When Emeka Okafor was in Washington last month, the 31-year-old big man took some time to discuss a major life adjustment. Okafor and his wife, Ilana, welcomed their first child, a baby girl, last summer and he had just begun getting used to changing diapers.
“That’s a little bit of a life-changer,” Okafor said with a laugh. “The kicking and screaming. Actually now, she enjoys the changing table. She could be crying, you put her on the changing table and she quiets down. At the beginning, she’d be happy, you put her on the changing table and she started crying bloody murder. It’s interesting.”
Although he was out indefinitely with a herniated disk in his neck, Okafor appeared in good spirits and was focused on getting back “ASAP” to help the Wizards make a push for the playoffs. Okafor and the Wizards knew that the injury could potentially sideline him for several months, and possibly the whole season.
But the urgency to make the postseason and the slow progress of Okafor’s replacements created a situation in which the Wizards felt compelled to move him and a protected 2014 first-round pick to Phoenix for Marcin Gortat. So, while the Wizards were excited about what trading for Gortat meant in helping them possibly reach the playoffs, they couldn’t help but lament losing Okafor – injured or not – in the process.
“It’s kind of surprising we traded Mek, but this is a business at the end of the day,” Bradley Beal said.
Okafor was a valued locker room presence for the Wizards, providing encouraging words, unselfish play and a dedication to hard work that endeared him to his teammates. Wall credited Okafor for helping him mature as a leader after a locker room confrontation last season.
“I think everybody really liked what Mek did for us, how he was as a person,” John Wall said. “I think it’s a tough situation. It’s definitely a business thing you have to worry about, especially in the NBA. It’s tough not knowing. We already have 15 guys so you can’t really go get nobody. The only way we could make a move to try and get another big man was to make a trade.”
Kevin Seraphin said he could always depend on Okafor to provide advice on how to develop better defensive footwork and pushed him to be a better rebounder by challenging with dares like, “I bet you can’t get six, seven rebounds.” Okafor even gave tips to Seraphin on how to manage his money.
“That’s a really smart guy,” Seraphin said. “For sure. He helped me a lot. He was always positive. Like sometimes when I was not playing, I was down, he was like, ‘I’ve been in this league a long time, just keep working hard. Sometimes you don’t play, and the day after, you play 48 minutes. So he would always stay positive and that’s why I like him a lot.”
Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld called Okafor on Friday night to discuss the deal and said the 6-foot-10 center understood the motivation behind the move. “He was very professional about everything and I think he enjoyed his time here,” Grunfeld said. “Emeka brought a lot of professionalism to the team. A great work ethic, he’s a very good rebounder, a very good defensive player, quality person who you can depend on a nightly basis. I think he’s frustrated and we all feel for him. Because he takes care of his body so well – better than anybody I’ve ever been around. For him to have an injury is unfortunate.”
Okafor maintained a regimented program to keep himself in good condition last season in Washington, adhering to strict weight lifting and stretching routines. He stayed in New York to be under the supervision of a cervical spine specialist.
“We miss Emek,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “I have great respect for him coming in here last year, and playing 79 games and giving what he did from, not only a veteran on the floor, but in the locker room. We’ll miss that, but we’re very excited about bringing Marcin in here.”
The Suns are in rebuilding mode and could have four first-round picks next June. They didn’t acquire Okafor to play and don’t seem certain that he will. In a release by the team, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said he was looking forward to Okafor’s contributions ”when and if he is able to return from injury.”
Phoenix waived the physical to make sure the trade went through. If Okafor doesn’t play this season, the Suns could get reimbursed a portion of his $14.5 million salary through an insurance policy.
Nene and Okafor formed a solid defensive tandem in their one season together. And while praising the organization for acquiring a credible replacement down low, Nene also expressed his wishes that Okafor would soon come back healthy. “I know Emek is a great person. And I hope he treat that thing, quick and fast, possible. I hope that things go well with him. Because he’s great dude, great friend,” Nene said. “We feel sad for Mek. He was a great teammate.”