Alexis Ajinca relishes joys of fatherhood

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Alexis Ajinca’s most avid supporter in the Smoothie King Center doesn’t care how many points the New Orleans center scores, whether Ajinca has gotten himself into foul trouble, or just missed a free throw (the career 79.7 percent foul shooter doesn’t miss many). Set to celebrate his third birthday next weekend, Carter Ajinca is just happy to see his dad after Alexis’ shift at work ends.

“It’s great to come home afterward and have someone who really doesn’t even care about the game, but is just happy to see you,” said the elder Ajinca, who with wife Courtney became parents to a second son this month, Caysen, born Oct. 3. “It’s a great thing to see your son be so happy.”

Like dads across America, NBA players such as Ajinca cherish the smaller, priceless moments they experience with their young kids. One difference is that the athlete’s occupation means significant time away from home, often resulting in not being there for some of the landmark events in a child’s development.

“It’s hard,” Ajinca said of constantly being on the road during the NBA season. “Especially at first, right after Carter was born, because you didn’t want to miss anything. You don’t want to miss his first steps. I don’t want to miss his first day of school. All the little things that folks are lucky to have. It’s hard going away for maybe 14 days straight. Nowadays we have FaceTime, which is always better than not being able to see them at all, but it’s still very tough.”

When the Pelicans are at home, Ajinca, 29, makes sure to spot his family in the crowd before – and sometimes during – games, looking up periodically to check on Carter and Courtney, who always sit in the same Smoothie King Center section.

“If you’re paying close attention, most of the time I always look up to them,” Alexis said. “I’m definitely focused (on the game), but I’m always concerned. I’m always trying to make sure they’re good and they don’t need anything.”

The fifth-year Pelican believes Carter’s presence at games has actually made the native of France more conscientious about keeping his emotions in check on the court. Though he may be in the heat of battle, trying to compete with another NBA team and opposing center, Ajinca is cognizant of the influence he has on Carter.

“Let’s say I have an issue on the court, I won’t be as mad as I used to be, because I know my son is watching,” he said. “I’m not going to show him a face that I don’t want him to see. So I’m always careful about what I do and what I say. Because kids are like sponges. Whatever you do, they’ll do the same thing.”

The hectic nature of the NBA’s 82-game schedule means it’s virtually impossible – even with the invaluable technological assistance of FaceTime – to witness every milestone in a toddler’s growth, but Ajinca views that as something that comes with the gig. He didn’t see Carter’s first steps, for example, due to being with the Pelicans on a road trip.

“That was a little bit tough to not be there, but it goes with playing this game,” he said. “I understood that. You are going to miss things. A baby changes so quickly, it could be crawling for the first time, rolling over. And you notice their face is always changing (in a brief period of time).”

Given how difficult it is to see Carter during chunks of basketball season, Ajinca spends every day during the summer with the 2-year-old, taking him to parks and playing, like every father.

“I wake up every day and do stuff with him,” Alexis said, smiling. “Every time I get free time, I try to do something with him and my wife. As much as he’s growing and learning, he always wants to try new things. So it was a pretty busy summer for us.”

Now with two young sons, Ajinca expects it to be that much more challenging to be away from home, but he’s extremely grateful to be a dad, even if he can’t be there for every waking moment.

“Becoming a father has always been my ultimate goal, more than anything else,” he said. “I’m extremely happy to be a dad again.”

Ajinca pauses, then smiles and laughs as he points out the only silver lining related to the 41 regular season road games he’ll travel to in 2017-18, trips that mean multi-day stays in generally-serene hotels.

“After Carter was born, I definitely didn’t miss the fact that I couldn’t sleep at night (due to a baby waking up periodically),” he remembered. “Before away games, I could actually sleep.”