Joel Embiid has made enough clutch plays in Wells Fargo Center to have developed a signature pose of triumph. A timeout is called, the crowd of over 20,000 is ecstatic, and he stretches his arms out, asks for a little more noise and pauses as if to say, “How about that? Not bad, right?”
No fans were in the building Friday night as the NBA plows forward with an abnormal season during the COVID-19 pandemic, and so there was sparse adulation for Embiid to soak up after he essentially sealed a win over the Bulls by scoring two of his career-high 50 points on a tightly contested fadeaway jumper. The mask-wearing Sixers employees scattered throughout the arena's lower level cheered as loudly as they could.
“Fans are always there for me when I play, and I always mention that,” he said. “Playing in Philly, I have a lot of pride, and I play for the fans and I play for the city. All my goals when it comes to basketball are related to the city of Philadelphia. I always feel like they’re here with us, even though they’re not. I always feel their presence.”
Embiid’s actions during the period in which nobody was sure when he’d play a basketball game again lend his words greater meaning. He pledged last March to donate $500,000 to COVID-19 relief efforts. And, when the Sixers planned on instituting salary reductions for some full-time employees, Embiid was ready to help those who might suffer from the cuts. The Sixers reversed course.
"After listening to our staff and players, it’s clear that was the wrong decision," managing partner Josh Harris said.
Embiid’s partner, Anne De Paula, was pregnant during the NBA's hiatus with the couple’s first child, a son named Arthur. That’s one big reason why Embiid didn't think the idea of resuming the 2019-20 season in a Disney World “bubble” was a good one, and why he took every precaution he could against COVID-19, most memorably showing up for the Sixers’ flight to Orlando in a hazmat suit.
When he was drafted by the Sixers with the third overall pick in 2014, Embiid was an injured 20-year-old whom the organization believed could one day be great. He’s over halfway through his 20s now, a father and arguably the NBA’s best player thus far this season. Perhaps Embiid has new heights he can reach as he fine-tunes his nutrition, conditioning and ever-expanding game, but he looks like a player in his prime, on a familiar stage but with almost no in-person audience.
“I just want to play for one city for the rest of my career,” he told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Marc Zumoff earlier this month. “This is where I want to be. I want to be able to make it happen and reward the city and the fans for the trust they had in me, especially after missing two years and everything that I’ve been through, and also starting a family here.
“My son was born in Philly. That’s why I want to win so bad, and I want to just reward the fans for the trust that they’ve had in this process.”
It won’t be this way forever. Fans will be back inside Wells Fargo Center at some point — in a safe way, one would hope — and Embiid’s pose will draw a higher-decibel reaction. He’ll no doubt enjoy that, although experience has taught him that Sixers fans don’t mind mixing in a few boos when they feel it’s appropriate, even for superstars.
“It’s going to be fun,” he said. “Hopefully, (it will be) soon as long as everybody stays healthy and all the conditions are met for that to happen. Lately, we played in Utah and we played in Phoenix. They had fans and it almost felt like it was full at times. It was great; the energy was great.
"It’s a different story in Philadelphia. They care. They come to games and they’re going to boo you and they’re going to cheer for you. But at the end of the day, it’s all love.”