Emeka Okafor heard his name announced with the New Orleans Pelicans' starters last Monday. For the vast majority of the former No. 2 overall pick and Rookie of the Year's adult life, this would not count as extraordinary -- it was the 585th start of his NBA career. It had been 1,766 days, however, since the 584th.
Okafor, 35, sat out four full seasons because of a herniated disc in his neck. He joined the Philadelphia 76ers training camp in September and told reporters that being back felt like putting on a suit that has always been the right fit. When he didn't make the team and wound up with the Delaware 87ers of the G League, he had to wear a SpongeBob SquarePants-themed uniform.
In early February, Okafor was preparing for a game in Grand Rapids, Michigan when Pelicans general manager Dell Demps called. Demps told him he was being called up on a 10-day contract. New Orleans, currently eighth in the Western Conference, is trying to hold onto a playoff spot, and after losing star center DeMarcus Cousins to a ruptured Achilles tendon and failing to sign hometown hero Greg Monroe, Okafor -- now signed for the rest of the season -- has been thrust into an important role.
"It's been awesome," Okafor told CBS Sports before a recent game, though his job description has changed since he manned the middle for the Washington Wizards in 2012-13. As well as setting hard screens, protecting the paint and battling on the boards, he is responsible for switching onto wings and pestering players on the perimeter.
"Before, I was mainly around the rim," Okafor said. "Now I'm floating around. I'm at the nail or the high slot or whatever. Just kind of moving and having to exchange and just do a lot of things that I wasn't necessarily on the hook for. It's basic basketball stuff, but it is different."
In his second game for the Pelicans, he found himself matched up with Philadelphia 76ers All-Star Joel Embiid, who was once described as "Shaquille [O'Neal] with soccer feet." New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said that Okafor did a good job of "banging with the biggest human being on the planet right now and the most skilled guy you can ever face." The veteran downplayed it.
"That was cool," Okafor said. "I mean, I've battled against Jermaine O'Neal and Yao Ming. I battled against Shaq."
Just a few weeks ago, Okafor's opponents were comparatively anonymous. He called the G League a "very enriching experience," but he didn't quite understand what he was in for before he arrived in Delaware.
"You're talking about, like, the 10 times we went downstairs and the bus wasn't there," Okafor said. "Or showing up to the gym and it not being open. Or showing up to what you pretty much expect is like a middle-school gym to play. It's crazy -- it's not crazy, but it's very, very, very different. And then the tours of, you just play in different cities. Oshkosh, Wisconsin -- how many people know where that is? I'd never been to South Dakota. I'd never been to Delaware, to be honest."
One of his 87ers teammates had Okafor's rookie card; another assumed he had retired. He said he is not sure what he would have thought if he was in their position, seeing the 2004 NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player trying to fight his way back onto an NBA roster.
"I got a lot of that, 'Hey man, I rooted for you when you were in college when I was in like the fifth grade.'" Okafor said. "It was a kind of like what-are-you-doing-here type situation as well. I got it. I understood the whole perception or the situation in general. But the reception was warm."
Okafor never planned on taking four years off, but he never lost his hunger to play. He understated things when saying it "took a while" for his herniated disc to heal, and he insisted there were no setbacks. A perfectionist, he didn't want to come back until he was ready to withstand the rigors of an NBA season.
"I just wanted to make sure that my body was in proper condition to be able to play the way I wanted to play," Okafor said.
Okafor made the best out of his two 10-day contracts and now the Pelicans have signed him for the remainder of the season. He was grateful to get the call from Demps and return to the team where he played from 2009 to 2012, and he has reason to be hopeful about his chances of sticking around beyond 2018.
In the 63 minutes he has played for New Orleans, Okafor has looked a lot like he did before the injury: Strong, mobile and fundamentally sound. He has given the Pelicans an intelligent, physical defensive presence they otherwise lack. The game isn't quite the same as it was earlier in his career, but he can happily say his patience paid off.
"Change is a part of life," Okafor said. "Things happen. It's cool. It's perspective. I've seen the way it was to where it is now and the way it's going."