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October 30, 2019

Joel Embiid wears Karl-Anthony Towns fight as badge of honor: 'I was built for this city'

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Joel-Embiid_103019_usat Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid was ejected in the third quarter of the Sixers' win over Minnesota.

If you could only ask one person in Philadelphia for their reaction to Joel Embiid's fight with Minnesota big man Karl-Anthony Towns, I'm not sure you could pick a better candidate than Mike Scott, the Jetro Brawler. What say you, Mr. Scott?

"Let’s get all the bad shit out — you don’t want to condone it, the kids are watching. We’ll see what the league does. But I loved it, it was great," Scott said in the locker room on Wednesday night. "That was great — f**k that, that was great, I enjoyed that. When your superstar plays like that and has that Philly toughness in him, I would say you kinda like to see that. We’ll see what the NBA does but shit, I was hype, I was turned up. I thought that was fun."

To let Embiid tell it, this moment had been building throughout the third quarter, as he was having his way with Towns on the offensive end of the floor. After forcing a Towns turnover by double-teaming him with Ben Simmons, the two got tangled up and, well, chaos ensued from there.

"That's what I'm good at. I like to get in people's minds, I like to kinda [pick up] that real estate," Embiid told reporters after the game. "It's the game, we're just having fun, playing basketball, and then something like that is nothing, you just move on."

Embiid has been known to stretch the truth at times, but he is not lying about his ability to put opponents on tilt. Consider the evidence: Towns spent days leading into the game convincing anyone who would listen that he wasn't concerned with the individual battle against Embiid. To use his own words:

I know everyone wants to hype it up, that’s what sells papers, but I ain’t in the business of making you all money. I’m in the business of getting W’s that’s what I’m about. I’m going out there trying to find a way to get a team win and we’ve got to play together if we want to beat a good team in Philly.

A man unconcerned with the individual matchup, one could argue, would probably not be driven to a fistfight with said individual in the middle of a game. But most individuals are not Joel Embiid, the social media superstar who takes great joy whenever he can take an opposing center completely out of their game.

The theatrics have not won him a lot of fans on opposing rosters, certainly, but Embiid is unconcerned with all that. The reaction from everyone around him spoke volumes — Ben Simmons sprinted straight to the action and put Towns in a chokehold, security and coaches rushed to try to slow things down, and after all was said and done, the crowd roared with approval for their All-Star center, as Embiid shadowboxed on his way to the tunnel, earning what I estimate were the loudest, "MVP!" chants of his career.

(Brett Brown, admittedly, probably didn't feel the same way as everyone else in Philly colors. Whenever a fight unfolds, he can't help but bring up the Amare Stoudemire/Boris Diaw suspensions from the 2007 playoffs that opened the door for his Spurs to sneak past the Phoenix Suns and win a title. A punch landing a few inches in another direction, and perhaps the season is altered for the worst.)

The NBA will have decisions to make about his availability moving forward, and if history is a blueprint, he will likely get caught up in the suspension vortex. Towns will almost certainly get a suspension for swinging at Embiid, and it's rare for a fight to result in a suspension for one player and not another, regardless of who instigated or took decisive action. At best, he'll be looking at a lighter sentence, and with Philadelphia hoping to earn the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed in an effort to make an NBA Finals run, every game matters. 

But that seems to miss the point of why people love sports at all. If building a bond with your favorite pro team was as simple as whether teams won all the time, there wouldn't be a lot of sports culture in Philadelphia to speak of. People latch onto stories and identities and personalities as much as they do winners. 

Philadelphia's first Super Bowl winner would have gone down in history regardless of their off-field personality, but it would never have been as special without the extracurriculars — the dog masks, the beating of the odds with a backup quarterback, and Jason Kelce's legendary parade speech, which unleashed a torrent of criticism back at critics in a way that reflected the very people who have lived and died with the Eagles for decades. 

Not every athlete understands this. Embiid does. In his day-to-day life, he is far removed from the average, blue-collar Philadelphia fan, but he has the awareness to understand he represents them when he puts on that jersey, that his playful shadowboxing post-ejection is an extension of their own jokes and animosity in the stands.

So when he talks about the city, you are certain he means it.

"I was built for this city and they were built for me. My reaction, their reaction, and the love they have for me, I can't thank them enough," Embiid said. "That's what the city of Philadelphia is about. You got to come in here, you got to fight, you got to play hard, you got to be gritty, you got to be a Broad Street bully. So that's what it's about."

"We're going to keep on fighting, and try to accomplish the goal we have set for us."

Philadelphia does not play again until Saturday, when they will play the first game of a Western Conference road trip against the Portland Trailblazers. It's safe to say a decision on Embiid's availability will come down before then, and if he can't go, we will see how they handle an arena that has been a house of horrors for them in recent years without their best player.

But the Sixers, for the time being, are not focused on that quite yet, because these moments put wind in their sails just like they do yours. They have a trash-talking, stat-producing, swashbuckling superstar, and to a man, they will line up behind him and go to battle.

"I love Jo man, I f**kin' love Jo. He's the greatest man, he's our superstar, our All-Star, our guy is playing like that," Scott said. "That's Philly man, that's Philly tough. Some people don't like it, but shit, we in Philly."

"1-0 Jo."


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