Though he was never technically a member of the Charlotte Hornets, Emeka Okafor was a very important piece for a Bobcats team looking to form its own identity.
I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’ll remember how the original Charlotte Hornets were taken from the city and its fans. People are still upset about how it all went down and many still hold ill-will towards former Hornets owner, George Shinn.
Most have moved on, however, and Charlotte regaining an NBA team was a large part of that. You could argue that the Bobcats and now Charlotte Hornets have been a pale comparison to the original team that first played its games in Charlotte back in 1988, but I think most people are just as happy to have the current product.
Before there was the current Charlotte Hornets, the Queen City was cheering on the Bobcats. Emeka Okafor was their first big star.
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So, when Charlotte regained a team, they needed a sturdy foundation upon which to build and they found that in their first-ever NBA Draft pick, Emeka Okafor.
The 6’10” Okafor was born in Houston, Texas to two Nigerian natives. He would attend high school in Bellaire, Texas, and then would play collegiately at the University of Connecticut, where he would win a National Championship in his final year under Jim Calhoun.
Despite being an obviously talented big-man, everyone knew Okafor would not be the first overall pick as that would be used by the Orlando Magic on a player by the name of Dwight Howard. That was a no-brainer, of course, but Okafor was a very nice second pick for the Bobcats as he would play five seasons in Charlotte and was a large part of rebuilding fan interest in the Queen City.
Despite not being the first overall pick, Okafor would win Rookie of the Year honors, sporting averages of 15.1 points and 11 rebounds per game, quickly becoming the face of the new franchise.
Okafor would deal with weight issues over the next few seasons and as such, would see several injuries hamper his play. In his second season, he would play just 26 games, nursing an ankle injury that was slow to heal due to his weight gain.
After training with Hall of Fame Center, and fellow Nigerian, Hakeem Olajuwon, Okafor returned for his third season and would improve his numbers from his abbreviated second year. With the added weight gone, he would average just over 14 points and 11 rebounds per contest. The center would lead the Bobcats in rebounds, blocks, and field-goal percentage.
The next two seasons in Charlotte would be consistent as Emeka would average double-digit scoring and rebounding yet again. In fact, during his five years in the Queen City, he would average 14 and 11.
Sadly, Okafor would never see the playoffs during his time in Charlotte, with the highest win total being just 35 games during his tenure in a Bobcats uniform. Had he stayed another year, he might have gotten to the postseason as the Bobcats made the playoffs the year after Okafor was traded to the then-New Orleans Hornets.
Okafor would continue to be effective for a few seasons in New Orleans before injuries again started taking their toll on the center. He would be traded to the Washington Wizards in the summer of 2012 and would play 79 games.
He was dealt to the Phoenix Suns the following offseason, but an injury would see him never play a game for the franchise. He would miss nearly three seasons with said injury but then bounced around the NBA and the G-League, signing with the 76ers and then with their affiliate, the Delaware 87ers.
Okafor would then briefly play for New Orleans again but as a Pelican this time. He was serviceable, but would ultimately be let go after the end of the season. He would try to play for the 76ers again but was waived shortly after signing with the club. His last bit of time was spent in Korea, playing for Ulsan Hyundai Mobis Phoebus.
It’s a shame injuries played such a factor in Okafor’s career because, for a while, Charlotte had the makings of another superstar at a time when the city desperately needed one. Still, he was the representative for a city looking to heal the wounds of having their original team taken from them in a terrible turn of events.
Charlotte has recovered since then and Emeka Okafor was a huge reason why. He gave the team and the city relevance when it was needed and while the team didn’t win many games, he still gave fans something to cheer for.