The Philadelphia 76ers Training Complex is in Camden, New Jersey, the most dangerous city in America and a place to avoid after dark – and during the day, for that matter, according to my Uber driver, Lloyd. With $86 million worth of steel and glass and shine, the 125,000-square-foot complex boasts brilliant views of the Philadelphia skyline and serves Essentia bottled water that is balanced precisely at a PH level of 9.5, purportedly for “optimal rehydration.” Directly across the street sits a crumbling public-housing development. There’s symbolism here, if you’re the type of person who looks for it.
Since 2013, the 76ers have occupied a special place in the NBA’s sub-basement. Long gone were the days of Dr. J, Charles Barkley or Allen Iverson. Led by General Manager Sam Hinkie – who, depending on who you ask, is either a revolutionary destined for hoops martyrdom or a Ted Talk-humping failure machine – the 76ers embarked on The Process, a fancy term for being super bad at basketball or, alternately, letting JaKarr Sampson start 40 games. Under Hinkie, the 76ers operated under the assumption that the best way to acquire a superstar was to obtain a high draft pick, which, of course, can be done by losing a whole lot. So while the rest of the NBA’s dreck generally lost by accident, capsized by injury or apathy, the 76ers willingly – nay, gleefully – got the crud beat out of them 199 times over three seasons before the team finally ousted Hinkie last spring and replaced him with the Colangelo dynasty to end this stretch of purposeful suckery.
Hinkie’s knack for “asset accumulation” – to borrow some of his signature nonsense technobabble – was undeniable (see: his pantsing of Vlade Divac and the Kings at the 2015 draft). The results of these assets are a bit hazier. Nerlens Noel, the 76ers’ 2013 first-round pick, is a kinetic, disruptive defensive center whose shooting range extends barely beyond the purview of his erstwhile flat-top. Jahlil Okafor, selected with the third pick of the 2015 draft, is a post-up savant, but plays defense with the verve of a prize Holstein and appears to be the spiritual heir to Andrea Bargnani’s throne of hardwood ennui. Ben Simmons – who was picked after Hinkie was fired, yet still a de facto member of The Process – possesses an uncanny feel for the game and a nasty case of dancer’s foot (a.k.a., an avulsion fracture of the fifth metatarsal) that’s prevented him from playing a single NBA minute. Most important is Joel Embiid, a seven-foot center with the potential to catapult the 76ers to contention and recalibrate the NBA’s axis of power, if the fragile right foot that sidelined him for two whole seasons permits him. “I want to win championships,” Embiid says, placing a careful emphasis on championships, “but I’m going to have to stay healthy for that.”
Up until a few weeks ago, Embiid was the frontrunner to win Rookie of the Year. Then a bone bruise suffered in a game in late-January against the Portland Trailblazers and a slightly torn meniscus discovered during an MRI exam put him back on the sidelines. Up until that point, Embiid was averaging 20.2 points a game and pulling down nearly eight rebounds. If it wasn’t so messed up, you could almost laugh at it – the way Embiid, Simmons and all of Philadelphia have to keep waiting for the luck to switch over. Things weren’t going great, the team wasn’t considered much of a threat to make it into the playoffs, but still, Embiid’s latest injury that his coaches swear he’ll be back from this season just feels like part of one messed up narrative that has to have a happy ending. Right? Things were at least fun, with Embiid playing great and gaining fans like WWE legend Triple H, who backed the young star’s run for the All-Star Game.
When he’s healthy and on the court, Embiid is both the bull and the china shop, a terrifying conjunction of power and finesse. He’s often referred to as one of the NBA’s “unicorns,” special players who boast skill sets that have never been seen before. Although Embiid is certainly a supremely talented player, it is fairly reductive to trumpet his unicorn-ness. Whereas Giannis Antetokoumnpo’s talents represent some new, alien development of the sport, Embiid simply represents the bridge spanning the divide between the post-up behemoths of antiquity (a.k.a. the Eighties) and the Golden State Warriors’ futurism.
Indeed, if any player can single-handedly change the fortunes of the moribund 76ers, Embiid is certainly the best bet. He’s a big guy and has the kind of power you may have seen from a center like Shaq 15 or 20 years ago, but he’s also got moves that have some people saying we’re seeing the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon, one of Embiid’s idols. . And for a young player he shows a willingness to learn and improve on his game that will make him an evolving threat for years to come.
Accordingly, Embiid is the totem of perhaps the most divisive period in franchise history, a reality that he acknowledges with a cocktail of sincerity and self-aware humor; he is introduced at home games as “Joel ‘The Process’ Embiid” and his Twitter page is peppered with #TrustTheProcess tweets.
Beyond his status as a projection of all of Philadelphia’s hopes and fears and dreams, there’s something you should know about Embiid, and it’s not that hard to figure out: In his own words, he’s a fun guy. You can see it when he engages in vigorous rounds of slap-ass mid-game; or when he cruelly cooks opposing big men in the post and then, even more cruelly, rains fiery death from the three-point line; or when he routinely proves to be the only good person on Twitter and demonstrates the principal rule of DM sliding: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Fun is what Philadelphia and the Sixers need.
“Embiid is perfect for Philly on so many levels,” says Kyle Neubeck, the managing editor of the popular 76ers fan website Liberty Ballers, in an email. “Philadelphia is the recipient of a lot of backhanded compliments – the city is said to have great and knowledgeable fans, but then stories of fan violence and misbehavior always get mentioned too. People here feel and fight those ghosts all the time, and a lot of them will wear it as a badge of honor. The “he’s great, but…” nature of Embiid’s story is perfect for this city. And now the city is in love with the kid who is trying to date Rihanna, loves Shirley Temples and made up a story about killing a lion.”
If all the adulation has gone to Embiid’s head, he certainly doesn’t show it; in fact, the feeling is mutual: “I just love this city,” he says. “As long as those guys upstairs want me, I’m going to be here.” Besides, he adds, “I just switched apartments and it was a pain in the ass. I don’t want to do it again.”
Sunk deep in a big, round, black chair in the players’ lounge, Embiid is hunched and relaxed, as if politely ensuring that his imposing body isn’t too obtrusive. He is large and still, save for the occasional bout of semi-consciously picking at the hangnail on his harmonica-size right thumb. He talks slowly and quietly, running through the talking points that he’s covered in countless other interviews; he plays the hits, discussing processes and playing time and FIFA and fractured feet and Shirley Temples, but also doesn’t avoid discussing personal tragedy.
“My life,” he says, “is like a movie; everything happens so fast.”
At its most basic level, Embiid’s story follows the through-line of a fairly boilerplate romantic comedy: boy meets basketball, boy gets really good at basketball, boy loses basketball, boy joyfully reunites with basketball, boy averages a lot of points, rebounds and blocks as a rookie and nearly starts in the All-Star game. Boy and basketball live happily ever after.
Or that’s what you’d think.
Sometimes things fall apart. William Butler Yeats knew it. Chinua Achebe knew it. The Roots know it. Joel Embiid really knows it. He’s lived it. At 16 years old, Embiid endured close, muggy Florida nights at Monteverde Academy, marooned 6,279 miles from his comfortable upper-middle-class home and family in Yaounde, Cameroon. He didn’t speak English and languished on the school’s JV team, completely unable to understand or be understood by his teammates, who relentlessly needled the silent, tall, skinny kid who they wrongly assumed came from the jungle. “I was getting pushed around, couldn’t catch the ball, couldn’t score, couldn’t do nothing,” he recounts. “They were making fun of me and saying what people often think about Africans.” His sole solace? An old VHS tape of Hakeem Olujuwan. “I couldn’t go to bed without watching it,” he says. “That was every day, watching and going to the gym, trying to do the same moves.”
From Florida he made his way to Kansas, playing 28 games for the Jayhawks, then bolting, forgoing his final three seasons of college ball. He was going pro.
He was going pro, but he’d have to wait before playing a game in the NBA after his navicular bone snapped two weeks before the 2014 draft and stubbornly refused to heal as the 76ers lost basketball games with breathtaking consistency during his first season. Worst of all, his 13-year-old brother Arthur was killed by a runaway truck that burst through a Cameroonian schoolyard in October of that same year. And then, on the one-year anniversary of his brother’s death, The Cauldron published rumors of Embiid’s grenadine-bloated delinquence and indolence. “That story came out on the day of the anniversary of my brother’s death, so that just made it so worse,” Embiid remembers. “I thought about some things I shouldn’t have; I wanted to quit basketball. Just go back home and get away from everything.”
The following year was all about healing. He was mourning the death of his brother, but also trying to figure out how to get healthy enough to play in his first NBA game. The injury kept him sidelined throughout the entire 2015-16 season as well.
To characterize Embiid’s life as some pitiable Lifetime-movie incarnate, though, is to fundamentally miss the point. Whereas sometimes the backstory becomes the only story, Embiid’s is merely an element in a larger constellation. Because, seriously, have you seen him play basketball?
When he’s healthy, Embiid averages 6.0 points per game in the post, the second most in the league, despite playing on a firm minute restriction. Still, he’s one of only 11 seven-footers to take more than two three-pointers a game. In a recent podcast, he mentioned that he wanted to broaden his horizons even further, possibly joking when he said that he wanted to play point guard, a task that he is as well-suited to as any big man ever will be. Oh, and he’s a fantastic defender: When defended by Embiid, opponents shoot a meager 40.9 percent, a whopping 6.5 percent lower than their average.
Most impressive, Embiid has almost single-handedly made the Sixers, dare I say, not embarrassingly terrible, or at least not-embarrassingly-terrible adjacent. Since the beginning of 2017, the Sixers are 7-2 when Embiid has played and have posted a defensive rating of 91.2 when he is on the court. For the first time since before the beginning of The Process, the Sixers seem like a coherent, competent and, most crucially, promising basketball team. They’re using the same youth movement idea the Chicago Cubs utilized on the team’s march to the top of the baseball world for the first time since 1908, and the center is the key.
“Embiid looks like he might be a franchise player,” says Neubeck. “I think you might say he is the light at the end of the tunnel. Also, Ben Simmons is returning soon, and they should have two top-10 picks this year in a deep draft. We’re having a heck of a time, even if they’re still working their way up.”
Even as Philly has adopted him into its canon of favorite sons alongside Allen Iverson, Chase Utley and a certain white-savior myth that got punched in the face a lot, Embiid stays loyal to his roots. “There aren’t many [Cameroonians] that get the chance to do what I’m doing,” he acknowledges. “So I’m going to do whatever I can to make an impact.” And most of all, he remains an Embiid: “[Arthur’s memory] is a big motivation – anybody would try to do it for their brother,” he says, gesturing toward the basketball court and the skyline. “That’s my family.”
For most people, this part of Embiid’s story would represent the happy ending – demons conquered, basketballs dunked. Not for him. He is a man acutely aware of not only how far he has come, but how far he can still go.
So what’s next? What does he do once he heals, once The Process starts moving along again?
Embiid pauses and looks up at the uneven Philadelphia skyline: “I want to be one of the greats, to be in the Hall of Fame.” And then he laughs.