JOHANNESBURG - Joel Embiid kept his eyes fixed on the back of the hall at the American International School of Johannesburg yesterday in Midrand, in between cracking jokes with other NBA players he sat with on stage.
It was a surreal moment for the Philadelphia 76ers centre. Six years ago Embiid came here from Yaounde in Cameroon as a novice, looking to learn as much as he could from the Basketball Without Borders programme.
“I was super skinny then,” said Embiid, who stands at 2.13m and weighs over 110kg. “It was a good experience and it helped me to get where I am now. It was tough. When I came to this camp, I wasn’t as good as all these guys.
"In America they start playing basketball early. I didn’t even have the basics. Me being here now, as an NBA player, is just a testament of how much work I put in.”
Embiid’s countryman, Luc Mbah a Moute, spotted him and served as his mentor - paving the way for the 23-year-old to join Moute’s former school, Montverde Academy, in Florida. Embiid’s game grew to the point that he became the third pick in the 2014 draft. But the three years Embiid has spent as an NBA star have been characterised by some of the worst moments in his life. He spent two years out injured, first from a broken foot and then a stress fracture on his back, before he refractured the navicular bone in his foot. He masked that pain with his sharp sense of humour on and off the court.
“The two years I spent not playing sucked,” Embiid said. “I went through that and then at the same time I lost my brother (Arthur, in 2015). I had so much stuff going on. But I just trusted the process. The sense of humour comes from the tears that I shed due to the things that I’ve had to endure. I took to social media, Twitter and Instagram, to express that.”
Embiid and other NBA stars will put on a show on Saturday at the Ticketpro Dome in an exhibition match between Team Africa and Team World. That match will be the culmination of the week-long coaching clinics, among other projects, that have been happening this week. It will also allow Embiid some much-needed time on the court.
“I am not cocky, I am humble. But I think that I can be really special as far as becoming one of the top players in the league,” Embiid said. “This year I was on a good path to becoming that. I got hurt and the injury stopped me a bit. But next year I intend to build on what I have done. I can be a really special and tough athlete in the league.”