Ilana Okafor admits it isn't always easy packing suitcases when you're trying to stuff in clothes for a husband who stands 6-foot-10.
It's even more difficult when you aren't really sure how many suitcases you need to pack anyway.
That's what she faced Monday night in her New York City home as she helped her husband, Emeka, prepare to head back to New Orleans to continue the remainder of his second 10-day contract with the Pelicans.
He ended up taking three suitcases.
Just in case.
Just in case he gets more than only two more games with the Pelicans and gets to remain with the team for the rest of the season.
"Just pack it," Ilana advised him. "Worst-case scenario is you don't need it. You have two more games to sell yourself. He's taking it just one day at a time. Or in this case, one 10-day at a time. But he has his eyes on the prize and has a lot of luggage just in case."
Okafor's eyes have been on the prize since 2013, when a herniated disk sidelined him for the entire season shortly after he was traded from the Washington Wizards to the Phoenix Suns. He missed the next three seasons, too, and didn't play another NBA game again until the Pelicans signed him to a 10-day contract in early February.
"It's been an awesome ride so far," Okafor said. " I'm happy to be here trying to earn my way back in. Now that I'm back, it feels good and it feels natural. I'm going to keep on going until I'm told otherwise."
Okafor continues his comeback Friday when the Pelicans host the Miami Heat in the first game after an All-Star break that wasn't much of a break for Okafor. While most NBA players used the break to relax, Okafor worked out every day while also spending time with his wife and his two biggest fans (4-year old daughter Adaeze and 1-year old son Nnamdi).
If things had gone according to script, perhaps Okafor would have one day been an All-Star.
At least that's the path he seemed to be headed down almost 15 years ago.
He led UConn to the national title in 2004 and was named Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA tournament and was the second overall pick in the 2004 NBA draft by the then-Charlotte Bobcats. He was Rookie of the Year. He even appeared on the cover of the EA Sports NCAA March Madness video game in 2005.
The players he shares a locker room with now are too young to remember that Okafor.
Instead, they know the quiet 35-year-old guy who has come in to help fill the void in the middle now that DeMarcus Cousins is out for the season with a torn Achilles.
And although Okafor isn't putting up Boogie-like numbers, his presence is being felt as the Pelicans carry a three-game win streak into Friday. Okafor, a rebounding machine and rim protector on the court and a gentleman off the court, still looks the part. His muscles still bulge, just like Dwight Howard, the only player chosen ahead of him in the ’04 draft.
"He's played well for us," All-Star forward Anthony Davis said. "Rebounding and blocking shots. Setting screens. He's doing all the little things for us and helping us win. You need guys like that."
Okafor averaged 4.5 points and 6.3 rebounds in his first four games with the Pelicans, the same team he played with from 2009-12. He's averaging 3.5 offensive rebounds.
And while those numbers may not jump off the stat sheet, they aren't too shabby for a guy who entered the league before Hurricane Katrina but hasn't played in the NBA in four seasons.
“I think it’s fascinating that he can sit out that long, but I think it also shows the dedication that he has," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. "Usually in that situation, I can tell you right now, you can check and see what he made — he’s not doing it for the money.
"Over the course of his career, I think he’s very comfortable financially where he is, and I think that has a lot to do with it, because I think he is playing because he loves the game and really loves the locker room part, and being a part of the team is really important to him. So that’s why he is here. He is not here for any other reason other than he loves the game.”
It's that love that made Okafor keep trying to get back to the NBA. He could've easily called it quits. After all, he was financially secure and has his degree in finance to fall back on. But he knew there was more left in the tank.
"When I got injured, I just wasn't done," Okafor said. " I'm an athlete. You go until you can't. I just wasn't ready to stop playing. When I started working out for teams and getting back in the groove, that love for the game just kept on growing and growing."
Ilana was right there beside him along the way.
"When the injury happened, neither one of us thought it was career-ending," she said. "The more you know Mek, the more you realize the patience and the focus he has."
After averaging 12.3 points and 9.9 rebounds in nine NBA seasons, he had to start all over, proving himself in the G-League after getting cleared by doctors to play. He was averaging 6.8 points and 8 rebounds in the G-League, but those numbers stretch to 12.4 points, 14.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks on a per-36-minute average.
That was enough to catch the eye of Pelicans general manager Dell Demps.
Okafor and his Delaware 87ers team was in Michigan for a game against the Grand Rapids Drive when he got the call from Demps.
Okafor and his wife talked on the phone in the wee hours of the morning after getting the long-awaited news.
Ilana pulled up the Pelicans schedule as they talked.
"I saw the games coming up and saw names like Karl-Anthony Towns and Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond," Ilana recalled. "I said, 'Get ready.' This is your 10-day audition. This is it. If you hold your own, whether it's New Orleans or another team, you will finally have some eyes on you just to see you're very capable. That's all we need. This is your time."
Ten days later, the Pels signed Okafor to another 10-day contract. He has two games left on it.
"I went from being the No. 2 pick and the face of a franchise at one point to being on the back end of a 10-day contract to get back in the league," Okafor said. "For me, it's all just a lesson in perspective. As long as there is a roster spot, I hope to be around. I plan on doing it until it doesn't make sense anymore."
His daughter, Adaeze, has been praying every night that he gets signed again.
Her dad hopes those prayers are answered, too.
He's waited four long years for this.
And he packed three suitcases to prove it.