Friday, July 12, 2024

Joel Embiid Fulfills Lifelong Olympic Dream via USA Basketball

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LAS VEGAS – When Joel Embiid was growing up in his native Cameroon, he began to harbor a dream of participating in the Olympics.

He didn’t know in what sport; at that time, he played soccer and volleyball. Certainly not basketball, he said. Not until his family immigrated to the U.S. and he began to grow into the 7-foot, 280-pound man he is today.

Now, he’s a dominant force for the Philadelphia 76ers, an NBA MVP and a member of the USA men’s basketball team with all eyes on winning gold next month in the upcoming Paris Olympics.

Dream realized. Dream attained.

“To think back, my dad was an athlete,” Embiid said in an interview Sunday after Team USA’s practice at the Mendenhall Center on the University of Nevada-Las Vegas campus. “It’s amazing it turned out this way. I chose these guys not because they’re so good, but because I felt welcome.”

And he did have choices beyond USA, where he became a naturalized citizen in 2022. He could have played for Cameroon or France, which once held that Central African country as a territory. But he decided that Team USA was the right fit, playing alongside the likes of LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. Playing for coach Steve Kerr, who has won nine NBA championship rings and one Olympic gold medal in his career as player and coach.

France, Team USA’s toughest opponent in the run for the gold in the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics, wasn’t even a consideration when Embiid was weighing his options.

“My home country of Cameroon, which I dearly love, we didn’t make it,” Embiid said. “I’ve been in the U.S. for half of my life. This country means a lot to me. I love my own country, but with my dream and all I’ve accomplished in this beautiful country, with my son being an American, my family being here. This just made a lot of sense.”

There was a time this season when it appeared Embiid might not make it on the Olympic team. He injured his left knee back in February and underwent surgery for a torn meniscus. He didn’t return until April 2, having missed 29 games.

The injury took its toll, Embiid said upon resuming play. “It was depressing,” he said at the time.

The Sixers’ playoff run, which fell short in the first round against the New York Knicks, and the potential of playing in the Olympics were enough motivation to inspire Embiid to push his recovery and rehab. Even while he was still out, Philadelphia coach Nick Nurse said he expected Embiid to play in the Olympics, if healthy, and that he had the full support of the organization.

Embiid overcame the mental apathy and whipped himself back into playing shape.

The motivation was obvious. The Olympics typically occur every four years. The 30-year-old, often-injured Embiid has eight NBA seasons behind him. Who knows what shape he will be in for the 2028 games in Los Angeles? The opportunity might not come around again. 

Now, Embiid is taking advantage and playing for possibly the most talented men’s basketball team in Olympic history. Embiid wasn’t even born when the first U.S. Dream Team galloped through the 1992 Games.

But Embiid has his own goals. He’ll likely be the starting center on the men’s team that has won the last four gold medals and 16 overall. Playing for his own adopted country, he’s intent on adding to those gaudy numbers.

“I’m just here for two things,” he said. “Win the gold and realize my dream, which I’ve always had, and be some part of the Olympic experience.”

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