Joel Embiid with timeline point 2014

Joel Embiid: From Cameroon to NBA MVP

The kid with heart and a chance is now the NBA’s MVP, the second from Africa, joining Nigeria’s Hakeem Olajuwon.

The voice of 76ers public address announcer Matt Cord echoes throughout the darkened arena.

Nine starters representing two NBA teams have been introduced to the eager crowd thus far, leaving only one more name to be called.

AND at 7-foot…

Anticipation mounts with each and every word.

From Cameroon…

Everyone knows it by now.

Number twenty-one…


It’s a frenzy. Bursts of flames behind each basket illuminate opposite ends of the court, as images of the six-time All-Star rotate onto the dropdown video board: Embiid’s name, jersey number, and hometown of Yaoundé, Cameroon spelled out in red and white font.

But the script for this spectacle is slightly different than it once was.

That’s because, near the midway point of the 2021-22 season, the man in the spotlight opted to hear his home country announced in the place typically reserved for a player’s alma mater (Kansas, in this case).

On Tuesday, May 2, 2023, the 7-footer from Cameroon—No. 21—earned NBA Most Valuable Player honors for the first time in his fascinating seven-season career. He is the first NBA MVP from Cameroon and just the second from Africa, joining Nigeria’s Hakeem Olajuwon.

The journey to this point is one that inspires a continent, as the legend of Joel Embiid travels the world.


Welcome to Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets and the same site where—one month later— Joel Embiid’s 76ers would earn a first-round sweep in the 2023 NBA Playoffs.

It’s still March and college basketball is in the air.

Less than three minutes into this particular game, a hulking 6-foot-9 forward checks in for the Fordham Rams against Philadelphia’s La Salle Explorers. Thirty seconds later, he blocks a shot. About a minute after that, a dunk.

Abdou Tsimbila is a 22-year-old upperclassman for the Bronx-based Atlantic 10 program that enjoyed a historic 25-win season.

Tsimbila, seven years younger than Embiid, also hails from Cameroon.

His parents, Tsimbilawa and Kouam, missed both the block and the dunk entirely.

“I played at the Barclays Center,” Tsimbila said recently, and coincidentally, the day after the Sixers advanced on the very same court. “And my parents could not watch me play. Sometimes I see guys whose parents come to every game. They don't really understand that. My mom has seen me play basketball one time. It was, like, for five minutes. My dad has never seen me play basketball. My dad doesn't know what position I play. He doesn't know anything about basketball. Same thing with my brothers and sisters—they have never seen me play basketball like that.”

Though he knows his parents recognize the impact. 

The power. 

Of sports. Of pride. Of Embiid.

“They know Embiid is a Cameroonian kid who plays in the NBA. They don't really know about the MVP [race], but they know Embiid is somebody that I'm looking up to, that I can use as inspiration to push myself every day.

“Me and Embiid are from the same city. Yaoundé, Cameroon.”

The two athletes from the capital city have never met, but their stories are intertwined.

“We don't really have access to gyms, so most of the time we have to go outside on the concrete,” Tsimbila said.

“Where Embiid started playing basketball, that's the same place where I started playing basketball, too. That's where I did my first workout video to send over to the States. And with that video, I was able to come over here.”

Tsimbila arrived in the United States in 2017, just two years after he picked up a basketball and only a handful after his role model made the move. Following a successful prep career in and around the U.S. capital, he earned a Division I basketball scholarship to Penn State, where he played his freshman season before transferring to Fordham.

With this new journey came increased access to watch Embiid play, though he’s still yet to see him dominate live in person. Like most who observe the MVP on television, the young player reverently speaks of the confounding athleticism and unique skill set for his size that make Embiid virtually unguardable. But this student-athlete cares just as much about the mental approach of the reigning two-time NBA scoring champion. He understands it.

“I don't know if Embiid has ever said this, but in Cameroon, we all have this hustle mentality,” explained Tsimbila. “We have to survive. We have to figure out a way to survive. Honestly, when we start playing basketball, it's not because we like it. It's not a goal. It’s because we're tall and physical. The more we play, the more we fall in love with the game.

“Over there, it's a lot of struggle. People struggle a lot about food, about clothes. People struggle, literally, about everything. About life. It's not easy. For a lot of kids, when they see what Embiid has done, they just believe that anything is possible. And every day when you wake up in the morning, you have a chance to accomplish something special. That hustle mentality—that's what makes us go every day.”

This month, Tsimbila will return home to see his family for the first time in six years.


It is well documented that Mbah a Moute’s prestigious basketball camp in their home country is where Embiid launched his career in the sport in the summer of 2011.

Mbah a Moute played 689 NBA games for Milwaukee, Sacramento, Minnesota, Philadelphia (soon after the Sixers drafted Embiid), the LA Clippers, and Houston from 2008 to 2020.

Embiid, dating back to a 2014 tweet and probably earlier, often states that his life is “like a movie.” 

Mbah a Moute’s camp might be the opening scene. 

“I think about the kid that I saw at the camp,” said Mbah a Moute, still a few days out from the MVP announcement. “That's what I go back to. And then three years later, he was at the draft. A couple years after that, he's an All-Star. Now, he's the MVP. And he's been the MVP, for me, the last three seasons. Coming from where he came from, it's unimaginable. It's like…yeah, it's like a movie.”

Embiid’s mentor said he is most proud of the dedication shown by the 29-year-old superstar.

“What I saw back then was a kid who had a chance to play, who had heart,” Mbah a Moute said. “I felt like he had a chance to be a good pro. From that point on, it was just kind of putting him in the right situation. Joel just took it and made who he is today—the MVP of the NBA. I respect his work ethic, I respect everything that he's done so far in the game and getting to where he needs to go. I'm very excited and happy for him.”

The kid with heart and a chance is now the MVP. And he’s a family man, which Mbah a Moute—a father of two—finds equally hard to believe because of the fact that Embiid’s son Arthur was born before he had any children of his own.

“There's nothing better than being involved in someone's life and seeing that person grow into becoming a man and being successful—in this case becoming an NBA player, All-Star, and MVP,” Mbah a Moute said. “Him becoming a family man and how he's raising his family, it's beautiful to see.”


The story goes that a 15-year-old Joel Embiid locked in on the 2009 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic.

A decade later, an 18-year-old Abdou Tsimbila set his attention on a playoff Game 7 between Embiid’s 76ers and the Toronto Raptors, which featured another Cameroonian hero in Pascal Siakam.

“When Kawhi Leonard from Toronto shot that 3 in front of Embiid,” the Fordham big man recalls, “You could look at [Embiid's] face, how he was devastated. That didn't stop him from achieving what he's achieved, being the MVP.

“All those years he tried to win MVP, they just didn't give it to him. He just kept pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing, and that's one of the mentalities that we have in Cameroon. We don't give up because the outcome is not what we were expecting. We just keep pushing.

Embiid winning the MVP is history. It's something that people are going to talk about for decades, for centuries.”

“It's hard to describe,” added Mbah a Moute. “It's huge for us.”

While Mbah a Moute is sure to mention that Hall of Famers Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo “really put Africa on the map,” he returns his focus to Embiid.

“We tried to do our best when I was playing to continue to put Africa on the map, but I think it was really when Joel came on,” Mbah a Moute said. “And I want to add Pascal [Siakam] to it, and all of the other young guys. The success of those guys is what really led to what you're seeing on the continent today with the BAL [Basketball Africa League], with the NBA investing and opening up academies. That's when people started to finally realize that this is something real.

“We're very excited about the future. [Embiid’s] the one who kind of set it up for us. Hopefully there's going to be many more kids holding that trophy.”

“You see people like Embiid,” says Tsimbila, “and we’re like why not?”

Sure, the 2023 NBA MVP attended the University of Kansas.

But he’s from Cameroon.