The Sixers were closing out the Portland Trail Blazers with ease on Wednesday night, and with a 22-point lead late in the fourth quarter it seemed as if everybody was getting a chance to play.
Everybody except Jahlil Okafor.
At the 2-minute, 9-second mark of the fourth, the starters were subbed out for the deeper reserve players, including rookie Furkan Korkmaz. Okafor remained on the bench. Then with just 59 seconds left to play, Sixers coach Brett Brown elected to put Dario Saric, one of his starters, back into the game.
The fans took notice and spoke up: “We want Okafor!”
Egged on by Joel Embiid, the crowd chanted over and over, roaring their plea for Okafor to take the court. The player who once led the team in scoring quietly stayed on the bench.
The fans chant "We Want Okafor!" and Joel Embiid urges them on. pic.twitter.com/1DxXgGBcOC
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) November 23, 2017
For a moment, it looked as if history might repeat itself at the Wells Fargo Center. On Dec. 20, 2016, just days after Brett Brown said Nerlens Noel would be out of the Sixers lineup for the foreseeable future, the crowd was calling for Noel to get in the game. “We want Nerlens!” they cried. That time, the fans got what they wanted. This time, they did not.
After the game, Embiid said that Okafor is one of his closest friends, and that, in the end, he just wants the best for Okafor.
“I feel like he deserves a chance, and I support him,” Embiid said. “I’ve got to have my teammate’s back.”
As he did with Noel, Brown has clearly stated that Okafor is out of the Sixers rotation. Okafor has played just twice this season — once in an Embiid-less blowout loss in Toronto for 22 minutes, and once in Utah for three minutes, again when the team was without Embiid.
But it looks as if Okafor’s days of receiving even garbage minutes are over. Brown said he didn’t think it would be fair to play Okafor short minutes to mop up a game.
“To just hoist somebody a little tiny window of minutes isn’t something that interests me,” Brown said after the 101-81 win against Portland. “I say that out of respect to [Okafor]. I don’t think that puts him in a position that I want to put him in.”
It isn’t just the fans inside the arena who are calling for playing time for Okafor. The third-year player’s father wore a shirt that said “FREE JAH” on the back when Golden State was in town on Saturday. Some of the Warriors players posed for photos, seemingly endorsing the shirt’s message.
— Warriors Talk (@JaeAzizi) November 20, 2017
In addition to family and fans calling for the Sixers to make a trade and give Okafor a chance to use his talents elsewhere, some of basketball’s more notable voices have weighed in. Mychal Thompson, who played with the Showtime-era Lakers and is the father of Golden State’s Klay Thompson, tweeted last week:
Seeing Jahlil Okafor just sittin there on the 6ers bench is like havin a Harley in ur garage just collecting dust…Wat a Waste…This Yung fella can PLAY…Cmon sumbody…TRADE for him…Geez
— Mychal Thompson (@champagnennuts) November 16, 2017
What exactly the Sixers’ front office is hoping to get in exchange for Okafor is unknown, and his value continues to deteriorate the longer he stays out of the game.
But, this Thanksgiving Okafor was able to at least take solace in something that not every athlete who comes through Philadelphia can say — the fans have his back and they’re rooting for him.