Okafor welcomes change
His first dinner with Hornets executives at one of Emeril Lagasse's downtown restaurants did the trick.
"I actually had rabbit gumbo," Okafor said Tuesday afternoon, when the Hornets formally introduced him as their new starting center. "I wasn't aware I even like rabbit, so there you go."
Even though Okafor wasn't looking for a new start, he figured change could be good for him at this point in his NBA career. He officially became a Hornet a week ago, when his first and only other team, the Charlotte Bobcats, traded him for 7-foot-1 center Tyson Chandler.
"I'm a very loyal person, so whatever situation I'm in, I'm for that cause," Okafor said. "So I wasn't in Charlotte hoping to get out. I was in Charlotte hoping to make it to the playoffs and elevate the organization to higher levels.
"Circumstances changed. I'm a Hornet. I'm happy to be a Hornet. Now that the circumstances have changed, the goals have changed."
Now the 6-foot-10 center, who has averaged 14 points and 10.7 rebounds through his first five seasons, looks forward to joining a playoff contender and a cast that includes Paul, West, sharpshooter Peja Stojakovic and two-time NBA champion James Posey.
"It's a more established team," Okafor said. "They're not necessarily focused on [making] the playoffs, but how deep can you go into the playoffs."
While Okafor played with a rising young point guard -- New Orleans native D.J. Augustin -- in Charlotte, he expects that playing with Paul will elevate his production even more.
"He's one of the premier point guards in the league, and having a good experienced point guard makes all the difference in the world," Okafor said. "So I'm very interested to see how that dynamic works."
Okafor also will rejoin backup center Hilton Armstrong, a former college teammate at Connecticut, and he'll get reacquainted with power forward Ike Diogu, whose parents, like Okafor's, are came from the Igbo region of Nigeria.
When Diogu was a high school standout making college visits, Okafor was his host at UConn. Diogu chose Arizona State, but Okafor said he believed that was because Diogu liked ASU's computer science program.
They'll play together at last, with the Hornets having signed Diogu as a free agent shortly after trading for Okafor.
Okafor was the first-ever draft pick of the expansion Bobcats, taken second overall in the 2004 draft.
Okafor said the trade to the Hornets -- Charlotte's original NBA team until 2002 -- caught him "off guard a little bit, but change is good."
Bobcats coach Larry Brown led some to believe he wasn't crazy about Okafor's game when the coach joked that he'd give Okafor an A in stretching and pilates, but wanted him to get an A in basketball.
"That kind of got, I felt, a little bit out of hand," Okafor said, laughing. "I'd missed games previously and my mindset was, 'OK, I don't want to miss any games, so I'm going to do everything possible to stay on the court.' So I have a stretching routine 15 minutes before practice, 15 minutes after practice."
Okafor said he also practices pilates a couple times a week to strengthen his core in an effort to avoid back problems. It's tough to question the results. He hasn't missed a game in two seasons.
Chandler, the player Okafor will replace, was popular among teammates and fans in New Orleans, but his durability often came into question. Chandler missed 37 games last season and was ineffective while playing hurt the Hornets' a first-round playoff loss to Denver.
"What we've done is we've changed things -- intentionally -- because sometimes we have to break out of what's comfortable in order to grow," Hornets general manager Jeff Bower said. "Adding Emeka to our team forces us all to make changes and forces us all to take steps to move further."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press