Whatever it takes: Joel Embiid's quest for greatness

JOEL EMBIID DOESN'T want to talk to anyone.

It is a dank, gray Friday morning, hours after the Philadelphia 76ers' Game 3 road win over the nettlesome Brooklyn Nets, secured without the services of their masterful big man. Basking in the glow of victory and buoyed by the result, the Sixers bound into Pier 36's Basketball City in New York City, exchanging guffaws and glances and cheerful taunts. Normally, Embiid would plunk himself into the eye of this good-natured storm, goading his teammates with his biting wit -- "he never stops," Jimmy Butler reports.

But there is no Joel Embiid revelry on this day. The dynamic, barb-slinging, wise-cracking poster boy of The Process is silent. In his place stands a perturbed 25-year-old 7-footer who has reported for work in noticeable pain.

The tendinitis in his left knee that forced him to miss 14 of the final 24 games of the regular season has flared; it's the same knee that cost him the final 37 games of his rookie season in 2016-17 and has left Philadelphia in precarious (and terrifying) limbo. Embiid has done everything the Sixers have asked, but it's a fickle ailment that indiscriminately waxes and wanes.

A member of the team's training staff attempts to engage the big fella, trailing as Embiid traverses the court.

"Stop f---ing following me!" Embiid barks.

He retreats from the cameras and the notebooks and the recorders, but it doesn't stop them from noting the obvious. The Sixers were 43-21 in the regular season with Embiid and 8-10 without him. Philly may be able to vault past a scrappy, inexperienced Nets team, but nobody gives the Sixers a chance beyond that unless their "crown jewel" can play -- and excel. Embiid knows this, and he departs Basketball City ornery and irritated.

"I was in a very bad mood that day," Embiid will admit a day and a half later. "I never know how I'm going to feel. It's so frustrating to come into warm-ups not knowing whether you are playing or not. I hate it. It's not good for any of us. But that's my job, that's what they pay me to do, so I have to figure out a way to be ready."

For now, on Friday in Basketball City, Brett Brown's head is lowered as he furiously types game plans into his laptop. So he misses Embiid's outburst. But no matter. Brown says he understands the frustration but will not be deterred by it.

"It's always about the end game," the coach says. "I'm constantly trying to determine what are the ripple effects of Jo being so competitive and so emotional that he's going to force-feed something that he just shouldn't do.

"I'm not participating in that. I'll have nothing to do with it. He's going to end up -- or has a chance to end up -- as one of the greatest players who ever lived. It's completely driven by his health. He's very bright, very prideful. But his emotions can't trump reckless, irresponsible action either by him or us to go do something he shouldn't."

As Brown punctuates that last sentence, Embiid picks up a basketball and begins lofting 3-pointers. All eyes are on him, so intent on deciphering a flinch or a grimace that some fail to observe that Joel Embiid is wearing ... slippers?

To the uninformed, it appears to be another act of irreverence, but then Brown sets a reporter straight. Shooting in flat shoes is something Embiid adopted during his time in Doha, Qatar, where he twice rehabbed from navicular foot surgery. There, in a hideaway desert called Aspetar, he learned of the famed Tarahumara Indians, a tribe of fleet-footed runners who ran long distances in huaraches, makeshift sandals often procured from junkyard remnants.

A 2014 study suggests that as a result of those flat huaraches, the Raramuri runners had higher and stiffer arches, possibly leading to fewer injuries. Thus, Embiid subscribes to the notion that flat shoes are good, slippers included.

"Crazy stuff, I know," Brown says. "The first time I heard of it three years ago, I was like, 'What? Are you serious?' But then I was enlightened by modern science."

Who knows whether it's the slippers, or the round-the-clock care of the Sixers' medical staff, but 24 hours later, Embiid is warming up at Barclays Center, hoisting those 3-pointers, his status murky for Game 4 right up until tipoff. This time, he's testing his pain tolerance wearing his signature sneakers, although it should be noted they are untied.

Embiid ultimately declares himself fit for duty. That night he plays 11 tentative, yet productive, minutes in the first half. Then, in the second half, he blocks a Jarrett Allen foray to the basket, but goes across the body to accomplish this and Allen crashes to the floor. Jared Dudley charges in from the top of the key and shoves Embiid, who immediately raises his hands in mock surrender. ("I'm not falling for that," he later gleefully says.)

After the melee, Embiid roars to life. He and Ben Simmons conduct a clinic in the final minutes of a 112-108 win, and Embiid waltzes off with 32 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 6 blocks and a renewed verve. "Dudley is a nobody," he says triumphantly in his postgame TNT interview.

The laughter and the swagger are back, but for how long? If only people knew the lengths that Embiid has gone to play in these games. The care of his knee has become a 24-hour proposition, occupying his mind and his spirit. On the Saturday after the Game 4 win, Embiid tells ESPN that he undergoes six treatments a day, setting his alarm for 5 a.m. so he won't miss a session. "Normally, sleep helps me a lot," Embiid says, "but right now sleep is secondary. I've got to take care of my body. I'll sleep later."

The knee, he says, is feeling better every day. (He will, in fact, log 20 minutes in a series-clinching Game 5 win over the Nets during which he submits 23 points and eight rebounds.) But there's no time for that knee to be completely right, not with the Sixers already trailing 1-0 in their second-round series against the Toronto Raptors.

Philly's star vowed to log more minutes and fight through the pain, but it's entirely possible Embiid will be a game-time decision every night for the rest of the postseason.

"Welcome," Brown says, "to our basketball life."

PERHAPS YOU DIDN'T notice how unassuming Joel Embiid was in the final months of the regular season. It was by design, but that calculated strategy was disrupted in the playoffs when, sitting on the bench in the final moments of a Game 1 loss to Brooklyn, he was spotted glancing at his friend Amir Johnson's cellphone. Courtside cellphones are heresy, and the optics in the wake of a disconcerting defeat were horrible.

In Game 2, Embiid made an aggressive move to the basket and caught the Nets' Allen with a vicious elbow to the chops. His seemingly genuine apology from the podium went awry when Ben Simmons, surprised by Embiid's humble mea culpa, began snickering, leaving Embiid tumbling into his own fit of laughter, which immediately was misconstrued by the Nets as a sign of disrespect.

A cascade of criticism followed. This surprised no one, least of all Embiid.

The weight of the franchise has been placed squarely on his broad Cameroonian shoulders, a responsibility he craves and accepts. Managing partner Josh Harris expressed in March that he expects Philadelphia to advance beyond last year's second-round exit -- at a minimum. Hanging in the balance is the future of his coach, and possibly Butler and Tobias Harris, both free agents in July, who will likely seek lucrative paydays. A playoff exit at the hands of the Raptors would muddy the waters for everyone involved.

"The heat," Butler acknowledges, "is on."

With Embiid on the court, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking, the Sixers posted an offensive efficiency rating of 111.3. Without him, that number dipped to 105.9. The team's defensive efficiency was a sparkling 103.3 with Embiid manning the middle, but dropped to 109.1 when he wasn't on the floor. Similarly, opponents' field goal percentage jumped from 43.9 percent to 47.5 percent while Embiid sat.

The big man embraces his role as the indispensable Sixers component. "I want people to think of me as the most unstoppable player in the game," he says.

With that comes scrutiny, much of it self-induced. Embiid thrives when he's uninhibited, poking fun and declaring his supremacy. If it plants a bull's-eye on his No. 21 jersey, then so be it.

"You're preaching to the choir," Butler says. "You get to a certain point in this league when they come after you if you do something wrong. And even if you do it right, it's still wrong. Anything I do or say is blown out of proportion. Same with Joel.

"I love it. And he does, too."

MAKE NO MISTAKE, Embiid's stream-of-consciousness musings have caused their share of consternation. There were his comments after the trade that landed Butler, when Embiid lamented that he was being used as "spacer." Then, after a Christmas Day loss to the Celtics, Embiid said he "felt I could have done more, but the ball didn't find me."

Veteran JJ Redick, who lauds Embiid as "absolutely one of my closest friends on the team," approached him after both sets of quotes.

"The perception of what you said makes it seem from the outside like there's dysfunction, like there's a disconnect between you and your teammates, and there's a disconnect between you and Brett," Redick said he informed Embiid. "Now, that isn't true, but it could be interpreted that way."

Embiid, Redick recalls, nodded in agreement.

"You're a top-five talent," Redick continued. "You can do and say whatever the f--- you want, but should you? You and Ben [Simmons] want to be the face of the franchise -- and there's obviously some leeway you get because of that. But you also have a responsibility to your teammates and your coaches to accept leadership in a mature way."

The message, Redick claims, was processed and heeded by both Embiid and Simmons. "There's been a lot of personal growth here," Redick says.

Before the Game 4 scuffle that got Dudley ejected for ramming Embiid, Brooklyn's omnipresent provocateur had marveled at Embiid's basketball IQ and his footwork. He also noted Embiid's social media presence and outsized personality and wondered aloud where all that will ultimately lead.

"Joel likes attention. He likes to troll guys," Dudley said. "We get it. It's OK early on, but there will come a point in the next year or two, where now he's a four- or five-time All-Star, where he's got to shape his persona. When you're big, you want to try and sell yourself, market yourself. He's funny on social media and he has the game to back it up. But he has to be careful of when to do it and how he does it. That's the whole thing.

"Because now you have championship aspirations. Everyone is watching. Dwight Howard was similar. He was a big guy, a big personality, but his goofing around eventually turned people [against him]. There will come a point when [Embiid's] teammates will leave the Sixers. How they talk about him after they are gone, how they view him, that will tell us a lot. But, as long as [Embiid] works his butt off, treats his teammates right, shows them the respect, the sky's the limit."

Still, the challenge to keep their franchise cornerstone on the floor remains. Embiid not only missed games to calm the knee tendinitis, he also sat out of practice and conditioning sessions. Brown insists Embiid loses weight easily, but the flip side of that is the pounds also tend to pile up quickly without a balance of exercise and diet.

"It's a vicious cycle," Brown admits. "He's battling with, 'How do I get into shape when I'm hurt? How can I lose weight when I can't practice?' His level of maturity and professionalism in handling that has risen in a very visible, defined way."

When he's healthy and training regularly, Embiid says he devours steak, chicken and spicy foods. He also has been known to down three of his beloved Shirley Temples in one sitting. Since his knee began barking, he has cut out nearly all sugars from his diet. It has been weeks since he's had a full glass of his sugary signature alcohol-free cocktail. ("I just take a couple of sips to get me through," he says.)

"Right now, I'm eating mostly soft foods -- salmon, salads, all that stuff," Embiid says. "I have to. I feel like if I can be healthy, I can be up there with the best."

If I can be healthy. It is the perpetual caveat that has been trailing his career. Perhaps, offers Philadelphia's trusted assistant coach Monty Williams, Embiid needs to reframe his thinking. Two years ago, he couldn't play at all. This past season, he logged 64 games. Maybe, Williams surmises, Embiid should concentrate on what he can do as opposed to what he can't.

"But when you've had the most delicious birthday cake in the world, you don't want a vegan gluten-free substitute," Redick says. "Joel's had a taste [of elite success]. That's what he wants."

It's what he lives for. When Embiid first ventured into the NBA, he told a reporter that he fully expected the same people who had built him up to dizzying heights would play a part in tearing him down if he ever faltered.

"Unless," he says now, "you win."

"Then what can anyone say?"
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