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.
“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.