On Wednesday night Joel Embiid finally played his first regular season NBA game.  Though the Sixers lost 103-97 to the Thunder, Embiid scored a team-high of 20 points along with 7 rebounds.  He was initially drafted in 2014, but injuries kept him on the sideline.  Most fans knew him as the funny NBA player who made more headlines for his hilarious tweets than what he can do on the court.  In this feature for The Crossover, Embiid talks about almost walking away from the game he was unlikely to play in the first place, and of course, his humor is on display.

Embiid considered quitting the NBA and returning to Cameroon, where he could honor his brother (who died at 13) in peace. Maybe he’d go back to volleyball, his first chosen sport. His father had warned him about the dangers of hoops.

“I wanted to get away from all this drama,” Embiid recalls, “and stay away.”  He had been in America for four years and lived in four cities, a hardwood nomad, always moving alone. “I never had a girlfriend before, but back then I had some type of girlfriend.” Embiid says. “One day I told her my whole story.”

How he didn’t play basketball until 2010, when he caught an intoxicating glimpse of Kobe Bryant in the Finals against the Celtics. How he shot volleyballs into the rim at his high school, but was too embarrassed to try out for a local camp held by NBA forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. How his coach registered him anyway, prompting a scholarship offer from Montverde Academy in Florida, where as a junior he languished on JV. Even when Embiid signed with Kansas, he asked to be redshirted because Jayhawks kept dunking on him in pick-up games, and even when scouts slotted him ahead of prodigal teammate Andrew Wiggins, he told them he was not ready for the pros.  But he was the presumptive No. 1 pick, and after he broke his foot during a pre-draft training session, the 76ers still took him third without so much as meeting him.

Eight days before his first regular-season game—and 844 days after the ’14 draft – Embiid sits on a second-floor balcony of the 76ers palatial practice facility in Camden, N.J. “Back on my feet,” he proclaims. Squinting through the midday sun, he points out his new apartment building, squeezed into the Philadelphia skyline. He has left the Ritz behind.

 “Fresh start,” he nods. When Embiid was injured, he did not grant interviews, so he has a lot to say. He speaks with a French accent, in a flowing stream of consciousness, about everything from Cameroon’s educational system to Florida’s topography to Marc Gasol’s jab step. He is engaging, charismatic and funny, but unlike many foreign big men, his humor is intentional. “You know how I learned to shoot?” Embiid says. “I watched white people. Just regular white people. They really put their elbow in and finish up top. You can find videos of them online.”
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