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May 03, 2023

Joel Embiid reflects on journey to MVP award: "I want to win everything I can get my hands on"

Joel Embiid finally has his MVP award, but bigger goals are on the horizon for him and the Sixers.

On the morning of Game 2, the morning Joel Embiid was to speak on the biggest individual achievement of his career to date, the star of the show had his thunder stolen by a report suggesting he was "on track" to play Wednesday night in Boston. No time to savor this accomplishment — it was a reminder that the pressure is on when he gets back out there, that bigger goals are on the horizon for Embiid's Sixers.

Fittingly, that was the overarching theme of Embiid's eventual presser and the message he delivered to his teammates, who he said were only allowed to celebrate for "5-10 minutes" after the news broke on Tuesday night. There is business to take care of, and Embiid intends to do so as long as he is cleared to play on Wednesday night.

"That's something I dreamt of and I've always wanted, especially when I started playing basketball, that was always the goal. Obviously, there are other goals and stuff, this is just one step to whatever I want to accomplish, which is to win championships," Embiid said Wednesday. "We're right there."

The discourse around the league's MVP trophy has devolved to the point that the stories behind these seasons are worth celebrating — Embiid's win marks the fifth consecutive year that a foreign-born player has taken home the hardware, a sign of the sport's global expansion over the last several decades, with the top three of Embiid/Jokic/Giannis all representing something special in the NBA canon. Notably, Embiid joined Hakeem Olajuwon as one of just two African-born players to win the MVP trophy in league history, after coming up just short of that feat in the previous two years. 

Embiid's growing legacy as an African athlete is one he touched on extensively on Wednesday, on a broader scale but also within his circle of loved ones. The death of Arthur Embiid, the younger brother he lost to a tragic accident early in his career, has frequently been cited as a crossroads moment in the big man's life, one that he said caused him significant doubt as he tried to chase a dream in a new country. 

"Losing my brother was a big part of it, almost leading me to quit basketball," Embiid said. "Not wanting to come back because I felt like it was kind of my fault because I left Cameroon, I left my family, and I felt like I should have been there to do something. That was also the period where there was a lot of dark times, missing a few years because of the foot, and everything really going on around the organization outside of basketball. It was tough but I'm just glad I pushed through it, and I'm here sitting in front of you guys having accomplished something a lot of people don't get the opportunity to."

"To be sitting here and feel like I won something as far as the Most Valuable Player is great, but then again, it's also part of my story. I've always felt like I was a role model especially to my Cameroonian people and my African people, and just looking at my story they can look at it and be like, wow, he did it. Probably the probability of someone like me starting playing basketball at 15, to get the chance to be the MVP of the league is I would say probably negative zero. We don't have a lot of opportunities back in Africa, in general, to get to this point. But improbable doesn't mean impossible, and you can accomplish anything you set your mind to as long as you believe in it, and you keep working hard, anything can happen."

Throughout the great MVP debates of the last few seasons, Embiid has at times been painted as the selfish, me-first guy as he stumped for this award, but his message to the public now that he has the trophy was one of community and sacrifice. There were his parents, including a father Embiid joked should have let him start playing basketball sooner; his trainer, Drew Hanlen, who has put him through workouts to borrow from NBA legends; Kim Caspare, the physical therapist who works to keep Embiid in top shape; coaches from his past, including Kansas' Bill Self, Brett Brown, and former assistant Billy Lange; and certainly his teammates past and present.

Every Sixers player got a piece of that credit, including Furkan Korkmaz, Embiid's longest-tenured teammate and one of the last guys in consideration to play at this stage of the season. But two men in the locker room earned kudos from Embiid for very different reasons — James Harden for his quest to push Embiid to his best season ever, and Tyrese Maxey for understanding Embiid as a person and leader better than anyone else.

"James is, man, I don't even know where to start. I think since he's been here, I think he won't tell me that but I think he kind of made his goal for me to be the MVP. He has given up a lot and I've always said it, he's the best playmaker I've ever played with, and he's the best playmaker probably in the NBA. He's been helping me as far as getting me easy opportunities, whether it's to score the ball or just be a better basketball player on and off the court. He was just extremely happy for me, just like they all were, and that meant a lot for me. That meant a lot for me to know your teammates care about me as much as I care about them."

"They've allowed me to just be myself and just take me as I am. Tyrese is a guy I would probably put in the position of understanding me, and understanding if I'm going to criticize him, he knows it's because I want him to be better. Some other guys in the past, I don't know, they might have took that criticism as like, he's mad, he has a problem with me. That's not me, I want to win, and I can't win alone. I need all of them, and they do understand it, so I think that's why this team is different and special."

Embiid's son, named after Arthur and long cited as a source of the big man's growing maturity, is the most influential among those who have not helped Embiid on the basketball court. There have been jokes made in the back hallways of the Wells Fargo Center that Embiid never moves faster after a game than he does when a game ends early, as it means Embiid can get home and spend valuable time with his son. Embiid seems to consider his actions for what they mean to his son above anything else, and drove that point home again.

"When I found out we were having a kid, I just remember I was like, I got to be a great role model. I got to set a good example, I want him to understand his dad not only was pretty good but he also worked hard and went and took everything he wanted," Embiid said. "It's one of the reasons why my whole mindset has changed. Everything about me has changed — the way I went about my business, my life, everything just changed. I just wanted to be a great father and set a good example."

So now, long after that 5-10 minutes of permissible celebration has passed, attention turns to Embiid's ability to play in Game 2 and beyond for the Sixers in round two. There appeared to be at least a bit of doubt that it would happen, whether it was gamesmanship from Embiid or not, but he ultimately said if the doctors gave him the green light to get going, he would be out there to try to help his team push Philly's lead to 2-0.

And that competitive drive, Embiid says, is the same as the one that caused his thirst for an MVP trophy. He does not view this as the final goal, because there is no final goal until his playing days are done. As long as Embiid has something to compete for, he wants it, and his body of work to this point suggests he has the drive and talent to go get it.

"I don't want to win this award because it's just the MVP, I want to win it because it means a lot to me. I went through a lot, and that's validation of everything, the sacrifices and everything you went through is paying off in some ways. Obviously, winning a championship is going to be way better and we have that opportunity," Embiid said. "I'm just competitive. I want it all, I want to win everything that I can get my hands on. It doesn't matter if it's about basketball or if we're playing a game, in life, or whatever, I want to win everything. I want to be first."

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