CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -Mild-mannered Emeka Okafor rarely raises his voice. Yet there was the Charlotte Bobcats big man in December, pounding his fist into his palm in a heated exchange with coach Sam Vincent at the end of practice.
Three months later, Okafor asked for a meeting with Vincent after his playing time diminished.
Shortly after Vincent's rocky first year ended with a disappointing 32-50 record, Bobcats managing partner Michael Jordan fired the rookie coach and replaced him with Hall of Famer Larry Brown.
The move might be the reason why Okafor was sitting at a podium in front of a Bobcats' banner Tuesday, a week after he agreed to a six-year, $72 million deal to remain in Charlotte.
``When the Bobcats hired him, it showed me they were committed to making the franchise better,'' Okafor said without directly answering whether he'd have re-signed if Vincent was still in charge. ``Hiring Larry Brown, an elite coach, you have to take notice of that.''
Okafor was full of energy as he discussed the prospects for playing for the 67-year-old Brown, who is beginning his record ninth NBA head coaching job. Brown, the only coach to lead teams to NCAA and NBA titles, had stressed that keeping Okafor was the team's top offseason priority.
``Larry Brown, he brings a certain dynamic and insight to the game that would make most teams better,'' Okafor said. ``I think he's a perfect fit for us. Our team is young. We are hard working and he can give us that discipline and those little insights to the game that will take us to the next level.''
Keeping the 6-foot-10 Okafor, the expansion team's first draft pick in 2004, wasn't easy. It took nearly a month of negotiations, with both sides haggling over the length and figures of the deal for the restricted free agent.
There was talk that maybe Okafor wanted the Bobcats to make a sign-and-trade deal. Others speculated Okafor would accept the team's one-year qualifying offer of $7.1 million and become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
``Hopefully, in the back of my mind, I wanted to be a Bobcat,'' said Okafor, who has averaged 14.3 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in his four-year career. ``Sometimes things don't work out the way you want them to. In this case they did. Worrying about the contract negotiations and stuff, that would have been just extra stress that I really didn't need to have.''
The sleepless nights belonged to Bobcats general manager Rod Higgins, Jordan's chief negotiator.
``He might not have been nervous, but I'm sure we were in a lot of ways,'' Higgins said.
Eventually Higgins and Okafor's agent, Jeff Schwartz, agreed on a deal similar to the one Okafor turned down last year. It averages $12 million a year, almost triple what Okafor made in the final season of his rookie deal.
Now he'll get to play under Brown, who didn't attend Tuesday's news conference, for the second time. Okafor, fresh out of college after leading Connecticut to the national title, was a benchwarmer on the Brown-coached U.S. Olympic team that finished a disappointing third in 2004.
``I was a college player, so I knew I wasn't going to see the light of day,'' Okafor said. ``I was just happy to be there.''
Now Okafor has higher expectations. After the team jettisoned an inexperienced coach who clashed with players, Brown is expected to rely on Okafor's inside play in hopes of leading Charlotte to the playoffs for the first time.
``I'm just really looking forward to playing with Larry and soaking up all he can offer,'' Okafor said.
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