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Joel Embiid Is Carving a Path Into the Heart of Philadelphia

There was a time when it wasn’t certain that the Philadelphia 76ers should be placed on the broad shoulders of Joel Embiid.

There were questions about his maturity, like when he danced shirtless onstage at a Meek Mill concert in 2017 while out with a knee injury. Bryan Colangelo, then the team’s head of basketball operations, called it “a little” disappointing. (This was silly.)

The more concerning questions were about Embiid’s conditioning and weight after he was drafted, in 2014, and then about his durability, when he missed his first two seasons with foot injuries. That was when the Sixers were going through one of the worst periods in franchise history — also known as The Process.

Fast forward to now: Embiid has convincingly put all those concerns to rest. Over the last two seasons, he has transformed into one of the best players in the N.B.A. and a contender for the Most Valuable Player Award.

And he’s just not any superstar. He’s a Philadelphia Superstar — by and of the city — the proverbial man of the people. The kind who you might occasionally spot going for a jog through the streets of Philadelphia (sorry, Mr. Springsteen) or dropping by a local court to play pickup. Since the Sixers drafted him, Embiid has made being in Philadelphia a core part of his identity, all while a turnstile of other top players have left their teams. His Twitter biography reads “PROCESSING” — a nod to his assumption of The Process as a nickname. The term refers to a string of losing seasons in the mid-2010s as the Sixers stockpiled draft picks — picks that have, at least in part, led to Philadelphia’s success today.

It seems appropriate that Embiid won the scoring title this year, making him the first Sixer to do so since the deeply beloved Allen Iverson in 2005. Embiid is on track to do what no other basketball player this century has approached: give Philadelphia basketball fans someone (not named Iverson) to truly believe in.

Embiid has had to shoulder much of the load of leading Philadelphia by himself.Credit…Matt Slocum/Associated Press

This year, Embiid’s path to permanent enshrinement in Philadelphia lore hit a snag when he was diagnosed with a concussion and an orbital fracture after he was elbowed in the face during the final game of a first-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors. The Sixers moved on to the second round to face the Miami Heat, the East’s No. 1 seed, and lost the first game in a blowout on Monday without Embiid. Game 2 was set for Wednesday.

Entering the postseason, it had seemed that this would be one of the Sixers’ best opportunities to win a championship in decades — even better than when they were the No. 1 seed in 2021. They had a dominant Embiid and a strong partner to share the load in James Harden, who was named M.V.P. with Houston in 2017-18. They also have a cast of talented teammates, such as the second-year guard Tyrese Maxey. But it’s unclear when Embiid will be able to play again, and the Sixers are, at best, on even footing with Miami if Embiid is healthy.

But even if the Sixers don’t advance, Embiid’s play has earned him a deep well of affection within his city. The Sixers were shrouded in drama this season as a result of the trade demand from Ben Simmons, who was supposed to help Embiid in the championship quest but never took the court before he was traded to the Nets for Harden in February. Instead of letting the season get derailed, Embiid mostly stayed quiet about Simmons and kept his focus on the court, where he averaged 30.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game.

Philadelphia has long been known as a difficult city in which to earn longstanding affection from fans. Only a few athletes have been able to attain that — and often not without significant bumps along the way: players like Julius Erving and Charles Barkley, and in other sports, the Eagles’ Brian Dawkins.

Other stars (ahem: Simmons) are often run out of town.

“A big part of my job is recruiting free agents directly or even indirectly in trade,” said Daryl Morey, the Sixers’ president of basketball operations. “And I think there’s a respect of the Philadelphia fan base that the players have that they’re like, ‘Will they accept me or not?’

“Because if they don’t accept you, it gets ugly fast for everybody.”

Marc Zumoff, who was the Sixers’ play-by-play broadcaster for almost three decades before retiring last year, said in an email that, “Philadelphia fans like to know they are part of the process.

“Whether they’re cheering, booing, or chanting in unison, they want to elicit reactions from the players, coaches, officials or whoever is their target,” he said. “In Joel’s case, his expressions, gyrations or especially when he holds his arms out in exaltation, he feeds the frenzy.”

He added, “Sometimes he reacts to the fans; other times, they react to him.”

James Harden, left, was traded to the Sixers from the Nets in February.Credit…Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Embiid has come to be known for his playful behavior, on and off the court.Credit…Cole Burston/Getty Images

That’s not the case for every Philadelphia star, Zumoff said, citing a Phillies icon.

“Mike Schmidt may have been the greatest third baseman in baseball history, but I think our fans wanted more outward emotion from him,” he said.

If there’s a figure who understands being beloved as an athlete in Philadelphia, it’s Jimmy Rollins, who played for the Phillies from 2000 to 2014. He won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2007 and helped deliver a World Series in 2008.

Winning over fans from Philadelphia “takes responsibility,” said Rollins, who is now an analyst for TBS.

“When I say responsibility, I mean owning up to when you mess up,” he said. “Not making excuses, but showing up every day and playing with a certain style of grittiness.”

Embiid has alluded to such sentiments, while also being willing to throw some of that same energy back at fans.

“I haven’t forgotten but 2 years ago, I got booed, people in Philly wanted me to be traded,” Embiid said on Twitter before this season. “I even shushed them. Only the real ones didn’t but I just put the work in that off-season to be better cuz I knew I wasn’t playing up to my potential. Philly fans, y’all also gotta be better.”

There are two ways to be an athlete who never has to buy a meal in Philadelphia ever again. You can help win a title, as the N.F.L. quarterback Nick Foles did in leading the Eagles to the Harika Bowl in the 2017 season. Or you can be a larger-than-life star, like Iverson. Ideally, you’re both.

Iverson wasn’t just a force in the city. He was a cultural beacon who affected the way players dressed, wore their hair and felt about themselves. He was also one of the most visible figures in all of sports. But the city’s fondness for Iverson went beyond his production and style. It was also about size. Iverson was barely six feet tall and constantly outplayed opponents much bigger than him. In the case of Embiid, he’s a dominant physical presence unto himself and is in part successful because he’s able to outmuscle defenders. Most players are smaller than him.

Allen Iverson, who led the Sixers to the N.B.A. finals in 2001, is one of a kind, but Embiid is carving his own path into the hearts of Philadelphia fans.Credit…Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Embiid has essentially carved out his own path. He’s a millennial superstar — meaning he’s aware of and makes use of the internet more than Iverson’s generation of players ever had to. It’s been one of the many ways Embiid has increased his reach in a way that’s been rare for professional athletes. A göğüs here. A trash talk Instagram caption there. The occasional joke to sate the masses.

“It’s pretty rare to have someone as talented as him — the best player in the league, we would argue — and also be so aware of his impact on the daily lives,” Morey said.

If Embiid comes back this series, he’ll be playing through, in addition to the orbital fracture, a torn ligament in his thumb. Just by taking the floor, he’ll burnish his image as a warrior willing to, as Rollins said, “find a way to make that impossible happen,” a willingness Rollins said is key to gaining the warm embrace of Philadelphia.

Whatever Embiid is, he is Philadelphia’s.

I think he’ll always be a beloved figure no matter what,” Morey said.

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