JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A bouncing white ball, after receiving a swift kick, finds its way to an outdoor basketball court in a village of orphaned children and suddenly, a game-changer: Soccer is now in session. The kids are laughing and scampering along, and one player stands out.
He is seven feet tall and his right foot, the one that cost him his first two seasons in the NBA after he broke it, is noticeably frisky. The Philadelphia 76ers might gag if they saw this. Or be grateful.
Joel Embiid is making the ball do flips as he loops around and through heavy-breathing 10-year olds who can’t keep up, and nearby, a restless NBA attendant is looking at his watch. The NBA sent a group of players to South Africa for a week to conduct camps this summer, and this afternoon is devoted to the orphanage.
But when the day is over and the engine revs for the trip back to the downtown hotel, there is a lone and stubborn straggler. The bus must wait. The orphans are still fighting him for the ball and besides, Embiid hasn’t scored a goal yet. Even here, the process takes time.
He is waved over by a group of elderly women sitting in folding chairs on the other side of the fence. They yell: “Are you American?” He stops everything and approaches and proudly says no, he is just like them, but from Cameroon. They blow air kisses, bless him for working with needy children, and … have no idea who he is or more importantly, what he went through to make it to America and, at least for a week, boomerang to Africa.
And so, moments later, it is official, then. Embiid is back on the bus and feeling the love from not one, but two places famous for being distant: His homeland of an ocean away, and Philadelphia, notoriously picky with its professional athletes.
Philly’s next great superstar?
Blessed with height, a delicate shooter’s touch, a magnetic charisma and the scent of a superstar, Embiid is capable of raising the basketball awareness in Philly.
The Sixers are just now emerging from the muck of carefully-crafted seasons in which they purposely stunk to stockpile high Draft picks such as Embiid. Their former general manager and architect of this strategy, former GM Sam Hinkie, famously tried to calm the stirring masses with a plea to “trust the process” which went viral and attached itself to Embiid, who has stolen the copyright and adopted the slogan for himself.
Therefore, Embiid at age 23, is more laboratory rat than gym rat. He’s the symbol of success that resulted from humiliating (and intended) failure, the prize for a franchise that averaged 62 losses the last four seasons and did so while winking and wearing a sly grin.
There is a string attached, though. The fine print says Embiid’s body must remain in one piece to justify the love and lofty projections, which is tricky. He has only played in three of the six seasons of his organized-basketball life, no thanks to multiple surgeries on his right foot, an achy back and, lastly, a meniscus tear in his right knee.
His three-year NBA “career” is only 31 games long, all confined to last season, when he showed enough astonishing gifts (20.2 points per game, 7.8 rebounds per game and 2.5 blocks per game in only 25.4 minutes) to make eyeballs pop. That helped convince the Sixers last week to make a five year, $148 million gamble on his future in the form of a contract extension.
For those who question the Sixers’ fiscal sanity in that move, Embiid offers a reassuring “trust the process” response and, perhaps soon enough, a healthy season in which he elevates himself among the league’s premier centers.
“I have lots of confidence in myself that I can fulfill my dreams and make the people of Philadelphia proud,” Embiid said, during a break from the kids and camp. “I’m not cocky, I’m humble, but I think I can be really special, one of the top players in the league.”
Fortunately, for now, the only throbbing Embiid feels is support in Philly. He isn’t Allen Iverson-level popular, yet given time, luck and a string of All-Star appearances, it could happen. Embiid’s personality and Twitter feed is infectious and magnetic and he has the “it” factor nailed shut.
Besides, although the city is begging for a basketball winner, Philly was never a passionate pro basketball town, even when Julius Erving was cupping the ball and causing Michael Cooper to duck. Maybe a new generation of fans and a rejuvenated team changes this. Maybe Embiid leads that movement.
“It would be something, wouldn’t it?” he asked. “To be honest, it’s been a process my whole life. I started playing basketball very late, and for me to make it to the league so fast … I’ve always said my life is a movie.”
Basketball journey begins a land away
“The Process” actually began in 2010 in Yaounde, the second largest city in Cameroon. Embiid lived middle class, grew to 6-foot-9 at age 15 and used his height to play … volleyball. One of his school’s basketball coaches gave him a video of Hakeem Olajuwon and told him to take it home. The coach didn’t think Embiid would watch it over and over and keep pressing rewind. He stopped playing volleyball.
Embiid attended a local basketball camp given by Luc Mbah a Moute (also from Yaounde) who, by this time, was established as a good role player in the NBA. Embiid then went to the NBA’s annual Basketball Without Borders camp, which brings together a collection of promising basketball players from around the continent, and Embiid, with six months of basketball experience, didn’t even make the all-camp team.
As he watched a group of African teenagers go through the same type of drills, Embiid thought about that rough introduction.
“I wasn’t as good as all the guys,” he said. “I didn’t know how to shoot, the mechanics, how to handle the ball. It’s just a testament to all the work I put in. I still have a long way to go. I can be so much better. I know Africans, we all start basketball late. This is where it all started for me.
“This is a special place. I know what they are going through. Some of these kids are not going to be in the same position as me but each one is special. What I want to tell these kids is, as long as you put in the hard work every day, everything is going to be OK.”
Mbah a Moute encouraged Embiid to stick with the sport. The following year, Embiid improved enough that Mbah a Moute, whose foundation helps find boarding school scholarships in the U.S. for African teens, suggested Embiid take a leap of faith. And so, with the reluctant blessing of his parents, Embiid packed a bag for a strange world after turning 17.
“It’s just about helping them find the right high school and from there advise them on training and getting better and making important decisions like college,” Mbah a Moute said. “Most kids are nervous and excited. I mean, as a teenager you’re leaving your parents, that doesn’t usually happen at a lot of places. But Joel was looking forward to it, to becoming a better player through a more advanced structure.”
Nobody really knew how good I was going to be. I wound up by myself, didn’t know English. I had to go through a lot, learning the language and the game. I’m glad I did it the right way.
The inexperience meant Embiid played very little as an incoming junior at Montverde Academy, a national prep powerhouse, before transferring to The Rock School, also in Florida, to get playing time as a senior. That, and exposure through AAU ball, put Embiid on radar and Mbah a Moute encouraged him to take a scholarship to Kansas.
In retrospect, Embiid is amazed by his American passage, which offered no guarantees and if anything could’ve been fraught with speed bumps. While in high school, he lived with other Africans who spoke French, his primary language, none of whom reached the NBA.
“My dad didn’t want to let me go,” Embiid said. “My mom too. It was a difficult decision because I had just started playing. Nobody really knew how good I was going to be. I wound up by myself, didn’t know English. I had to go through a lot, learning the language and the game. I’m glad I did it the right way.
“I think it would’ve been a little easier if I grew up in America, they’ve got better conditions for basketball players. At the same time, many people have said to me that having to start playing so late helped me not pick up bad habits.”
Embiid didn’t suit up for the NBA Africa Game 2017, and didn’t play in a controlled scrimmage until just a few days ago. He was still hyper-careful about his meniscus tear from January, and he didn’t want to throw his ongoing contract talks with the Sixers for a loop. His collection of injuries are as attached to him as his Twitter affection for Rhianna. His career is 31 games and the most minutes for one game is 30. It’s a stigma he can’t shake until he plays a full season without a limp.
‘If only people knew the tears I shed’
His first two NBA seasons were a complete wash, both professionally and personally. Any type of foot fracture can be a fiendish injury for big men (think Sam Bowie, Bill Walton and Greg Oden). The navicular bone break, luckily, didn’t prove as devastating to Embiid. During this time, he lost his younger brother, Arthur, to a car crash back in Cameroon in 2014. And he was admittedly frustrated and angry and at times immature during constant rehab.
After healing from two foot surgeries came the abrupt ending to his third season because of minor knee surgery, just when things were looking up. Embiid was a serious candidate for Rookie of the Year anyway.
“It sucked,” he said about last season. “That’s the best way to describe it. Not being able to play basketball for two years and being away from everything and going through surgeries, and then getting injured again, that’s not a good way to start your career. If only people knew the tears I shed.
“I missed basketball so much that when I get back on the court this season, to me I’m going out there and have fun. I don’t care about anything anyone has to say. One thing I’ve learned, and I use it a lot nowadays, is to just trust the process and keep moving on. I intend to do something very special.”
From the despair, a character was born. Embiid developed humor to get him through dark days and put his wit and sharp observations to use on social media. He riffs on pop culture, politics, helicopter fathers (LaVar Ball) and, last weekend, engaged in a Twitter war of words with Hassan Whiteside.
“As for his humor, I didn’t see that coming,” Mbah a Moute said. “He was actually kind of shy when he came over here. It’s weird. He took it to another level.”
The Sixers are a team of intrigue, having added Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz as rewards for tanking, along with veteran shooter JJ Redick, who signed as a free agent. Make no mistake: The bedrock is the freshly-signed and able-bodied Embiid, who forces opponents to adjust because of the unique skills he brings to his position.
“We got a good group of young guys and it’s just about us putting it together,” Embiid said. “We just got to work together. The main thing is staying healthy. I’m excited about it. Sky is the limit and we have a chance to make playoffs.”
High expectations beckon for Embiid
He is motivated to become beastly on the floor, mainly to repay Sixers fans who lived through his early ordeal. From his vantage point, Embiid says the city never held his injuries against him, and whenever he and his crutches walked the streets of Philly, he heard encouragement, which surprised him, given Philly’s reputation.
“They showed me a lot of love,” he said. “Because of that, I know how the response will be when we start winning. I’m excited about the future. I love everything about the city, except cheese steaks. They make me fat.”
This is all about fulfilling the expectations of two worlds, then: Philly and Africa, separated by a few thousand miles yet linked by seven feet of finally healthy flesh that’s ready to be unleashed and start a basketball revolution.
“It’s all on me,” said Joel Embiid. “I can become the hub. I will make it happen.”
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