No jokes, Em­biid is back

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT - NJABULO NGIDI

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 2.3m 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 week­long coach­ing clin­ics, among other projects, that have been hap­pen­ing this week. It will also al­low Em­biid some much­needed 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.”

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