Emeka Okafor finding role on young Washington Wizards team


J&G Steakhouse Acting General Manager Rob Rawleigh shows Washington Wizards center Emeka Okafor how to hold a server's tray. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
October 25, 2012

At a glance, Emeka Okafor is not like the others. “He’s a Renaissance man,” said Ernie Grunfeld, the Washington Wizards’ team president

The Wizards big man estimates he read 20 books before training camp opened, but lately he’s been listening to podcasts from TED, a series of lectures and conferences that focuses on technology, entertainment and design.

“If you want to know anything, you go to Mek,” said Trevor Ariza, a teammate in New Orleans who was traded to Washington with Okafor in the offseason. “He’s Wikipedia. He knows everything.”

In the offseason, Okafor visited the Vatican, sampled restaurants in Italy personally recommended by his pal Mario Batali, stopped by the Great Wall of China and was amazed by the architecture in Shanghai.

“He’s someone you can talk to about anything,” said Ed Tapscott, the Wizards’ director of player programs and the former president of the Charlotte Bobcats, the team that made Okafor the No. 2 overall pick in the 2004 NBA draft.

So here’s Okafor, a man of the world, trying to find his place in the Wizards’ locker room, a clubhouse full of young up-and-comers. Okafor was that once, but now he’s 30 years old. Unlike most of his teammates, he’s married. He’s a few years removed from his best statistical seasons.

“I might not go out and party with them, because I’m at a different point in my life,” he said. “But there are other ways to be involved with everybody.”

Okafor is decidedly different and the Wizards, from the front office to the coaching staff, are convinced that’s a good thing. The team has spent the past couple of years trying to purge itself of troublemakers and knuckleheads. The Wizards traded for Nene last season and then added Okafor this offseason; each is expected to be a force in the middle but also a vital presence in the locker room.

“They’re professionals,” Grunfeld said. “True pros who come to work every day, they put their time in, they’re team-oriented players. Emeka sets a great example for the young players with his work ethic, the focus and the discipline that he shows.”

Okafor points out that he’s not different from every other player as much as he’s different from a tired NBA stereotype: The league in which one superstar can wear designer eyeglasses after a meaningless February game and by the next morning’s shoot-around, half the players sport similar frames. But the NBA isn’t all video games and sneaker collections.

“There’s a stigma about what NBA guys are like,” Okafor said. “It’s not true. If you were to talk to each and every NBA player, you’d find a lot of different interests, people who like a lot of different things. . . . I like to read, I like to travel, I like to eat — I’m a big foodie. Other guys like different things. Not everyone falls into the same categories.”

Still, teammates say Okafor doesn’t expend energy trying to squeeze himself into categories that don’t suit him. The son of Nigerian immigrants, he’s traveled to at least 30 countries but doesn’t make a show of his differences. In the locker room, Okafor is quiet, preferring to lead by example. His elaborate pre- and postgame routines include stretching, yoga, Pilates, and it means he’s usually early to the arena and often among the last to leave.

“He’s not pretending to be something that he’s not,” Ariza said. “That’s very admirable, especially in what we do. We have a lot of followers in our game. Everybody wants to pretend they’re something else. Mek is who he is, and he’s proud of it.”

Some of those differences were on display this week. As the preseason winds down, the team scheduled events away from the court to introduce this year’s squad to its fans. First up was a charitable luncheon in which players and staff served as waiters for about 100 combat veterans, other members of the armed forces and their families.

Players were told to show up at a downtown steakhouse wearing white button-down shirts. Okafor was the only one who did. The others either didn’t own one or misunderstood the instructions and had to run around the corner to a men's clothing store.

Rob Rawleigh, the general manager at J&G Steakhouse, showed players how to properly hold a tray, telling Okafor to spread his fingers wide like he’s holding a basketball.

“Look at that, you’re a natural,” Rawleigh said. “Hire this guy.”

Holding a tray of lemonades, Okafor weaved through the restaurant, treating tables like slow-moving defenders. “Would anyone like a beverage?” he asked one table.

“I would.”

“Then a beverage you shall receive,” he said.

The team headed to practice, where Okafor had no problem tangling with his younger teammates. Okafor doesn’t always say much, but Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said he doesn’t necessarily need to. The players know his reputation: the national championship in college, the NBA rookie of the year, a shot-blocker and defensive bulldog who’s averaged a career double-double.

“He’s one of those I’d call a gentle giant,” the coach said of his 6-foot-10 big man. “When he does say something . . . people pay attention.”

At 19, rookie Bradley Beal is the youngest Wizards player. The third pick in the NBA draft last spring, Beal has studied Okafor closely the past few weeks, from how the veteran handles himself to how he takes care of his body.

“A lot of people just see a basketball player as a basketball player, instead of noticing what’s on the inside, how he treats people, how he respects people,” Beal said.

Okafor was once the young draft pick, though the circumstances were much different. The academic all-American of the year from Connecticut, Okafor graduated in three years and became the first pick in Bobcats history.

“He was going to be the face of a franchise as a first-year player. That’s a difficult role to fill,” Tapscott said. “He’s not an effusive personality, but he’s a very pleasant guy, very intelligent guy, very perceptive guy.”

After practice earlier this week, the team hopped on a bus to Six Flags America for a meet-and-greet with fans. Afterward, Okafor was already seated on the bus when a couple teammates decided they’d hit a roller coaster and urged him to come along.

Along with guards John Wall, Cartier Martin and Steven Gray, Okafor found his way to the Superman-themed coaster, and the big man had a bad feeling. A sign warned of a 76-inch height limit, and Okafor towers six inches taller.

Still, he tried to squeeze himself into the coaster car. When a sensor kept triggering an alarm, Okafor decided to heed the warning. He hollered at the ride operator, “Nah, nah, nah. This isn’t the type of thrill I’m looking for. I need to get off.” His teammates sped off without him. Okafor didn’t seem to mind.

This NBA ride is different for everyone. He’s hoping to stay on for as long as possible. Someday down the road, he might find something else to do — kinesiology interests him greatly — but Okafor figures he has plenty of basketball to take care of first.

“Life is about change, evolvement, progression,” he said. “Every opportunity is an opportunity to grow and to learn. So getting older, I don’t mind. If you’re getting older, that’s a good thing. If you’re not, well, then you got some other issues going on.”

Michael Lee contributed to this report.

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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