The Brooklyn Nets acquired Jahlil Okafor last month and after a few weeks of required conditioning training, his return to active NBA duty commenced last week against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Boston Celtics. Against the latter, Okafor hit his stride, scoring 12 points, although it took 12 shots, and grabbed five boards and blocked two shots in 13 minutes.
During the first half of this season, Okafor and The Players Tribune have been busy producing first person narratives that have given insight into his emotional state. His most recent yarn was a deeply personal and therapeutic piece that touched on his mother’s death when he was nine years old, explained how basketball became his outlet in the aftermath and connected it to the anguish he experienced during his final year with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Via The Players Tribune:
I remember going into my mom’s hospital room, and rubbing her hair. Just slowly, gently rubbing her hair. I remember how soft it felt — and how I kept going in and out of the room … back and forth to her, lying there … just looking at her, staying with her, not wanting to leave. I remember how it felt like that was the one thing I could do in that moment to make things better — not leave. Because leaving, you know … that would be accepting that she was gone.
And so I just kept on rubbing her hair.
I stayed pretty much the whole night, until they took me home.
I remember when we got back to the house, me and my sister were there with my two younger brothers … and it all felt empty. It felt so dark.
At some point, I grabbed my basketball and I went outside.
And I just started shooting.
I don’t know why … I just did. We had an old basketball hoop outside the house, and I shot on it all night. I was on autopilot — and I didn’t stop. For months, pretty much, I didn’t stop. That was like … that was my sanctuary out there.
I just wanted to play basketball — that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. But I didn’t fit into Philly’s plans. And I totally understood why Coach couldn’t play me. They’re trying to build those guys into a playoff contender — and I wasn’t going to be there when that happened. So it didn’t make sense for them to have me in the rotation.
But, man, it’s still tough. And you still want to play.
It was like everybody knew I was gone … and we were all just waiting for it to happen.
Those guys, they’re getting hyped up to play some big nationally televised game. And I’m sitting there in a suit … dying inside. Dying to throw a jersey on. Dying to lace up a pair. Dying to have a basketball back in my hands. Because all of these years later, still, being on that court playing ball … whether it’s our driveway in Oklahoma, or the open gym at Rosemont Elementary, or an NBA arena … that’s still my sanctuary. Ever since I was nine years old, you know, that’s … where I go.
For a year, the Sixers left Okafor on the trading block and treated him like a phantom limb while he was still present as one of the youngest players on their roster. After the 2017 NBA Draft, Joel Embiid unsuccessfully tried to make the nickname F.E.D.S. stick. The acronym was an agglomeration of first letters from the names of recent first round picks, Markelle Fultz, Embiid, Dario Saric and Ben Simmons. Even the players recognized that Okafor was on the chopping block. It was representative of a bizarre situation for Okafor and it carried into the regular season when he asked Philadelphia to buyout his contract.
In addition to reflecting on his past in the Players Tribune piece, Okafor expressed a self awareness about his own shortcomings and the future.
As a player, I recognized some key areas in my game that needed work. One, I’ve gotta improve on defense — improve both my physical quickness and my mental discipline. Two, I have to rebound better — maintain smarter positioning, be more aggressive on the jump. And three, I want to be the type of player who makes his teammates better — whether that’s by gaining confidence as a passer, or getting more comfortable spacing the floor, or even just being a supportive guy in the huddle. I’ve been working hard, and I’ll continue to work hard, to make those things happen.
Okafor didn’t get around to mentioning former head coach Brett Brown, whom he recently said led a mediocre player development staff, but he did forgive the front office that hung a For Sale sign on his neck and left him out in the cold.
I mean, even the Sixers front office, all love to them, because they were transparent with me the whole while — and that’s really about all you can ask for in this business. All love to everyone in Philly, forever.
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