Soccer was Joel Embiid's first love

Soccer was Joel Embiid's first love
June 30, 2014, 10:45 am
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"I think soccer is better," Joel Embiid said on Friday. "You've got to be a man to play basketball."

At least he agrees that they all flop too much on the pitch.

But it's true. The newest Sixers grew up in Cameroon where when it comes to sports, there is soccer, soccer, and more soccer. He told Dan Patrick on Friday that he'd rather be Cristiano Ronaldo than LeBron James. And not just because of the sweet haircut. Most kids in Cameroon play only soccer and know very little of the star-studded NBA that American children grow up watching.

The fact that the entire nation of Cameroon only has two gymnasiums probably has something to do with it.

I know that last fact because Grantland's Jordan Conn traveled to Embiid's hometown of Yaoundé to try and get a better picture of where Embiid came from and how he ended up in Kansas and later Philadelphia.

Really dedicating oneself to basketball seemed like a foreign concept to Embiid's family. It may sound somewhat hilarious to us in Philly, but Embiid's father would have preferred if his son focused instead on volleyball. Yeah, volleyball. The story seems to go that very, very few kids grow up playing basketball in Cameroon. It's never been part of their childhood as in America. They simply grow up playing soccer. But some of the connected hoops-heads in Cameroon have been known to seek out tall and athletic kids who they then attempt to turn into basketball players. That's how the story seems to go.

In the United States, coaches may recruit by luring basketball players away from other colleges or AAU teams. In Cameroon they recruit by luring them away from other sports. Even as the game has grown, hardly any boys in Cameroon grow up playing basketball. The ones who find their way to the sport all seem to tell stories like Tchiengang’s. They were soccer players or volleyball players or nonathletes until one day a coach spotted them and suggested they try hoops. “Think about all the kids we’re missing,” says Francois Enyegue, coach at the University of Yaoundé. “The only people who play are people who coaches find. How many talented players are there in other parts of the country where there aren’t any basketball coaches? None of those kids will ever learn how to play.”

The story goes on to call Embiid "terrible" when he first started playing hoops, which isn't exactly encouraging. And he thought he had Kevin Durant's three-point shot and Allen Iverson's crossover move. Except he didn't. But he learned that he didn't have either rather quickly. He was a fast learner and was given a tape of the NBA's best big men that seemingly changed his game.

Then came the video. It’s the most important chapter in the fast-growing body of Embiid lore — the tape of Nigerian center Hakeem Olajuwon that changed the way Embiid saw the game. In actuality, the tape included more than just Olajuwon. It was a supercut of 1990s centers, also featuring David Robinson and Patrick Ewing. Moudio had received it from a friend. He had never instructed players to watch tape before, but Embiid was growing desperate for any piece of information he could find on his new sport. “Here,” Moudio told him, “you might like this.

He liked it a lot. It made him want to be one of the NBA's next great big men.

Sixers fans are really hoping that comes to fruition.

The piece is worth a read. It's always interesting to know where your hopes came from. Especially when it's as wild a tale as Embiid's.

>>Started From Yaoundé, Now He’s Here [Grantland]