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The Sixers rose to the challenge Wednesday and beat the Lakers, the LeBron James-led NBA defending champions, to maintain their two-game lead on top of the Eastern Conference. Even sweeter, Joel Embiid is being talked about as a possible league MVP, especially if he continues performing like he has during the season’s first quarter.
For long-suffering Sixers fans — and anyone else who lives in Philadelphia — Embiid couldn’t be a more perfect sports hero.
Joel plays basketball like an abstraction of the city itself: rough, unforgiving, and making life miserable for anyone who gets in his way, cracking grins as he goes. Who is there to challenge him? Carson Wentz’ “aw shucks” schtick is still out of place; Bryce Harper hasn’t been here long enough; Claude Giroux is well past his prime.
Embiid has been seen jogging through Center City in the middle of the night, embarrassing players in playground pickup, playfully teaching kids a lesson, getting gritty on the court, and generally never missing a chance to fawn over Philadelphia.
“I want to … reward the city and the fans for the trust that they had in me,” he said in December about winning a championship, “especially after missing two years and everything that I’ve been through, losing my brother and then starting a family here.”
Named after his late brother, Embiid’s newborn son Arthur was born here, which he said adds to his desire to bring home the title. “That’s why I want to win so bad.”
Embiid has always considered himself to be an underdog.
He didn’t start basketball till he was 16, and when he moved to the U.S. to play at one of the best high school programs here, he didn’t speak any English. He picked up what he could by listening to Rick Ross.
“I remember any time you would talk to him, he would just say a big Rick Ross quote,” high school teammate and Timberwolves point guard D’Angelo Russell said in 2016. “I think music really helped his English, you know.”
Selected by the Sixers in the first round of the 2014 draft, Embiid ended up sitting out his first two years in the NBA due to leg injuries. While he was rehabbing, his brother was killed in a car crash in his native Cameroon. He very nearly retired.
“I just wanted to go back home and just leave everything behind,” Embiid told ESPN Radio. “That was right after my second surgery. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I just wanted to, like, quit.”
But he said the passion from the Philadelphia faithful helped him find the fire he needed to get back on the court.
Since then, he’s taken the NBA by storm, making three straight All-Star Games and becoming one of the league’s brightest stars.
This year, the Sixers have dominated when Embiid plays. They’re 12-2 with him on the court, though they’ve lost all four games without him. Virtually every part of his game has improved since last year. He’s posting career highs in points per game, steals, free throws attempted and made, and shooting a staggering 40% from three — higher than expert marksmen Steph Curry and Damian Lillard.
He’s shooting 58.7% from midrange, higher than legendary midrange shooter Kevin Durant. Joel also has the second highest player efficiency rating (PER), often considered the gold standard of a player’s in-game performance.
Fearless, outspoken, and unforgiving, Embiid embodies the spirit of the city with a cross between the carefree brashness of Allen Iverson and the on-field intensity of Brian Dawkins.
Those attributes have made him a walking folk hero in Philadelphia. What takes the relationship to the next level is that Embiid loves the city back.
“I’m doing whatever I can to take care of my body so I’m able to play 20 years here in Philly,” Embiid said earlier this year. “I want to play for one city the rest of my career and this is where I want to be.”
When he succeeds, it’s like watching the city itself pump fake from the elbow, drive to the rim, and windmill dunk in the face of everyone who stands in our way.