I stopped by my favorite burrito place uptown for lunch recently. A dozen people were scattered around the counter, waiting to hear their name.
That's how this place does it. You order, you pay and you give your first name to the cashier. He writes it down and passes it along to the cook, who calls out your name when food is ready.
The cook walked to the counter with a burrito in a white "to-go" sack.
"Erica!" he called. "Erica!"
We all looked at each other hungrily. No one claimed the burrito.
"Erica!" the cook insisted. "Do we have an Erica?"
Finally, a very tall, athletic man unfolded himself from a chair in the back of the room. As he rose, a murmur of astonishment rolled across the restaurant.
Emeka Okafor took two giant steps to the counter. "I think that must be mine," he said politely, took the burrito and walked out the door.
For 10 seconds, the cook seemed dazed. He didn't move. Finally, he looked at the rest of us.
"Whoops," he said. Then he told the cashier to work on his "chicken scratch."
I was reminded of that story at the Charlotte Bobcats' media day Monday. Reporters and cameras hovered around high-flyer Gerald Wallace and glittery new acquisition Jason Richardson. New coach Sam Vincent attracted lots of attention, as did Raymond Felton and Sean May.
And then there was Okafor. Everyone there knew his name wasn't Erica, but he wasn't exactly a hot commodity. After all, Okafor is old news. He's been here since the beginning. He doesn't glitter.
He does carry a dictionary with him on road trips, though. He's not about style. He's about substance -- finding out what words mean in the books he reads, figuring out how to best take care of himself, always trying to learn something.
And don't forget this: Okafor is the Bobcats' most indispensable player. Without the 6-foot-10 Okafor underneath, half those fast breaks the Bobcats want to run will get short-circuited, because who's going to rebound the ball?
For all the good work the Bobcats did in the offseason, I think they are still short one reliable big man. Okafor, who just turned 25, needs more help underneath. He needs Sean May to finally get healthy and Walter Herrmann to stay atop that cloud he played on at the end of last season and a few other things, too.
But make no mistake: This season will fall apart unless Okafor anchors it. In his three-year NBA career, he has averaged a double-double (14.5 points, 10.9 rebounds).
And he enters his fourth season healthy and weighing 254. That's 10 pounds lighter than he played much of last season and 25 pounds lighter than his weight during his injury-plagued second season.
"I'm slimmer, sleeker and more GQ-ish," he said, laughing.
Okafor has been here from Year 1 for Charlotte. Remember the Bobcats' "Okafor in '04" advertising campaign?
"I've been here through a lot of hard times, a lot of bad times and a lot of good times, with even better times around the corner," Okafor said. "To be involved in that wide spectrum gives you a better appreciation. I started off playing at Charlotte Coliseum -- half-full, dim lighting and smelly locker room. Now we're in this great arena with a better crowd. I think we'll win more and draw more this season."
Maybe they will. But to do so, Okafor must be the rock.
IN MY OPINION
Okafor: Keeping score
Some of Emeka Okafor's numbers:
His GPA at Connecticut
Most shots blocked in an NBA game
His single-game NBA rebounding high
million lives that Okafor and his partners seek to save in Africa in the next five years through blood testing kits (www.OneMillion AfricanLives.org for details). Scott Fowler