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It's Story Time

Aug 31 2018
Photo by
Guillermo Hernandez-Martinez/The Players' Tribune
Photo by
Guillermo Hernandez-Martinez/The Players' Tribune
In Partnership With
Joel Embiid
Philadelphia 76ers
Aug 31 2018
I

swear to God, my life is a movie.

It’s a movie.

I know corny dudes are always saying that because they bought like an SUV or whatever, but I swear I can say it for real. I’ll prove it to you like this….

This is a real story. Hand to God. When I came over from Cameroon at 16, I didn’t know any English, didn’t know a single person in America, didn’t really understand the culture except for like basic hip-hop. And I know people sort of know my story, but I don’t think they really understand how crazy it is. Because I had just started playing basketball literally — literally — three months before I got an offer to come play high school ball in Florida.

I could dunk, but I had no handle.

So I went to the practice on the first day, and I was so bad that the coach kicked me out of the gym. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was so skinny, so soft. But the worst part was that all my own teammates were seriously pointing and laughing at me, like the asshole kids in the movies about high school. It was crazy. I’m looking at these dudes, not really understanding what they’re even saying, like, Damn guys, come on, let’s just trust the process here.

And they’re just like, “LOL NAH YOU SUCK.”

Man, I went back to my dorm and cried. I was like, This is crazy. What am I even doing here? I can’t play. I’m going home.

But then I was sitting in my room listening to Lil Wayne or something, in my feelings, thinking about these dudes making fun of me, and suddenly my competitive side took over. I got really, really motivated. Whenever people say I can’t do something, I actually love it. It makes me want to prove them wrong so bad. So I said to myself, Alright, I’m literally just going to work and work in the gym until I’m good. KOBE.

I got better and better, especially around the rim, but I still couldn’t shoot. So I started working out with one of my teammates, Michael Frazier II. Remember him? This dude was a shooter. Like, killing it. He hit 11 threes in a game once for Florida. So after practice, I’d do these three-point drills with him, and of course, he’s smashing me. I have no form, no fundamentals. I’m jacking shit up. But I just can’t take losing to this dude every day. I’m so competitive that I’m like, I gotta beat this guy. I gotta find a way.

So I’m chilling one night, and I go on YouTube, and I’m thinking I’m about to figure this shooting thing out.

I go to the search box like….

HOW TO SHOOT 3 POINTERS.

Nah.

HOW TO SHOOT GOOD FORM

Nah.

Then the light bulb went off, man. I typed in the magic words.

WHITE PEOPLE SHOOTING 3 POINTERS.

Listen, I know it’s a stereotype, but have you ever seen a normal, 30-year-old white guy shoot a three-pointer? That elbow is tucked, man. The knees are bent. The follow-through is perfect. Always. You know how in America, there’s always an older guy wearing like EVERLAST sweat-shorts at the court? That guy is always a problem. His J is always wet.

Those are the guys I learned from on YouTube. Just random people shooting threes with perfect form. Me and Michael would play after practice for hours, and I’d just try to imitate how they shot the ball, and I started being able to compete. It was crazy, because getting some range changed my whole game. Teams couldn’t play off me anymore, and I started doing a lot better.

WHITE PEOPLE SHOOTING 3 POINTERS.

I know people are going to think I’m exaggerating, but that’s a real story. I didn’t even really know who J.J. Redick was at that point. I barely knew anything about the NBA because I could never watch it in Cameroon. And no, I don’t mean that like we were too poor and we didn’t have a TV. We had a TV. We had a pretty normal life. Americans have crazy ideas about Africa, like its all one big country.

No, the reason I couldn’t watch the NBA is because my mom was super, super strict about school. She didn’t play around. I could never stay up to watch the games. Every single day it was: Wake up, eat, go to school from seven to five, run home and take a nap, wake up and eat dinner, then study until like midnight. I’m telling you — school is too easy in America, man. In Cameroon, it’s crazy. Elementary school is like college. I didn’t even have any friends because all I ever did was sleep and do homework.

I remember when Cameroon had the Golden Generation at the 2002 World Cup, I was eight years old, so I was begging my mom and dad to let me play soccer. But they weren’t having it. So when I got to be older, I got a little more rebellious, and I’d sneak out of the house to play.

There was like an hour window after school when my mom wasn’t home yet, and the soccer field was right next to our house, so I had this whole scheme. I’d run home after school and put my bookbag by the kitchen table and then I’d open up a science book or whatever. And I’d have that thing all highlighted and everything, like I was really grinding. Papers and pens everywhere. Then once that was all set up, I’d run back out to the field. I literally got so good that I could hear the specific sound of my mom’s car coming down the street. If I was at the other end of the field and I was too far away, whoever was playing keeper would see her car coming and be yelling like, “Joel! Joellllllllllll! Your mom’s coming, bro! Run!”

And I’d sprint into the back of our house, hide my shoes and sit down at the table, like sweating. Like I was thinking so hard about science that I was about to pass out. I had like 25 seconds before my mom parked her car, took off her shoes and got inside to make sure I was studying.

I’d be sitting there with a glass of juice or whatever, like, “Hello, Mom. It’s me, Your Good Son.”

The first time I ever watched an NBA game was the 2009 Finals.

Lakers vs. Magic.

Dwight. Pau. Odom. KOBE.

I had never seen anything like that. I was watching those dudes shoot like 100% from the floor. Everything was going in. The way they moved, and the athleticism, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.

I had that moment like, I just wanna do that.

I begged my mom and dad. I begged for a year.

My dad was like, “Nobody in Cameroon plays basketball. You can play volleyball.”

I’m like, “Yo, volleyball?”

By that time, I had started hearing some American hip-hop on the internet, and I’d be trying to sing the words to look cool, even though I didn’t know any English. I’d be walking around school singing that Lil’ Bow Wow and Ciara song. Remember that? All I could say in English was like “Hello, good morning,” and then “I AIN’T NEVER HAD NOBODY DO ME LIKE YOU.”

That was my exposure to American culture — Bow Wow, Kanye and Kobe. Sometimes I’d go to this court by my house where guys would play pickup, and every time I’d shoot the ball, I’d literally yell out, “KOBE!”

Imagine it. I’m out there shooting bricks, yelling out Kobe, on a busted hoop in Cameroon.

Seven years later, I was playing Kobe.

It’s a movie. It’s really a movie.

Guillermo Hernandez-Martinez/The Players' Tribune

Even when people hear the story, they think like, “Oh, they discovered this crazy talent in Africa, and this guy came over and started killing it. Kansas. NBA. Boom.”

Nah. You don’t even understand.

When I was 16, Luc Mbah a Moute invited me to come to the basketball camp that he puts on every summer in Cameroon, and the only reason was because I was like 6 foot 10. I was so nervous that I didn’t even show up the first day. The second day, I showed up, they put me in the game and I dunked on somebody.

I think I was so scared that my adrenaline took over or something.

Straight away, first game. And I mean — not just dunked. Dunked on somebody.

I was like, OH SHIT.

I mean, I was still terrible, but it was enough. They could see something in me. I got a spot at the Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa. Two months later, I was on a plane to Florida to go to high school in America.

A year later, I committed to Kansas.

I didn’t even know what March Madness was. I didn’t know who the good teams were. The only reason I chose Kansas was because Luc told me, “Kansas is the best. You should go to Kansas.”

So I went to Kansas.

And this is another true story … hand to God.

My very first scrimmage at Kansas, I got dunked on so hard by Tarik Black that I almost quit. Tarik dunked on me so hard that I was looking at plane tickets home. This guy was a senior. He was a grown man. I didn’t know what was going on. He got his own rebound and dunked over me so hard that everything went in slow motion.

He dunked the ball off my head, for real. But I didn’t even tell you the worst part. The worst part was that the entire Kansas women’s hoops team was sitting in the bleachers watching the scrimmage. The whole gym was laughing at me. It was crazy. Seriously, it was like a WORLDSTAR situation.

So I went straight to Bill Self’s office afterward and I said, “I can’t do this. You have to redshirt me. I can’t play with these guys.”

And Bill was like, “What? Are you serious? In two years, you’re going to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.”

The thing was, I had been told that all these college coaches lie. So I really thought he was trying to be slick with me. In my head, I was like, Alright, I’m just going to keep showing up and at least I’ll get a degree out of this. That will make my mom happy.

The only thing that kept me going was the way that I was raised by my parents. They always told us to keep working, no matter what. I had this DVD that my coach in Cameroon had mailed to me when I first came to America. It was an hour-long tape of Hakeem Olajuwon and some other legendary big men. I probably watched that DVD every single day for three years. I would study the way Hakeem moved, and I would go out and try to imitate him.

I did it in high school, and I did it at Kansas.

I was basically just imagining that I was a good basketball player. The power of the mind is kind of amazing. I mean, I sucked. But somehow, I convinced myself that I was Hakeem. And I started getting better and better. And then I sort of started killing it.

I pretended my way to the NBA. I seriously got to the league by watching YouTube and living in the gym. There’s no other way to explain it. Remember when KG won the title with the Celtics, and he was acting all crazy, screaming out, “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLLLLLLLLLLLLLE!!!!!!!!!!!!”

That speaks to me. That’s my life. It happened so fast that it doesn’t even make sense.

The most surreal moment was when Kobe was retiring, and he played his last game in Philly. After the game, they set up a little room for us to talk for a minute. He walked in, and I shook his hand and I told him, “Man, I know you probably hear this a lot, but I literally started playing basketball because of you seven years ago. Whenever I’d be shooting the ball at the park, I’d be yelling out, ‘KOBEEEEEE!’ ”

He laughed and we talked for a minute, and then before he left he said the most Kobe thing. To most people, it wouldn’t mean anything. But to me, it was surreal. It was like I was in a video game or something.

He said, in the most Kobe way, “O.K., young fella. Keep working. Keep working.”

Thank you, Kobe. Thank you, Hakeem. Thank you, Mom and Dad. Thank you, Kansas. Thank you, Philly. Thank you, Lil’ Bow Wow. Thank you, Random White People.

It’s a movie, I swear.


Joel Embiid
Philadelphia 76ers