Forced to Sit This One Out

From the Associated Press

Emeka Okafor's calendar is packed this month. He's signed up for two book fairs, an appearance at Opera Carolina, several meet-and-greets, a pair of kids clinics and an engagement with the University of Connecticut's Alumni Association.

The face of the Charlotte Bobcats will be all over town.

Everywhere but the basketball court, that is.

Heading into the weekend, Okafor has missed 36 games with a sprained right ankle. The centerpiece of the franchise has become a forgotten man in his second NBA season.

"I am sure it's difficult for him," said coach and general manager Bernie Bickerstaff, who spent a year scouting Okafor before making him the first pick in franchise history. "Out of loyalty to his teammates, I am sure he wants to be out there and be a part of the franchise that is being built around him.

"I know his conviction, and I know he wants to be a part of things. But this is the hand he's been dealt."

This was supposed to be a big year for Okafor, the reigning rookie of the year. He earned the honors by finishing fourth in the league in rebounding (10.9 a game) and reaching double figures in scoring and rebounding 47 times.

He didn't let down during the summer, taking up yoga to improve his flexibility and weight training to tone specific areas. He also spent two weeks back home in Houston working out with former league MVP Hakeem Olajuwon to pick up new techniques in his game.

Alas, it was all for naught.

Okafor sprained his ankle in a Dec. 19 win over the Sacramento Kings. He sat out eight games, but returned to the lineup ready to go in a Jan. 10 game against his hometown Houston Rockets.

He played well in his return, with 21 points and eight rebounds in 35 minutes. But when the game went into double overtime, Okafor's season might have come to an end.

Going after a rebound in the second extra period, he came down and landed on an opposing player's foot. His right ankle -- the one that had just healed from the first sprain -- gave out underneath him and Okafor had to be helped off the court.

He's missed 28 games since then and has been prohibited from working out or lifting weights. The only thing Okafor is allowed to do is light rehab on his ankle.

It's been agonizing for Okafor, who missed a total of three games in three seasons at UConn.

"You know how they have like seven stages you go through at times like these? Well, I've been through all of them twice," Okafor said. "You know, there's frustration, anger, disappointment, all things like that.

"I'm currently in acceptance because it is what it is. I've accepted it and I just need to make sure that when I get back, I am ready for the long haul."

But no one is sure when that will be. Bickerstaff said he's waiting for team doctors to give Okafor the green light, and Okafor says only, "My intention is to play again this season."

The trainers are cautious because his two sprains were back to back, and if he returns too early the next injury could be far worse than what Bickerstaff is calling "a severe high-ankle sprain."

Time is running out for any return this year. There are six weeks left in the season, and Okafor hasn't been on a basketball court in 60-some days. If he's eventually cleared to play, he'll still need another week or so to get back in condition.

Until that day finally comes, Okafor spends his time living up to his role as the face of the franchise. He'll do just about anything the team asks of him, which included a recent stint playing "Prince Charming" in a promotional event for Opera Carolina.

Okafor reported to the center of downtown Charlotte and happily placed glass slippers on every woman who passed by to promote a production of "Cinderella."

"I'm just trying to contribute somewhere since I can't play," he said.

He's also spent a great deal of time researching the careers of NBA greats, and was relieved to discover the best of the best all have had injuries -- most notably Michael Jordan, who was limited to 18 games in his second season.

"I looked and Vince Carter, he played like 20-something games one year. I looked at everybody and a lot of high-profile players have missed a lot of games," Okafor said. "A lot of them bounced back. So I can think to myself, 'OK, they did it, so I can do it,' and I don't feel like the biggest loser."

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