Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid: the making of an NBA superhero

The star center of the Philadelphia 76ers and Most Valuable Player candidate has made an unlikely journey from central Africa to the pinnacle of the NBA

The email landed in Joe Touomou’s inbox one morning in January 2011, and he knew he had to act quickly. “I’ve got to go check this guy out,” he said to himself.

Touomou, a basketball coach and international scout, had been working in the United States as a sports consultant to the US state department. The email was from Didier Yanga, a close childhood friend from back home in Cameroon. It contained pictures of Yanga’s 16-year-old nephew towering above a doorway. He was 6ft 7in, the email said, and had recently taken up basketball. His name was Joel Embiid.

A decade on, Embiid, the star center of the Philadelphia 76ers, is a Most Valuable Player candidate in the NBA and the leading man for one of the contenders in this coming season’s championship race, which starts next week. But his remarkable journey from central Africa to stateside superstardom might have petered at the outset but for that timely email.

“There’s no way we’re going to let this boy play basketball,” Embiid’s mother, Christine, told Touomou. “He’s too stubborn.” The player’s father, Thomas, a colonel in the Cameroonian military, concurred. The teenager’s parents insisted his education was paramount. Basketball was an unwelcome distraction. Complete his studies, then he could go to France to join the National Institute of Sport and Physical Education to play volleyball, a sport in which he’d shown great promise. That was the plan.

Touomou had booked a plane ticket to Cameroon shortly after receiving Yanga’s email. He was sitting across from Embiid’s parents at the family home in Youande just a few weeks later. Having come so far, he’d prepared his counterpoints.

“If you want your son to go to school,” he reasoned, “Joel can go to the best schools in the US. If you want him to make money, he can go to the NBA if he becomes good.”

Touomou explained how he’d helped other Cameroonian basketball prospects find high-school and college places in the states, including Luc Mbah a Moute, who reached three straight Final Fours with UCLA and played for the Milwaukee Bucks at the time. Appreciating the potential educational benefits, Embiid’s parents acquiesced and allowed their son to pursue his basketball dream, a passion ignited just 18 months earlier when he watched Kobe Bryant and the Lakers overcome the Orlando Magic in the 2009 NBA finals.

Embiid began to work with respected local coach Guy Moudio, a connection made through Touomou. So new to the game, the youngster’s basic skills were severely lacking. But he came from athletic stock: his father had been an outstanding handball player, and he had uncles who’d excelled in soccer, basketball and as a handball goalie. And he took inspiration from footage of Africa’s greatest NBA export.

“I had a bunch of video tapes of Hakeem Olajuwon,” Touomou says, “and I said, ‘This kid has to watch these tapes three times a day: for breakfast, lunch and dinner.’ Coach Moudio gave Embiid the tapes, and he started imitating what he saw. You looked at some of the things he did and said, ‘This kid is going to be special.’”

That summer, Moudio arranged for Embiid to attend an annual camp run by Mbah a Moute. Ordinarily, invites for the camp were handed to kids who impressed in a series of regional trials, with 20 to 25 selected from groups numbering 500 or more at each try-out. Embiid didn’t attend the trials, but word was out of his potential and an invite was extended.

“He was one of the kids I looked forward to seeing because he missed the pre-selection,” remembers Mbah a Moute. “I was really impressed with what he could do at his age and for someone who had only been playing organized basketball six months.”

Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid, left, and Andrew Wiggins of the World Select Team smile during a 2013 game against the USA Junior Select Team at the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit at the Rose Garden Arena in Portland, Oregon. Photograph: Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images

Embiid’s skills were raw, underdeveloped, but his potential was increasingly evident. He was beginning to show a prodigious defensive understanding. And although he wouldn’t always execute moves as smoothly he’d see them in his mind’s eye or remembered them from his Olajuwon archives, he was learning quickly, gradually stocking his offensive arsenal.

“He wasn’t good in the sense of being a basketball player,” says Francois Nyam, a former player who, as Mbah a Moute’s agent, helped run the camp. “But he had something special. He could run like a guard. He had great timing for blocking the ball and rebounding. Could he dribble the ball? No. Could he shoot the ball? He could not. But if you show him something, after the third try, he picks it up and he’s got it down. That, for me, was enough to bet on him.”

Each year, the best players from Mbah a Moute’s camp would be selected to attend Basketball Without Borders in Johannesburg, South Africa, a shop-window camp attended by several NBA coaches and scouts. There was disagreement among Mbah a Moute’s coaches over whether Embiid should get the nod over more refined players from their event, but Nyam and Mbah a Moute were adamant the budding center was ready.

Embiid impressed sufficiently at BWB to convince those around him that a move to a US high school was the next logical step. Touomou had arranged a place at Gill St Bernard’s School in New Jersey, but Embiid instead went with a placement Nyam and Mbah a Moute had organized. He enrolled at Montverde Academy near Orlando, Florida.

At Montverde, though, Embiid’s star-bound basketball trajectory encountered its first friction since his parents’ initial misgivings. He found himself riding the bench.

Mbah a Moute and Nyam had selected Montverde because Mbah a Moute himself had previously attended the school, and they had since sent a handful of their players there. But Mbah a Moute’s old mentor, Kevin Sutton, had left that summer. His replacement, Kevin Boyle, preferred future Oklahoma City Thunder big man Dakari Johnson at the center position. Mbah a Moute and Nyam arranged for Embiid to move to the Rock School in Gainesville at the end of his first year in Florida.

“I don’t necessarily think he was frustrated,” remembers Roger Moute a Bidias, a Montverde teammate of Embiid’s and the younger brother of Mbah a Moute. “He just felt the Rock was going to be an opportunity to play and grow his game.”

It wasn’t only Embiid’s game that grew in his senior year with The Rock. By the end of the season, in which he led the team to a 33-4 record and a state championship, he’d sprouted to 7ft and scored a scholarship to the University of Kansas.

Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid has thrived with the Philadelphia 76ers as a four-time All-Star and 2021 MVP runner-up. Photograph: Rich Schultz/Getty Images

And it was in his single year at Kansas that Embiid first drew the 76ers’ attention. Philadelphia, who would end up with the third pick in the 2014 NBA draft, regularly sent scouts to run the rule over the towering freshman. General manager Sam Hinkie even once left behind his wife and nine-day-old twins to attend four Kansas games in a row, including one in which Embiid and teammate Andrew Wiggins took on Marcus Smart’s Oklahoma State Cowboys.

Embiid so impressed with Kansas that he was in contention to be picked first in the draft until a back injury prematurely ended his college season and then a broken navicular bone in his foot curtailed his pre-draft preparations. Instead, the Cleveland Cavaliers took Wiggins with the first pick (and later traded him to the Minnesota Timberwolves) and Embiid fell to Philadelphia at three.

Despite the fact they knew his foot injury meant he’d miss his first season with them and would likely rule him out for much of his second year, the 76ers were so beguiled by the Cameroonian that they’d still have chosen him over anyone else in the 2014 draft class. They felt, according to one source, he had “a defensive coordinator’s mind inside Goliath’s body”, that he had all the tools to be one of the best defenders in the league and the potential to develop into an elite offensive player.

But while the Sixers were all in on Embiid, the player’s affection was caught elsewhere. He’d left Kansas to stay in Los Angeles for the pre-draft process, and he’d become enamored with the city. Rather than being disappointed at not being selected first overall, he was hoping to fall even further, to the Lakers’ with the seventh pick.

“Arn, work your magic,” he told Arn Tellem, who is now the Detroit Pistons’ vice chairman but at the time headed up the sports department of the Wasserman agency, for whom Nyam worked. “I want to play in LA. I want to go to the Lakers.”

Tellem, a Philadelphia native, and Nyam, who went to high school 30 minutes from the city and idolized Allen Iverson, brought Embiid to his senses, convincing him of the prestige of a higher pick and selling him on Philadelphia as a city.

Embiid soon came to love Philadelphia, although challenges mounted quickly on his arrival. He was devastated by death of his younger brother, Arthur, in a road accident in Cameroon in October 2014, and a longer-than-expected recovery from his foot injury meant he missed two full seasons of play.

Now, though, as a four-time All-Star and 2021 MVP runner-up, he is indisputably among the best basketball players on the planet. The long-held plan of building around him and Ben Simmons is under question, with the Australian point guard’s future with the team uncertain, but the Sixers’ can feel confident that the Cameroorian’s broad shoulders can carry championship expectations. Embiid, after all, is approaching the apex of an unlikely journey that began with an email and has been powered by natural athleticism, tapes of Olajuwon and a refusal to accept any compromise on the destiny he has written for himself.

“Being an MVP candidate and having a chance to win a championship is a testament to the work he has put in, his dedication to being great,” Mbah a Moute says. “He’s surpassed my expectations of him.”


Ryan Baldi

The GuardianTramp

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