After two gut-wrenching runner-up finishes, Joel Embiid finally broke through and won NBA MVP. With reports that he may be “on track” to play through his LCL sprain in Game 2 today, it was an extra special moment to hear Joel field some questions from reporters in Boston on the rare honor.
Since Julius Erving won MVP with the Sixers in 1981, there have only been 24 players to win this thing. Now Joel is one of them. Unreal.
Let’s see what Joel had to say.
(Some of these are presented in full because this is historic. Others, I’ve trimmed.)
Initial thoughts on winning MVP:
“It’s amazing. It feels good, obviously. That’s something that I dreamed of and I always wanted, especially when I started playing basketball. That was always the goal. Obviously, there’s other goals, but this is just one step to what I want to accomplish, which is to win championships. We’re right there. So it felt pretty good.”
On becoming the MVP after thinking about retiring early in his career:
“I’ve always said it: I feel like my life is a movie. Obviously, starting basketball at 15 … the whole goal when I got a chance to come to the U.S. was really to come get a degree and find a way to get a job, because I didn’t think basketball would take me anywhere. Obviously, losing my brother was a big part of almost leading me to quitting basketball, not wanting to come back because I felt like it was kind of my fault — because I left Cameroon, I left my family, and I felt like I should’ve been there to do something. That was also the period where there were a lot of dark times. Missing two years because of the foot, and everything going on around the organization outside of basketball, it was tough. But I’m just glad that I pushed through it and I’m here siting in front of you guys having accomplished something a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to. It’s hard. It’s hard to win in this league. It’s hard to be successful in this league. There’s a reason why these are the best basketball players in the league. To be sitting here and feel like I won something as far as the Most Valuable Player, it’s great. But then again, it’s also part of my story because I’ve always felt like I was a role model, especially to my Cameroonian people and my African people. And I feel like, just looking at my story, they can look at it and be like, ‘Wow, he did it.’ Probably the probability of someone like me, starting playing basketball at 15, to get the chance to be the MVP of the league … I’d say it’s probably negative zero. We don’t have a lot of opportunities back in Africa, in general, to get to this point. But improbable doesn’t mean impossible. You can accomplish anything you set your mind to. As long as you believe in it and you keep working hard, anything can happen.”
You can listen to a bit of that one here, courtesy of the team’s official Twitter handle:
"Improbable doesn’t mean Impossible." pic.twitter.com/nMgmEuLp1d— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) May 3, 2023
When you hear that stuff, it kind of makes you shake your head that he’s not more of a media darling — that background, what he has overcome, etc.
Joel was asked about his own personal growth, having experienced some dark times:
“I’d say the biggest key of it is obviously, I’m all about family. I don’t talk about it a lot. My son I would say is probably the biggest part of it. My parents, they’ve been here from the beginning. I’m still kind of pissed at my dad because he didn’t let me start playing basketball until 15. Who knows what I could’ve been if I had started earlier. But he made the right decision. Everything happens for a reason. My mom, she doesn’t really care about all of this. She just wants me to be healthy and be able to do what I love. So they’ve been a big part of it. And then, obviously, my family — my fiancé. Arthur … losing my brother and then giving his name to my son meant a lot. My son is the reason why I’m really sitting here. When I found out we were having a kid, I just remember I was like, ‘I’ve got to be a great role model and I’ve got to set a good example. I want him to understand that his dad not only was pretty good, but he also worked hard and he went and took everything he wanted.’ My whole mindset just changed. Everything about me just changed. The way I went about my business, my life, everything just changed because I wanted to be a great father, set a good example. And then obviously, there’s been a lot of people along the way. If I started going through names, we’d be sitting here for a long time, but they know who they are. Drew, Keem .. the Tellem family, they were a big part of my rehab when I got to the league. They really took care of me. There’s a lot of people. It seems like I don’t have a lot of friends, but I do have a lot of friends. Like I said, they know who they are. My guys from L.A. … I won’t go through names. A lot of people have helped me get here. It would not be possible without those people. They’ve sacrificed a lot for me. But the story’s not over. I don’t want to say, but it’s baby steps to get where you want. We went through all these years of the Process to try to get these opportunities. I think a lot of credit goes to the fans also, because they’ve been so supportive from the beginning, showing up to games even though there were seasons where we won 10 games. And E.B. hanging the banner in the locker room. I remember being pissed about it because my name was up there and I had nothing to do with it, because I’m just not a loser. I hate losing. But we went through a lot, whether it’s the burner accounts, my guy Sam Hinkie getting kicked out. There’s a lot that has happened that we had to go through, and I think the fans are a big part of it. They’ve always been supportive. Like I said yesterday, this is not just for me. My teammates, the whole organization, the fans, everybody played a big part in it.”
It’s fun to hear Joel thank everyone. At this point it’s overdone to talk about all of the suffering of The Process, because let’s be honest, it was really only as long as it was because dudes kept breaking and re-breaking their damn feet. Love Joel shouting out Hinkie, and deviating from the company line that Sam “resigned.” Joel’s supermax kicks in next season, you wonder how team owner Josh Harris (who will be paying that) feels hearing that they kicked out “my guy” in favor of the burner accounts collaborative group, lol. Get ‘em, Jo!
On why winning MVP means so much to him:
“I think a lot of people have this misconception of the difference between being competitive and wanting to win everything possible. I don’t want to win this award because it’s just the MVP. I want to win it because it means a lot to me....Obviously, wanting a championship is going to be way better, and we have that opportunity. But I’m just competitive. I want it all. I want to win everything that I can get my hands on, and everybody around me knows that....”
The latest on his knee injury:
“It’s tough, but like I said, my life is a movie. Everything happens for a reason. Every single year, it’s always something freaky happening and that’s OK. That’s another challenge on the way to getting to where I want to. Obviously, it’s hard dealing with another injury, but when something like that happens, you got about a day to be kinda sad or whatever and start to go back to work and rehab and make sure you do everything possible to be sure you’re back out on the court. Obviously, it’s earlier than what we though considering what I had, but I’m just glad to be able to go up and down and kinda see how it feels so we’re gonna take it day-by-day and see how it feels and go from there.”
That part doesn’t exactly sound like he’s super confident he’ll play in Game 2, contrasting a bit with reports he’s on track. Maybe he’s playing it coy, maybe he’s truly a game-time decision. We’ll see.
On if he plays Game 2:
“It’s a possibility just like it was a possibility for the first game, but I’m gonna listen to those guys and see what they have to say, the doctors. Obviously, I want to play....”
On his teammates, leadership strides:
“I think when it comes to leadership, I don’t think that’s something that I really pushed to be. I remember having conversations with coach (Brett) Brown about what kind of leader I should be and what kind of leader I want to be. He offered me a couple examples. Obviously, he has a lot of history in the game of basketball. Obviously, being around the Spurs and Tim Duncan and how they used to go about their business. It took me a while to kind of figure out how I wanted to lead. Obviously, everybody’s different. I’m not normally the guy to go out and yell at people or be all hype or all that stuff. That’s just not my personality, but the way I can do it is by pushing my teammates in a positive way and sometimes in a negative way just to get a reaction out of them. It’s all about studying. Some guys, you want to be as positive as possible and some guys, you know you can be a little bit negative and they’re gonna take it and want to be better, but that’s also me. I actually like it when people are negative. I like when you guys tell me I can’t do something or I cant accomplish something because I’m gonna go out there and show you that I can do it. I think over the years, I just find a way to kind of relate more with my teammates. Obviously, I don’t do anything outside of basketball whether it’s going out or going to dinner, I just hate restaurants and stuff so that’s not me. Sometimes, I do it, but I think the guys around me, they have been extremely helpful. They’re allowing me to just be myself and then also just take me as I am and that’s been great. Tyrese is a guy that I would probably put in the position of just understanding me and understanding that if I’m gonna criticize him, it’s probably because I want him to be better. Some other guys in the past, I don’t know, they might’ve taken that criticism as ‘Oh, he’s mad or something. He has a problem with me’, but that’s not me. I wanna win and I can’t win alone and I need all of them and they do understand it. That’s why I think this team is different and special.”
Whether or not Ben Simmons just caught a tacit stray, I’ll let ya’ll be the judge! Hilarious hearing Joel channel a little Larry David saying he’s just not a big restaurant guy.
On the emotions he released of winning the award, relationship with James Harden [free-agency emoji eyes!!!]:
“Honestly, I don’t know what was going on in that moment. I told myself that if I’m gonna win, I’m not gonna have any emotions. I’m not gonna cry. I’m just gonna be happy and have a straight face, but I ended up doing the opposite which is unexpected, but I wanted all the guys to be there because they’re a part of it. They’re one of the reasons why I was sitting there and getting that accomplishment and James is, man, I don’t even know where to start. I think since he’s been here, I think he won’t tell me that, but I think he kinda made his goal for me to be the MVP. He’s given up a lot and obviously, I’ve always said it, he’s the best playmaker I’ve ever played with and he’s the best playmaker in probably the NBA so he’s been helping me as far as getting me easy opportunities whether it’s scoring the ball or just be a better basketball player on and off the court. He was just extremely happy for me just like they all were and that meant a lot for me. That meant a lot to me to know that your teammates care about you as much as I care about them.”
Not much of this stuff screams: “Even if the Sixers offer James Harden a max contract he will leave them to return to Houston!” But we shall see....
On not believing at first when coaches told him how great he could become:
“I think the most memorable one is probably my first game. I know before that, a lot of people were always telling me, and it goes back to probably college when coach [Bill] Self used to tell me that I was going to be the No. 1 pick. For a kid like me, I was coming to college. I was supposed to be there for four years. I remember I wanted to redshirt and probably be there for five years because I just had no idea that I had the opportunity to go to the league. He used to tell me ‘You’re going to be the No. 1 pick’ and I’ve always been told these coaches lie and they’re gonna tell you what you want to hear and that’s not what they believe and that ended up happening and then obviously, the coaches that I’ve had whether it’s coach Brown, Billy Lange, all those guys telling me about how good I could be. In the back of my mind, I kinda believed it, but I didn’t, but I believe it because I wanted to also push myself to kinda also not prove those people wrong and to make sure they can say they were right when they say all that stuff, but when I first played. My first bucket. I remember the turnaround fadeaway jumper, that’s when I knew I was like ‘Oh man, it’s on. It’s about to be scary for everybody else’ because I remember calling Drew (Hanlen) after the game like ‘Man, that was easy’. My first game I’m like playing against Steven Adams who’s a strong dude and these guys have been in the league for a long time and I was on minutes restrictions, 20-point outing, I was like ‘It’s pretty easy’, but I got a long way to go, but that was when I probably knew I could do something special.”
Just try for one second to imagine this: you truly have no clue if you’re that good, you expect to play five years, and then hearing ‘nah dude, you’ll be the no. 1 pick!’ Then finally getting out there and roasting a beast in Steven Adams and being like ‘yo, that was nothing! They’re all in massive trouble!’ Wild.
On if he can return and make a contribute this series:
“At some point, I’ll add what I can and be as 100% as I can be, but I’m sure I can make a difference. I’m just gonna have to figure it out where I can help and that’s gonna be the easy part because we know how to play with each other with or without me so it’s gonna be easy to get back into it. For myself, I just gotta let the game come to me whenever I come back. I haven’t really done anything the last two weeks so I think the biggest key for me is not pushing anything and letting the game come to me.”
Hearing this makes him sound more doubtful than questionable, to be honest, but again, maybe he’s being coy, maybe he’ll test it out. I’m getting the sense he’s truly not sure if he’ll play and wants to check it out in warmups.
On Doc Rivers:
“I remember the first conversation that we had hen he got here was obviously about a bunch of things, but about basketball, I think he just wanted me to figure out what works and what I wanted to be.... I always go back to the playoffs earlier in my career. I was just a post player and it was easy to double and it was harder to score and we just looked at it and we figured it out. We were like a better spot on the floor is the nail and the elbows and the mid-range so we started working on it over and over and over and I think that’s one of the biggest things. He made me understand that for me to be as successful as I want, I just gotta find the spots on the floor where I’m extremely comfortable and make a living out of it.”
Helping Joel find his spots on the floor has been huge, credit to Doc for helping there. Bottom line is, Jo has been a top one or two MVP candidate for three years now under Rivers. Tip your cap to the Doc.
On this team and the vibes:
“We just care about each other. We care about each other’s success. We want everybody to be successful and I think we also have a lot of veterans. If you got the right combination and you got guys start to understand that for everybody to be successful, you gotta win and to be able to win, everybody has to do their job and they have to understand what their job is and they gotta go out and do it. I think that’s the key. Obviously, adding PJ has been a huge part of it. Tyrese has taken another step. D-Melt has been great. I know Furk is not getting a lot of minutes, but he’s working hard to make sure that he’s always ready....Shake, all those guys, Tobias, we’ve been through a lot so I’m just happy that those guys are able to go out and do something like they did Game 1.”
Furkan Korkmaz got a shoutout! Let’s gooo!