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Emeka Okafor: ‘I want to play as long as I can’

Former No. 2 overall draft pick is on his second stint in league

OAKLAND, California — Even if the New Orleans Pelicans are eliminated from the NBA playoffs on Tuesday night, veteran center Emeka Okafor is not ready for his second stint in the league to end.

“I want to play as long as I can,” Okafor said. “We’ll see with New Orleans. We’re right in the playoffs. It’s sports. You don’t know. I know my profession. I know anything can happen.

“But I am very happy to be here. I’m having a great time, and it feels like home.”

Okafor was the second overall pick in the 2004 NBA draft by the Charlotte Bobcats and played in the league from 2004-13. The 2005 NBA Rookie of the Year averaged more than 13 points and 10 rebounds during his first five NBA seasons. The 6-foot-10, 252-pounder was also a member of USA Basketball’s bronze medal-winning team at the 2004 Olympics. The first phase of Okafor’s NBA career, however, ended after he suffered a herniated disc during the 2012-13 season.

Okafor quietly didn’t give up on playing in the NBA and was cleared to return to basketball activities last year. It was a surprise when he decided to attempt an NBA comeback by joining the G League during the 2017-18 season. He averaged 6.8 points and 8.0 rebounds for the Delaware 87ers.

After the Pelicans lost All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins for the season to an Achilles injury, they re-signed one of their former centers in Okafor to a 10-day contract on Feb. 26. New Orleans eventually signed Okafor for the remainder of the season. The 35-year-old averaged 4.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1 block in 26 regular-season games, including 19 starts.

The Pelicans are facing elimination in Game 5, trailing 3-1 against the host Golden State Warriors in the second-round playoff series. Okafor has yet to play in the up-tempo series, but coach Alvin Gentry recently praised Okafor for his play during the regular season and his fight to get back to the NBA.

Okafor recently talked to The Undefeated about his quest to return to the NBA.

When you decided to go to the G League, did you think returning to the NBA was truly possible?

That is why I did it. My mindset from the moment I was injured was trying to get back and just see the process through. If I went through the G League and didn’t get called up, I would have been like, ‘OK. I know I tried.’ I could rest easy. I did what I had to do. The whole purpose was to make it back to the NBA.

Was there any time when you were in the G League where you were traveling with the team in a bus or away from your wife and two kids, sitting in your motel room, where you wondered, ‘Why am I doing this?’

There were a couple of moments where I was like, ‘Never in a million years would I have said, ‘Hey, I can imagine ‘Mek’ being in the NBA minor leagues.’ I would have laughed it off. It was a lesson in perspective, which I was enjoying. There were definitely times where I was like, ‘Oh, man, what is going on here?’

But the whole thing is that I like to see a process through. Use whatever experience as a lesson. It was a pleasant lesson.

Where did you get your humility from? There are probably some NBA veterans who wouldn’t do it.

You need to have some type of ego to be an athlete. There is a certain pride that you have to have. But you have to know when to check it. I view myself as not having that much of an ego. But this whole process revealed my ego to me.

It’s been a lesson in learning to check your ego. It’s human. In terms of letting my ego get in the way of my goal, that wasn’t going to happen.

What would you have thought of your NBA career if you had not come back?

It’s professional sports. I made it. My mind was like, ‘Mek, you didn’t accomplish everything you wanted to accomplish, but at the end of the day you made it. Anybody would switch positions with you in a heartbeat.’ There was that rational side of my brain. And then there was the competitive side that says, ‘Hey, Mek, you haven’t done X, Y and Z. And because you haven’t done X, Y and Z, you have to try. And if you try and fail, that is OK. But not trying, that is not going to cut it.

How much did injuries hurt your career?

Who is to say? In professional sports, you can’t look at it like that. There are so many stories in sports like that. Injuries are part of the game. Things happen. You have to just roll with that.

I got injured later in my career. I am back here trying to make the most of it, trying to put my stamp.

What was the darkest time between the time you left and came back?

There was no real dark day. I tend to be a very positive person. There was ignorance on my part, thinking I would be able to waltz back in. … I didn’t anticipate it being as difficult as it turned out being. There were really no dark days. I remained pretty positive. It was just a lengthy process.

Emeka Okafor of the New Orleans Pelicans dunks the ball during the second half against the Utah Jazz at the Smoothie King Center on March 11 in New Orleans.

Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

What do you remember most about getting the call from the Pelicans stating that they wanted to sign you to a 10-day contract?

I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was late at night. I was sitting on my bed kind of relaxing. I was preparing for the game the next day, and then I got the phone call. There was mostly excitement. There wasn’t shock like it was unexpected. But there was a ‘Oh, man. Here it is.’

At that point it was a 10-day. It was part of the journey. I didn’t know what it would turn into.

Was it weird when you first returned to an NBA locker room? Did the younger players know who you were?

Some vaguely. Yes and no. But I’m a player. It’s basketball. To be honest, it was worse in the G League. The age gap was way different. The experience was way different. Here, it wasn’t that big of a jump.

What does it mean for you to be back in the postseason?

Sometimes I take time in warm-ups and say, ‘I’m back.’ I’ve been gone for four years. I’m back in the NBA playoffs. I’m back on the court. It’s special. I’m getting to relive the dream again.

I realize I did the first time. I’m back in this fraternity. Every [game]. I feel so comfortable it feels like no time [has elapsed], like I wasn’t even gone. … I’m not going to rest on that. I’m an athlete, and I’m going to keep on going.

How do you think your story can help others?

Setting the goal. Seeing your way through a goal. Certain things may seem improbable, but it doesn’t mean impossible. Then just knowing what you want out of certain things.

There is luck. There is timing. Just seeing something and going after it.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.