Game Preview | Embiid, Curry, Durant and the Value of Relationships

by Brian Seltzer Reporter

CAMDEN, NJ - These days, there’s probably not much a charismatic, 7-foot tall budding professional basketball behemoth can do in public without being noticed, especially in a sports-centric market as feverish as Philadelphia.

Now, imagine the viral craziness that might be triggered if he were spotted out and about with two of the biggest names in his sport.

Earlier this year, the latter part of that equation happened, when Joel Embiid dined with megatalents Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. But here’s the thing. Somehow, even in a time when just about every person in the country carries around pocket-sized content creation studios, the meet up went unnoticed.

Publicity, however, was far from the purpose of the gathering, which took place the night before the 76ers’ February 27th home game against the Golden State Warriors, and also included Sixers assistant coaches Lloyd Pierce, Todd Wright, and Chris Babcock, along with Dubs associate head coach Mike Brown.

No, the point of the night wasn't for Instagram or Twitter. It was to make introductions, talk, listen, and learn in a relaxed, private setting. More than that, the interactions spoke to a broader theme.

Around the table that evening at Alma de Cuba, one of the forebears of Philadelphia’s reputable foodie scene, old relationships were being rekindled, while fresh ones were being forged. And in a fraternity as exclusive as the NBA, relationships matter, big time. They can lead to an invaluable mentorship, the impetus for a championship run, a career-advancing job opportunity.

When Embiid found out about the dinner, he was in.

“Babs told me they were going, and he was like, ‘You should come,’ and then I came,” Embiid recalled last week. “It was a fun time.”

Going into the dinner, Embiid was already familiar with Durant, based on a steady correspondence the two had maintained since the center’s college days at Kansas. The big man didn’t know Curry or Brown as well.

Here’s how the rest of the dots for the dinner were connected:

• Midway through the first decade of the 2000s, Pierce, on assignment for the Nike Basketball Academy program, met Curry at Davidson. The two reunited a few years later during the 2010-2011 NBA season, Pierce’s lone campaign on the Warriors’ staff.

• Also of relevance was that Pierce’s first NBA gig was with Cleveland, from 2007 through 2010. The Cavaliers’ head coach during that period was, of course, Brown.

• Wright and Babcock, through coaching stints at the University of Texas, got to know and work closely with Durant, who spent his freshman season with the Longhorns before being drafted second overall in in 2007. Wright coached Durant his lone year in Austin, and, along with Babcock, helped the All-Star train in subsequent summers. All three have stayed in touch.

• As they sometimes do whenever the Sixers and Golden State play, Pierce and Curry had originally arranged to grub together last February, when the Warriors were in town. On their own, Wright, Babcock, and Durant did the same.

• After finding out about their separate plans, the groups decided to combine forces, and the idea was floated to invite Embiid.

So yes, there ended up being star power a plenty at the restaurant the eve of the Sixers’ match-up with the Warriors. Cutting through the surface of all that, though, were tangible reminders of the importance and benefits of establishing and sustaining relationships, specifically in a realm that can get as intense as professional sports.

As Babcock remembered it, Embiid listened first. Then, he started to speak up, and get more involved.

“You know Joel,” Babcock said. “He had questions on every sort of subject, whether it was in-game stuff, off the court, or how [Curry and Durant] carried themselves.”

With Durant in particular, Embiid found common ground talking about injury rehab.

Throughout the night, the conversations were kept light, primarily. Some nostalgic war stories were swapped, as were preferences about the nuances of NBA life, such as the best places to stay and how to pass time on the road. Mostly, the chatter revolved around subjects other than hoops, according to Embiid.

“No one’s having a competitive face on as you’re breaking bread and having dinner,” Pierce said. “I think it’s enjoying each other’s company, respecting sport, respecting the relationships you have with each other, and introducing new people to one another.”

Noteworthy about this particular setting was that Curry and Durant, two of the most prominent faces of an entire league, were open to sitting down with Embiid, still in the relatively early stages of his professional journey, despite having similarly transformative potential.

“I don’t think either of those guys have egos about who they’re having dinner with,” said Pierce, referring to the MVPs who were present. “I think them as people trumps who it is they want to be around. I don’t think they look to surround themselves with only the elite.

“I think there’s a natural respect they have for Joel, and he has for them, obviously, watching them for years.”

Boiling beneath that respect, perhaps stronger and stronger the more Embiid plays, is his undoubtable desire to have what Curry has, and now Durant as well. Yes, the two 29-year olds have achieved superlative statistical feats, and piled up heady individual honors while dominating their respective primes.

Of greater interest to Embiid is the collective success Golden State has attained the past three seasons.

“They’ve won championships,” Embiid said.

Not a single, flash-in-the-pan title, but multiple ones, and poised to continue contending for a while.

Embiid doesn’t only admire the heights the Warriors have reached, but how they’ve gone about getting there, stylistically. They spread the wealth among selfless stars.

“What I appreciate the most about [Golden State] is they’re unselfish, they don’t care about who gets the credit,” Embiid noted. “Klay [Thompson] will go for 60 one night, and everybody would be happy. Then KD will go for 40, 50, same thing - everybody’s happy. Steph will go for 50. They just take turns, they share the ball, and I feel like that’s how we got to be, too.”

The blueprint is an applicable one for Embiid to keep in mind, particularly when considering that young, emerging contributors like himself, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, and Robert Covington figure to form the basis of the Sixers’ core for the foreseeable future.

“I feel like we’re going to go through that, and I see us coming,” said Embiid. “I just hope that we stay all together.”

Pierce called the Warriors “the current model of what greatness looks like,” a team that laid the foundation for its nucleus through the draft, then sprinkled in other key additions.

“There’s a lot of similarities there,” Pierce said between how the Dubs built their roster, and how the Sixers are going about their business.

“Did it happen overnight?,” Pierce asked rhetorically. “No, but it happened, born out of those guys growing together and expanding together. I know Joel sees that.”

And, on a night he had the chance to be part of an exclusive group, maybe Embiid got to hear a little bit more about that sort of thing, too.

Opponent Outlook:

For the second time in the span of successive Saturdays, the Sixers and Golden State Warriors (11-4) will square off (7:30 PM EST; NBC Sports Philadelphia, 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network), but this time, the teams will do so at The Center, where the Sixers begin a 6-game homestand. The Dubs, meanwhile, will be playing the second contest of a 4-game road trip, which started Thursday with a narrow 92-88 loss to the Boston Celtics. Prior to the defeat, Golden State, the defending NBA champions, had won 7 in a row. They knocked off the Sixers 135-114 last Saturday at Oracle Arena.

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Audio: 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network