For Chuma Okeke, joy has replaced the pain.
He smiled wide again on Friday, clutching his new jersey.
It’s the Orlando Magic. It’s No. 3. The white is pristine, the blue trim is bright, and the NBA logo with that timeless Jerry West outline is sewn into the soft fabric.
And it’s real. ‘Okeke,’ it reads on the back — capturing in its stitching the boyhood dream come true for the former Auburn basketball star, and the first Tiger drafted into the NBA out of Auburn in almost 20 years.
Okeke talked about Auburn a lot then, during his introductory press conference with the Magic the day after the NBA Draft, streamed online by the team on social media.
He talked about his coach, Bruce Pearl, and his teammates at Auburn with whom he shared such a special bond.
Then he talked about how it ended for him on the court, and the heartbreak he felt clutching his knee down on the floor in Kansas City, after he tore his ACL the last time he suited up on the basketball court — after giving everything his body could give for that coach, those teammates and his school.
“It was hard,” he said, thinking back.
“I felt like I was going to play again in the tournament. But when I went back to the doctors, they said I wasn’t going to play, so that really hurt a lot,” he shook his head.
Then it all came around.
“But the moment last night — that brought a lot of joy to me, my family and my friends, just because it’s what we all worked hard for together,” he said.
“I feel like that kind of replaced the pain, I felt,” he smiled.
Okeke shared that moment with his loved ones in Georgia on Thursday night. When other young stars were in Brooklyn, playing the hat dance and stepping on the stage as part of the draft’s big-budget TV production, Okeke’s draft night celebration was authentic to him. When the 16th overall pick was announced, Okeke was back at home and even in the back of the room, flashing his familiar, sheepish grin from his seat as his family and friends jumped for joy all around him in a video shared by his brother on social media.
Friday was the first time he stepped into the NBA spotlight, at that introductory press conference in Orlando with team president Jeff Weltman and head coach Steve Clifford.
Okeke was still Okeke then. And the team knew just what it was getting with him.
“He’s not an extroverted kind of look-at-me type of guy,” Weltman said on draft night. “He’s just very workman-like, and he’s consistent, and he plays for his team first.”
Then on Friday, he said: “I say with a lot of pride and great happiness, ‘Welcome, Chuma.’
“His hard work is evident,” the team president said later. “He’s improved and was on an incredible trajectory. Obviously he suffered an unfortunate at an important part of the season which is a shame, but it’s pretty apparent that Chuma is getting better and better and better, and the reason is because he works at it.”
Clifford seemed to say that Okeke’s versatile play in the frontcourt fits the evolution of the NBA’s on-court play. He pointed to the NBA champion Toronto Raptors and, indirectly, Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
“I think he’s what the NBA is all about now,” Clifford said of Okeke. “Positional size; versatility; a guy that, at the defensive end, he’ll be able to switch and guard different players, which makes everything simpler; offensively, can shoot, he’s got high IQ, he’s got a good feel for the game, he can pass — so he can be a two-way player.
“So to me, as much as anything, positional size, guys that can play well at both ends of the floor — you watch Toronto. Toronto’s not playing anybody that can’t play both offense and defense, and they’re big. They’ve built their defense around their size. I think Chuma fits very well into that.”
Okeke will miss the team’s season opener this fall still recovering from his injury, could return to the court around the turn of the new year — and more importantly, Orlando hopes, become a major piece for the franchise in the future.
“It’s a real good feeling. It kind of doesn’t feel real right now,” Okeke smiled. “I say it’s just a real blessing. You know, especially, after my ACL injury, I really didn’t see this coming.
“But they gave me a chance and I’m just ready to come in and work hard and get my leg back stronger and just start bonding with the team.”
Okeke helped guide Auburn men’s basketball to its first-ever Final Four. Okeke entered the draft this spring, and thanked Auburn when he decided not to withdraw his name from the draft and go forward with his entry. With his mission accomplished on the Plains, Okeke felt ready to take his step to the next level — and his decision paid off when he was drafted much higher than many pundits expected.
“I came to Auburn to help them be a basketball school again, and so did my teammates, and I feel like we accomplished that in a big way,” he said. “We made history at Auburn. And I feel like that played a big part in me also going to the draft, too.
“When they called my name, it was just a shock,” he also said, of being drafted. “I don’t know — It still don’t feel real. But it’s just a blessing that they gave me a chance like this. Back in Auburn, my coach always said that he’s always going to talk the talk, but he expects us to walk the walk and play for him.
“I see the Magic had a lot of confidence in me, so I’m just going to play hard for them for giving me this opportunity, because I know this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”