Joel Embiid and the Narrative of the N.B.A. Playoffs
More than any other major American sports league, the N.B.A. has become adept at generating story lines in the age of social media. Some of these narratives are carefully crafted by superstar players (and their retinues), who increasingly have the tools to tell their own stories. These are often conventionally heroic tales—the rise from rags to riches or the triumph over tragedy, enabled by hard work and personal growth—and they can be stale or moving, depending on the material and the teller. But there is another kind of N.B.A. narrative, a sort of story that is told in stray tweets and Instagram posts, or from moments caught on cameras and converted into GIFs. Usually, these stories are not constructed by players as much as by fans and talk-show analysts, who piece together and interpret the constituent parts. But, if there is any superstar who has made this form his own, it is the Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid.
Embiid certainly has the material for a more conventional story, and he’s good at telling it, too: he grew up in Cameroon and didn’t start playing basketball until his teens; four years later, he was the third pick in the N.B.A. draft. He has overcome devastating injuries to become one of the most dominant players in the league. (He is listed at seven feet and two hundred and fifty pounds—those numbers almost certainly understate things considerably—and he combines size and strength with an unusual dexterity and a gentle touch with the ball.) Last year, he wrote a piece for the Players’ Tribune that was full of concrete details that a writing instructor would praise, from describing how he was “shooting bricks, yelling out Kobe, on a busted hoop in Cameroon” to searching “WHITE PEOPLE SHOOTING 3 POINTERS” on YouTube, as he tried to learn how to shoot more accurately. (“Listen, I know it’s a stereotype, but have you ever seen a normal, 30-year-old white guy shoot a three-pointer?” he writes. “That elbow is tucked, man.”) Embiid likes to say that his life is “like a movie.”
The piece was titled “It’s Story Time.” I don’t know whether Embiid or his editor chose the headline, but it seemed to hint at a certain ironic distance from the form. Embiid, who is from Yaoundé, a city of more than three million people, has said that, when he was at the University of Kansas, he would tell other students about how he killed a lion as part of a coming-of-age ritual, and they would believe it. He related this as a sad commentary on American ignorance of Africa—and also as an example of how he could use stories to his advantage. “If you’re gonna tell someone ‘I killed a lion,’ they’re gonna be afraid of you, and they’re not gonna come at you,” he said. “So that was a way for me to make them be scared of me.” He added, “The story might be true or it might be false. Nobody would ever know, but if anybody tries me they’re gonna find out.”
Embiid likes to play mind games on the court, too. He has a remarkable knack for getting under the skin of his opponents. Twice during the final month of the regular season, he managed to get a key opponent ejected from a game; when the Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook had an on-court run-in with Embiid and got asked afterward if things were cool between him and Embiid, he answered, “Fuck no.”
But, in sports, the stories that other people end up telling usually involve wins and losses—and no single player has total control over those. In the N.B.A., the playoffs loom particularly large in such stories. The Sixers have entered this year’s playoffs as a kind of wild card, not unlike Embiid himself. They are not the favorites to win the championship, but that is clearly the goal: the team, which, during the regular season, traded draft picks and young players for two established stars, is built for immediate success. On Saturday, the Sixers lost their first playoff game, in which they were favored, to the Brooklyn Nets, 111–102. Embiid’s top-line stats—twenty-two points, fifteen rebounds, five blocks—obscured how much he struggled. He is still showing the effects of left-knee tendinitis, which kept him out of fourteen of twenty-four games after the All-Star break; wincing and winded, he shot 5–15 from the field. Several times, he settled for three-point shots instead of muscling his way inside. (He missed each one that he took.) In the second quarter, Embiid, in frustration, shoved the Nets forward Jared Dudley to the ground and received a technical foul—now it was other players getting to him.
In the fourth quarter, with the game drifting fully out of reach, Embiid, sitting on the bench, was caught by ESPN cameras as he looked at his teammate Amir Johnson’s cell phone. It was a moment of instant infamy. After the game, Johnson was fined by the team, and Embiid offered an excuse: Johnson’s daughter, he said, was “extremely sick,” and Johnson was checking on her. Given that Johnson had not spoken publicly about this, it did not seem like Embiid’s information to share. And, not surprisingly, many fans on social media expressed skepticism. (When asked about his daughter the next day, Johnson said, “She’s fine.”) Almost immediately, one could see another narrative taking hold, one that has been told plenty of times before, by sports columnists: this talented player with a great sense of humor is too unserious for the task at hand. That is a very old story, and not a very good one. I hope, in this case, it doesn’t stick.