Joel Embiid’s description of his experience with COVID-19 was that of a true Philadelphian.
“It hasn’t been good. That jawn hit me hard,” Embiid said, employing a term from the Philly vernacular that can work for just about any noun. “I really thought I wasn’t going to make it. It was that bad. So I’m just thankful to be sitting here. I struggled with it, but I’m just glad that I got over it and I’m here doing what I love with some good people.”
Embiid’s words were slightly open to interpretation, since he leaned back and smiled at one point, but it’s clear he wasn’t joking about having endured something profoundly difficult.
Indeed, Embiid later noted he “couldn’t breathe” and had headaches “worse than a migraine.”
“It was not a good time,” he said.
Saturday’s game against the Timberwolves was Embiid’s first since he tested positive for COVID-19. He entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols on Nov. 8.
Somehow, he was able to play 45 minutes in the Sixers’ double overtime loss to Minnesota, scoring 42 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. The 27-year-old’s endurance was not troublesome, which surprised him.
He actually did some of his best work in the overtimes, recording 13 points after regulation. When he followed up a step-back jumper from the left wing with an elegant fadeaway from the right baseline, the Sixers were up three points in double overtime and appeared on their way to a memorable comeback win.
“The first time I went up and down was probably two days ago,” Embiid said. “Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to play tonight after the workout last night. I really couldn’t go up and down more than three times.
“To me, it’s a miracle that I even played this many minutes. But it’s good. … Obviously we lost tonight. We’ve got to get back on track. We’ve had too many losses lately. Tonight, it’s on me. I turned the ball over, missed a couple free throws. I’ve got to do a better job and overall, we’ve all got to do a better job.”
Embiid revealed that Saturday’s game was the first for his son Arthur.
When the NBA decided to conclude the 2019-20 season in a Disney World “bubble,” Arthur Embiid was on his father’s mind. The Sixers’ superstar center was wary about playing basketball during a pandemic, especially with his partner, Anne De Paula, pregnant with the couple's first child. He said he “hated the idea” of resuming the season and showed up for the Sixers’ flight to Florida in an all-white hazmat suit.
Several months earlier, shortly after the NBA suspended its season, Embiid had pledged a $500,000 donation to COVID-19 medical relief efforts. He’d been cognizant of the virus’ devastating worldwide impact long before his personal experience.
With a hellacious stretch behind him, Embiid briefly chatted at the center circle with Karl-Anthony Towns before tip-off. Towns-Embiid matchups have often been testy — both were suspended following a brawl at Wells Fargo Center two years ago — but the Timberwolves star didn't look concerned about basketball even with the game about to begin.
Towns has had multiple family members die from COVID-19 complications, including his mother, Jacqueline Towns. Per The Associated Press’ Aaron Bracy, he said to reporters, “We’ve had our thing for a while but that’s bigger than basketball, that’s bigger than what we have. I’ve seen it kill people and I’m glad that he’s on the other side and he’s doing well.”
Embiid seemed to appreciate the moment, too, even if he didn't wind up pleased with the night's on-court result.
“I’m happy to be back with these guys,” he said. “I love playing basketball so once I’m on the court, I might as well do whatever it takes."