For Joel Embiid, all the money he agreed to in contract is not just about getting rich. The 76ers center has something else that’s always on his mind. It’s his native country of Cameroon, which can use his help. “Over there, there’s a lot of poverty,” Embiid said Tuesday, one day after signing a five-year, $148 million contract extension. “A lot of people don’t have a lot of stuff.”
The Cameroonians and his family are the main reasons Embiid didn’t walk away from basketball after his younger brother, Arthur, was killed in an accident on Oct. 14, 2014 back home. “I feel like I need to do a lot of stuff over there,” he said of using his money gained from the lucrative contract.
Joel Embiid was literally discovered walking down the street. Nearly a decade after shepherding Mbah a Moute to America, Joe Touomou, an international scout for the Pacers, had been tipped off by Embiid’s uncle, who told him of his nephew’s athleticism and rapid growth spurt-the teen was rapidly approaching 6-10. So Touomou gathered some extra-large workout gear and headed to Yaoundé to comb Embiid’s neighborhood in search of his next protégé, where the 6-2 former Georgetown Hoya would find a much taller boy who was quickly won over by a pair of size 16 shoes.
Touomou saw in person how tall the boy was and knew that elite volleyball aptitude meant quick feet and leaping ability. So he once again reached out to a formidable father. Thomas Embiid needed convincing that his son had a future in basketball, but Touomou had a new-and ultimately winning-selling point: Mbah a Moute’s success.
It’s now the second morning of Mbah a Moute’s 2011 camp, and a jittery Embiid sets up in the post, just as Hakeem Olajuwon had done in the tapes Touomou had given him to review. The entry pass to him is woefully off target, but Embiid swallows it with one hand. He dribbles, spins, drop-steps, gathers himself and explodes to the hoop. Mbah a Moute is seeing Joel Embiid play for the first time. He turns to his coaches. “How long did you say this kid has been playing?” “I knew guys who had been in the NBA for years who couldn’t do that,” Mbah a Moute says now.
When it comes time to choose a college, Embiid leans on Mbah a Moute. “I didn’t even know what the NCAA was,” Embiid says. “Luc talked to the coaches for me.” Embiid chooses Kansas and spends the summer in Lawrence working out with another newcomer, Tarik Black, a transfer from Memphis. One afternoon, as they alternate between the hot and cold tubs after their training, Embiid confides in Black that he has doubts about whether he has the mettle to see this basketball thing through. Black assures Embiid he will be an NBA star if he can just hang in there.
The last time Joel talked with Luc, they discussed how to promote basketball in their country. They are kicking around the idea of doing a joint camp with Siakam. All three recognize the need to build on this burst of basketball popularity. “Three of us in the NBA?” Siakam says. “When I stop to think about it, it’s crazy.”