The last time Emeka Okafor appeared on Deadspin as a NBA player, he was being escorted off a ride at Six Flags America in Maryland because he was too tall. He had turned 30 a little over a month earlier, and was at that time the starting center on a deeply bleak 29-win Washington Wizards team that also featured Jannero Pargo, Cartier Martin, and the baffled rookie version of Bradley Beal. A few weeks after security removed Okafor from Superman: Ride Of Steel, Barack Obama won his second term as president. A few months after that, Okafor was diagnosed with the neck injury that led him to retire from the NBA. That was 2013, and that appeared to be that.
All things considered it seemed like a pretty good run. Okafor was a brilliant college player and a very solid NBA big man on what were mostly bad teams in Charlotte and then New Orleans. At his best he was better than just about everyone else taken in his draft class. Dwight Howard, who went first overall and one spot before Okafor, was then and still is both a Skittles-addled being of pure wince-induction and an obvious Hall of Famer, but only a handful of the players chosen after Okafor are still active and can claim comparably accomplished careers, even accounting for the fact that, until a few weeks ago, Okafor had not played a NBA game since Scary Movie 5 opened in April of 2013. If you were a towering multimillionaire with a thoroughly borked neck who was considering taking the rest of his life off, this adds up to a pretty good argument that you deserve it.
And yet on Sunday night, as in yesterday night as you read this in 2018, the same Emeka Okafor played 15 solid-enough minutes for the New Orleans Pelicans in the team’s fifth straight win. He committed three fouls, got six rebounds, and scored two points. Okafor did not block a shot, which is worth mentioning mostly because it brought his blocks-per-game average down to an even two per game in just a shade under 16 minutes per contest; only Kristaps Porzingis, Myles Turner, and Okafor’s teammate Anthony Davis are averaging more than that per game this year. On Friday night, in a win against Miami, Okafor blocked five shots in just under 18 minutes of floor time. He’s 35, now, and playing his first NBA games in nearly five years. Greg Oden has played in 23 NBA games since Okafor last took the court; Rasheed Wallace played 21; Andrew Bynum played 26. When Emeka Okafor last got a rebound in a NBA game, Thon Maker, his opposite number for much of Sunday, had just recently turned 16.
All of which is to say that it’s pretty remarkable that Emeka Okafor is playing in the NBA after a very definitive-seeming four full seasons away, and playing more or less as well as he did before he left. Okafor signed on with the Pelicans on a 10-day contract in early February, after DeMarcus Cousins went down for the season, and then he signed another 10-day deal that expired after Sunday’s game; on Monday, they signed him for the rest of the season. The numbers are noisy and skewed and contingent, but we can say that Emeka Okafor, nearly five earth years since his last NBA game, is still pretty good. On its basketball merits, none of this is notably beautiful or exciting or especially significant in the grand scheme of anything that could be said to encompass a “grand scheme.” I understand that there is no real reason to get excited about it, and yet here I am, Excited About It.
This has only a little bit to do with Okafor, who was not especially gripping to watch even when he was averaging a double-double over five straight seasons beginning with his rookie campaign of 2004-05. This is no knock on him, really, and is in fact something Okafor had in common with just about every big man he played with and against in the grunty and retrospectively prehistoric NBA in which he played. He was good for some authoritative two-handed dunks and comprehensive-seeming rebounds, which was what coaches asked of men as big as him last decade. Watching him doing well in games happening this year is pleasingly strange in roughly the same way it would be pleasingly strange to see, say, Rafael Furcal legging out triples in the Majors next season, and that’s something. But it’s the time travel element of this comeback that makes it.
Okafor described his comeback to the New Orleans Times-Picayune as the result of a four-year process, which doubles as a pretty good advertisement against herniating a disc in your neck. “I just took my time making sure, not only the initial injury (was healed), but to recondition and rehab everything,” he said. “Figured while I’m waiting for my disc to heal, I can take the time to heal other things. When I come back, (I can) feel nice and bouncy and rejuvenated.” As impressive as that effort is, it’s difficult to imagine any four-year period in the league’s history in which the game has undergone more rapid or dramatic change.
Okafor’s last season in the league was the high-water mark of the LeBron-led Heat, who won their second straight title. The trend towards Big [Number Of Superstars On Teams] rosters that those Heat helped to set hasn’t abated, but it’s one of the few recognizable links between that league and this one. The Rockets and Knicks led the NBA that year with 28.9 three-point attempts per game; that would put them 16th in the NBA this year. James Harden has already hit more three-pointers this season than anyone but Steph Curry managed in all of 2012-13. Cousins, the seven-footer that Okafor is replacing, made 104 three-pointers in 48 games this year; Okafor has never even attempted one in 596 NBA games. There are still some old-fashioned Brontosaurian beeflords wheezing and clomping around in the NBA’s painted areas, of course, but Okafor was never exactly that type of player. He was just used that way because no one had really come up with another way of doing things.
This doesn’t mean that Okafor has come back to the game bombing threes and leading the break; he has mostly just done the things he used to do well about as well as he used to do them, while defending people even bigger than him as they attempt to do things his previous match-ups never did. Okafor seems un-awed by the job of defending a player like Joel Embiid—“I mean, I’ve battled against Jermaine O’Neal and Yao Ming,” he told CBS Sports. “I battled against Shaq.”—which is a testament both to his particular mindset and the thermonuclear self-confidence required of professional athletes. But it is different, because what Embiid does—and how much of the floor he uses to do it—is different. The return of this recognizable face has highlighted the relative unrecognizability of the strange and stretched-out contemporary NBA in an appropriately uncanny way.
There is a tendency, in the afterglow of seeing one of the stupendous and improbable things that the NBA serves up more or less without cease, to believe that we are watching a version of the NBA that has somehow been perfected—that is somehow both more efficient and more fun, more aesthetically elegant and more rigorously rational. Mostly I think that you or I are thinking this because we are high off having seen Andre Drummond somehow dribble behind his back at speed or whatever. But it is nice, in those moments when you are high off basketball, to recognize a face from a time that seems in retrospect so far gone, scrambling and smiling somehow in the present.