AFTER TWO YEARS IN WHICH HE CONTEMPLATED QUITTING AS HE BATTLED INJURIES AND NURSED SHIRLEY TEMPLES, JOEL EMBIID IS FINALLY IN THE 76ERS' LINEUP—AND OUT TO VALIDATE "THE PROCESS"
This is an article from the Nov. 14, 2016 issue
ON THE 40TH FLOOR OF A LUXURY apartment building in downtown Philadelphia, Joel Embiid sits on the edge of his bed and prays for health. He used to cry when he prayed, and he is not even a crier, but he would flex his right foot and remember his little brother and feel the tears slick against his stubble. "Why me?" he wondered for the better part of two years. "Why my family?" His parents were in Cameroon, grieving for one son and fretting about another. But as much as Embiid missed them, he could not bear to show his face back home until those prayers were answered.
As a rookie Embiid lived alone in the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton, eating meals prepared by a rotating cast of private chefs who always seemed to leave his steak rarer than he liked. He doesn't know how to drive, so he walked, occasionally ducking into a nightclub where he'd nurse a Shirley Temple before strangers inevitably encircled him and asked about the troublesome foot. Then he'd retreat to the Ritz, in time for the West Coast games on League Pass, and another interminable night of FIFA or Madden. "I was a vampire," the 22-year-old Embiid says. He wasn't allowed to practice, which meant he didn't have to rest, or so he told himself. He slept in the afternoon.
He could look at the Clippers' Blake Griffin, a shining example of another heralded rookie who lost his first season to injury. But Embiid, taken by the 76ers out of Kansas with the No. 3 pick in 2014, lost his first two seasons as the fractured navicular bone in his foot refused to heal. When he was not rehabbing, he was mourning, because between surgeries his 13-year-old brother died after a runaway truck careened into a Cameroonian schoolyard. Embiid was close with Arthur, a spiritual boy who handed out crosses to classmates and donated toys to the poor. But he had not seen him since leaving Cameroon for the U.S. in 2011 to pursue a basketball career. Grief and guilt, that vicious double team, enveloped him.
First from the bench, then from a suite, Embiid watched Philadelphia lose 136 games while winning just 28. He became an emblem of frustration with the franchise, as well as fascination. Maybe the Sixers were stupid to have spent such a high pick on a 7-foot center they knew was hurt. Or maybe they were ingenious, the rare organization happy to wait a year for a Dream-shaking, floor-stretching, rim-protecting prospect the likes of whom arrive once a generation. Nobody could judge the graceful giant until he mended, body and soul. Every pregame workout became a spectacle, every off-season Instagram video a blockbuster.
Embiid appeared, as all social media sensations do, upbeat and irrepressible. But behind his chipper tweets and witty posts, Philly saw an exasperated phenom weary of mundane arm exercises and incessant weight checks. He tipped scales at 290 pounds as a rookie, up from his standard 275, but he had a good excuse. He couldn't run. "He was all locked up," coach Brett Brown says, "all bottled up." Basketball was his pressure release, but whenever a Spalding rolled in his direction, trainers instructed him to let it go. "If you really love the game, you want to shoot it," Embiid says. "And if you feel good, you want to shoot it again." He couldn't resist, chucking jumpers when no one was looking.
In October 2015, the day before the first anniversary of Arthur's death, The Cauldron ran a distressing story about Embiid's rehab. Ensuing headlines focused on his affection for Shirley Temples. You'd have thought he was chugging moonshine laced with grenadine. Upset by both timing and content, Embiid considered quitting the NBA and returning to Cameroon, where he could honor his brother in peace. Maybe he'd go back to volleyball, another sport he loved.
"I wanted to get away from all this drama," Embiid recalls, "and stay away." He had been in the States for four years and lived in four cities, a hardwood nomad, always moving alone. "I never had a girlfriend before, but back then [in October '15] I had some type of girlfriend," Embiid says. "One day I told her my whole story."
How he didn't play basketball until 2010, when he caught an intoxicating glimpse of Kobe Bryant in the Finals against the Celtics. How he shot volleyballs into the rim at his high school but was too embarrassed to try out for a local camp held by NBA forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. How his new hoops coach registered him anyway, prompting a scholarship offer from Montverde (Fla.) Academy, where as a junior he languished on jayvee. Even when Embiid signed with the Jayhawks, he asked to be redshirted because they kept dunking on him in pickup games, and even when he was the presumptive No. 1 pick as a freshman, he told scouts he was not ready for the pros. After Embiid broke his foot during a predraft training session, the 76ers still took him third without so much as meeting him.
"I don't know anything about basketball," the girlfriend said. "But all that sounds pretty amazing to me." They eventually broke up, but her words stuck. "She's right," Embiid thought. "My life is like a movie." His brother, who he believes is watching, deserved to see the end.
A second year passed, far better than the first, and the foot finally cooperated. He settled on a chef, a sleep schedule and a rehab regimen. Eight days before his first regular-season game—and 844 days after the '14 draft—Embiid relaxes on a second-floor balcony of the 76ers' palatial practice facility in Camden, N.J. "Back on my feet," he proclaims. When Embiid was injured, he did not grant interviews, so he has a lot to say. He speaks with a French accent, in a flowing stream of consciousness, about everything from Cameroon's education system to Florida's topography to Marc Gasol's jab step. He is engaging, charismatic and funny. "You know how I learned to shoot?" Embiid says. "I watched white people. Just regular white people. They really put their elbow in and finish up top. You can find videos of them online."
This is the JoJo you read on Twitter, the crackup who used to chide fans, "Stop telling me that yall got the same stats as I do." The 76ers now experience his outsized charm in real life. His specialty is smothering guards and swatting centers. Offense and personality are a bonus. "He's found his release," Brown says.
On opening night against the Thunder, Embiid put up 20 points in 22 minutes, the first player to score so many in so little time in his debut. He started with a sweet turnaround jumper at the free throw line, spun past Steven Adams on the block, shot over Enes Kanter from the elbow, drilled a three from the top of the circle and finished to preposterous M-V-P chants. In other words, he made Philadelphia basketball worth watching, for the first time since Allen Iverson unfurled impossible fadeaways. And at the end of the day, he asked God and Adidas to protect his size 17s, because they're all that can stop him.
EMBIID COULD have quit a long time ago. In his first week at Montverde, he learned how to say good morning in English, so he'd have something he could say to his teammates in the locker room before 5 a.m. practices. When he finally worked up the courage to deploy the salutation, they laughed and they did not stop laughing after he hit the court. "I couldn't catch the ball," Embiid recalls. "I got pushed around by everybody. I got my ass kicked every day."
Embiid was raised with his two siblings in an upper-middle-class home in the capital city of Yaoundé. His father was a colonel in the military. His mother drove a Mercedes. "I was a little soft," Embiid says, "but the Americans had no idea about any of that. They just knew I was from Africa. They thought I grew up poor, in the jungle, killing lions. I was like, If that's how they think of me, I'm going to use it."
As a boy he created a persona on the soccer field, turning his cheerful countenance into an unnerving snarl. "Let's say my team was down 2--0," Embiid explains. "I'd put my arms out and make this mean face and try to scare everybody. I kind of liked that they were afraid of me." He channeled that ferocity against his Montverde teammates, specifically five-star center Dakari Johnson, with moves stolen from a Hakeem Olajuwon video he studied six days a week. "Every day we fought," Embiid recalls. "I had to make sure they stopped making fun of me. I had to let them know I came here for a reason." Sometimes Embiid got kicked out of practice, but he didn't realize until later what coach Kevin Boyle was telling the team in his wake: "Someday, you're going to be asking that guy for a loan."
In three years, to be exact. "Everything in my life," he says, "happens really fast." And then, with one inaudible crack during a predraft workout in Cleveland, all the action stopped. The 76ers scripted what seemed like a logical rehab plan for their prized rookie. They wanted him around the team at all times, home and road, so he would not feel isolated. They even acquired Mbah a Moute, who had discovered Embiid at his camp in Yaoundé after glimpsing an unforgettable fast break. "The guard threw him a pass that was way ahead," Mbah a Moute recalls. "Jo caught the ball, put it down, spun and finished on the other side of the rim in traffic. He'd been playing for six months. A normal person doesn't do that."
Mbah a Moute steered Embiid to Montverde, his alma mater, and facilitated a transfer to The Rock School in Gainesville, Fla., where a blue-chipper was born. Yet as well as Mbah a Moute knew Embiid, even he could not predict the flaws in the 76ers' rehab strategy. "They had me traveling all over the place, at every practice, every meeting, on the bench for every game," Embiid says. "You're sitting there, we're losing and you can't do anything. It was the worst." The stereotypical 7-foot import plays because he can. Embiid is different. He fell for basketball later than the average American guards and wings, but he fell just as hard. By stationing him next to the floor, and warning him not to step on it, the Sixers were tempting an addict.
No one believes the jumpers Embiid hoisted during his recovery had any tangible effect on the state of his foot. But after five straight MRIs indicated the navicular bone was healing correctly, a sixth late in the summer of 2015 revealed the opposite. Embiid, who was dominating the 76ers pain-free in pickup games, sat stunned in a Los Angeles doctor's office as he received the results.
"Joel is a maverick," Brown says. "He's curious. He's competitive. Those qualities are going to allow him to maximize his very evident gifts. But when he was out, those qualities sometimes made it a challenge to always walk that Boy Scout's line." Brown looked for something to scare Embiid. "Appropriate fear had to creep in," the coach says. "'Maybe I'm going to struggle to play basketball. Maybe there isn't a light at the end of the tunnel.'" The dread MRI did it.
AFTER CONFIRMING the diagnosis, general manager Sam Hinkie and the Sixers embarked on a new plan for Embiid's second rehab. This time they asked for his input. Embiid needed a mentor, so they set him up with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the Lithuanian center who had endured the same injury. He needed a sanctuary, so they sent him to Aspetar, a renowned training facility in Qatar, where he stabilized his sleep. And he needed his sanity, so he stayed away from the team, instead watching games from Hinkie's suite. At the time Hinkie was a controversial figure, architect of arguably the most dramatic teardown in sports history. Former Philly guard Tony Wroten dubbed it the Process, while others used harsher terminology. The 76ers won less than 20% of their games during Hinkie's three-year tenure but accumulated a staggering cache of prospects and picks.
A divide formed, with casual fans deriding the Process and NBA junkies extolling it. Like many modern players, Embiid comes across as a de facto scout, evaluating the 20th pick in the draft, analyzing the Pacers' spacing issues and recoiling at the sight of a defense switching a screen on J.J. Redick. If he sees a successful rip move, he doesn't rewind it once or twice. He rewinds it 50 times. He understands the lottery, the salary cap and the patience required to turn assets into stars. You can guess which camp he joined.
Hinkie was there for Embiid when Arthur died, sitting in his apartment with Brown and Mbah a Moute, then flying him to Cameroon for the funeral. He was there last season, when the Sixers nearly upset the Warriors at Wells Fargo Center, and Embiid stomped excitedly around the suite. He is not there anymore, having resigned last April, but Embiid channels Hinkie every time he references the Process, which occurs nearly every time he opens his mouth. "I think a lot about what I went through and how it prepared me to be a better man," Embiid says. "I really feel like I'm the Process, like the Process is about me."
On Aug. 27 the 76ers hosted their annual Beach Bash at Jack's Place on the Jersey Shore. At the end of the event, parched from all his socializing, Embiid ordered two Shirley Temples for the road. As he left he took a sip and beamed. The soda, the cherry, the grenadine—this was a mean Shirley Temple. He ducked back inside and autographed a shirt for the bartender: BEST SHIRLEY TEMPLES EVER, JOEL EMBIID.
He already recognizes, better than public figures twice his age, how to neutralize criticism in the clickbait era. Same way he dealt with the boys at Montverde who assumed he emerged from the jungle. Own it. Embrace it. Tweet a beefcake pic over the hashtag #shirleytempledidthis, as Embiid did last winter, and watch the 76ers add the drink to their club menu, as they plan to do this fall.
Embiid's preferred mocktail is as incongruous as his taste in recreation. He watches cycling and plays tennis, often at night, on an outdoor public court across the Schuylkill River with Sixers development coach Chris Babcock. "You'd expect him to hit the ball really hard, right?" Babcock says. Embiid is actually a finesse player and a drop-shot artist. He is self-taught, in tennis as well as basketball, an audacious copycat of both Shaq and Fed.
At the Las Vegas Summer League in July, Embiid approached NBA skills coach Drew Hanlen because he was intrigued by the work Hanlen had done in the midpost with his Kansas teammate Andrew Wiggins. "Sorry," Hanlen said, "I have to be back in L.A. tomorrow." "Perfect," Embiid replied, "I'll see you there." They spent two weeks together, and after a break, another two weeks. Embiid posted some clips of himself, running figure eights around Hanlen, to show his progress. "Those videos went viral for two reasons," Hanlen says. "Because people thought, 'Omigod, this guy has a chance to be very special.' And because he was doing it against a 5'11" white guy." The Ringer published a hilarious six-minute spoof.
Laugh now, because Embiid is going to be a problem, the term his teammates use. He can roll to the rim or pop to the perimeter, strong enough to find whatever spot he wants, whether the man in front of him stands 5'11" or 6'11". "And he talks a lot," laughs center Jahlil Okafor, another member of the 76ers' brimming frontcourt. "'Post me up! This guy can't guard me!'"
Technically Embiid is still a rookie, and he does not hide his zeal. He was sick for his first practice at Stockton University in Galloway, N.J., and the 76ers advised him to stay home. But he'd done enough of that already. He couldn't miss another day. In his preseason debut against the Celtics, he air-balled his opening shot, blaming the accumulated adrenaline. He settled quickly, averaging 31.0 points and 16.3 rebounds per 40 minutes over the exhibition schedule, jacking expectations in Philly from unreasonable to absurd.
A week before opening night the Sixers held a public practice at Temple's Liacouras Center, and afterward most players showered and left. Embiid hung around for 40 minutes, circling the lower bowl, scribbling autographs and snapping selfies. Fans chanted his name. They told him they loved him. One teenage boy claimed to be his father. Embiid liked that one. Two security guards rushed alongside him. "Be careful," they warned the crowd. "Don't grab him. Don't push him."
He finally ducked into the tunnel, the last to go, having posed for hundreds of pictures. But in none of them did he actually smile. He opted instead for the steely expression he wore on the soccer field as a boy, when his team was tired of losing and the time had come to dispense the fear.
"YOU KNOW HOW I LEARNED TO SHOOT?" EMBIID SAYS. "I WATCHED WHITE PEOPLE. JUST REGULAR WHITE PEOPLE."