Joel Embiid appeared in the locker room an hour before game time, the hood of his warmup shirt pulled tight against his scalp. As he fiddled with something in front of his stall, a reporter approached.
“You gonna talk today?" the reporter asked.
The big man shook his head.
And so it was.
There is an argument that says there are questions Embiid should answer, and there was no shortage of folks advancing that viewpoint in the wake of the news that he would miss at least the next week with a case of soreness in his left knee.
It is a valid argument. Clearly, this was a condition that predated his appearance in last weekend’s All-Star Game. Even if his participation in the festivities did not directly contribute to the MRI that he underwent upon his return, common sense suggests that taking the week to the rest would have done just as much good as taking the one that followed. And it would have come with the added bonus of not missing any regular season games.
At the same time, that sort of assessment ignores an important variable in the whole situation. It’s something that Charlie Manuel used to call a human nature sort of thing. Sharks bite, and bees sting, and 24-year-old extroverts flock toward the center of the ring.
Anybody who cares enough to have an opinion should understand by now that Embiid belongs squarely in the last category. He is not cast from the same mold as Chase Utley or Brian Dawkins or any of the other athletes that this city submits as its archetypal ideal. He is a karaoke-singing, Instagram-posting, Grenadine-guzzling millennial star. And while it is fair to wonder whether those personality traits conflict, at times, with his professional duties, it is also fair to wonder who he would be without them.
That is to say: Embiid’s nature is what it is. He has a strong personality, to an extent that it is inseparable from all of the other characteristics that distinguish him as an athlete. There are lots of players with freakish physical gifts who never evolve into the sort of talent that he has become. A lot of those players end up derailed by injuries of the sort that Embiid endured during his first couple of years in the league. Others succumb to the controversies that swirled around him throughout his time on the sidelines. They lose their love for the game, the respect of their teammates. Sometimes they even lose themselves.
There’s no question that Embiid’s perseverance and eventual emergence is attributable first and foremost to his otherworldly physical skill set. But there’s also no question that part of it is due to his personality, to the paradoxical way in which he combines a burning desire to be great with the lightness of being required to enjoy the uneven process of reaching such heights.
Sure, there are times you might wish that Embiid had a better understanding of the wide-reaching implications of his actions. There are times you might wish that his personal maturity would keep pace with the maturity of his game. But those are the sorts of things that everybody who has watched him play should be content to endure.
Perhaps more than anyone else, his head coach has managed to achieve that sort of zen-like acceptance. If practice makes perfect, then Brett Brown must be a Buddha in the domain of Embiid. A couple of hours before the Sixers’ 106-102 win over the Heat on Thursday night, he acknowledged the optics of his young star’s participation in All-Star festivities, and the potential interpretations of his current absence. But he also downplayed any suggestion that the injury might threaten the Sixers’ ultimate quest. Instead, Brown framed this latest bit of drama as yet another opportunity to learn how to win without his prize center.
For sure, these are lessons that the Sixers would rather not be required. But they have passed them before, most recently in last year’s playoff victory against this same Heat team, in a series that began with Embiid sidelined with a broken nose. On Thursday, the Sixers did not play like a team that is destined to advance much further, but it is debatable how much their struggles lay in the absence of their center. They outscored the Heat by 10 points when back-up big man Boban Marjanovic was on the court, getting 19 points and 12 rebounds from the Serbian giant. Things went far less smoothly when rookie Jonah Bolden checked into the game. For a stretch in the second half, Brown went with a small lineup, with Ben Simmons at the five.
“It’s definitely different -- he’s the best center in the NBA,” Tobias Harris said after the win. “But, with him being down, we still should win these games. You know what I mean? We have too much talent to think any different. To have him down is tough, but he’s got to get healthy and be ready. We’re going to need him for the late stretch of the season and into the playoffs.”