some of the skills of our other players," says Hornets coach Jeff Bower, who acquired Okafor in his role as team GM. "He's able to provide us with some points inside the paint as well as a rebounder in traffic."
"Rebounding and defense are my forte right now, so I'm still trying to figure out my groove offensively," Okafor says.
In the Hornets' Nov. 19 win over the Phoenix Suns, Okafor often matched up against Amare Stoudemire, garnering several huge blocks and clutch baskets. The crowd reached its loudest point in the first half after a monster Okafor dunk, which he celebrated with a loud yell, arms up in the air.
"He's brought a toughness that the team was lacking last year from what I'd seen watching them on TV," says Hornets rookie guard Marcus Thornton. "He's a defensive presence down low and he'll try to block everything, which I love in a big man."
When the Hornets first introduced Okafor to the local members of the media at Emeril's Delmonico Restaurant and Bar, it was a good fit. Bring a guy to New Orleans and fill him with gumbo and chocolate bread pudding, and, well, show him the perks right away.
"I'm real excited about this city. There is a certain charm," Okafor said. "New Orleans is a big food city, and with me a guy who likes food, goes perfectly.
"I had rabbit gumbo yesterday and didn't even know I liked rabbit, so it was good."
Okafor says that when he arrived in New Orleans, he was eating po'boys, jambalaya and other local favorites. But the heavy cuisine weighed him down -- literally -- and he found himself falling asleep on the bus. So he hired a personal chef, Mae Leonard, to prepare all of his meals when he's not on the road.
The difference, he says, has been significant. "I have more energy and I just feel lighter," Okafor says of Leonard's tasty but healthier creations (she even makes homemade ice cream of any flavor Okafor chooses). Leonard says that, at 4,500-5,500 calories a day, Okafor takes in three to four times what the average person needs. But he burns it off on the court and with his extensive stretching and Pilates workouts.
Okafor still exercises his mind, as well, through what he calls "binges."
"I like being diversified and I'll go through binges: a reading binge, then a DVD series binge, then a video game binge," Okafor says. "I'm back to my reading binge. I just read 'Interpreter of Maladies' and I'm about to start 'The House on Mango Street' and 'A Thousand Splendid Suns.'"
Instead of renting DVDs or DVR'ing TV shows, Okafor buys an entire series. He rattles off a list of favorites: "Prison Break," "24,"; "Lost," "The Office," "Nip/Tuck," "The Wire," "Boondocks," "My Name is Earl," "Reno 911" "Dexter."
"I'm on Season 3 of 'Scrubs' right now," Okafor says. "I love 'Scrubs.'"
He cautions against assuming that his active brain translates into a different type of player. "That's where people take it too far," Okafor says. "Because I have that reputation, people try to say something that's not the case. Perception is reality but not necessarily the right reality. I think through my approach to the game, as far as how I take care of my body and the drills I do, but as soon as I'm on the court, it's instinct -- what I've learned through experience, what other players have told me and what we do in practice."
"Emeka really likes a plan for everything," coach Bower says. "He likes to see the big picture: where you're going first and then how you're going to get there. That's something that you can tell in how he prepares for a game and his approach to his opponent, particularly the players he'll be playing against."
Okafor is still very close to his family. His parents live in Houston (his father now works as a pharmacist) and his sister lives in New York City, but all three visit New Orleans fairly often when the team is home. Okafor has also gotten to know his teammates better. "I'm a pretty well-rounded person," Okafor says. "You'll see me with a book in my hand on the bus, but then I'll be with you out that night." Okafor's actual first name is Chukwuemeka, which translated means "God has done well."
"The pro life doesn't get into his head and he's still the Emeka I've known since he was a young kid," Pius says. "The fame doesn't faze him at all."
When he arrived in New Orleans, Okafor saw the fleur-de-lis emblem painted on signs and buildings throughout the city. He thought the stylized flower, a symbol used throughout history and popularized as a particular sign of New Orleans unity post-Katrina, was reserved only for the Saints. "I've never seen a city with its own emblem before," Okafor says. "So I'm walking around thinking these people are crazy Saints fans. Then I learn that's the city's emblem and I realize people here are passionate about their town. I like it -- it's very endearing."
As he settles into his new city and team, the feeling looks to be mutual.
Anna K. Clemmons writes for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
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