It wouldn’t really be Philadelphia without a bit of theater. A city still dealing with an inferiority complex since losing the status of being the nation’s capital possesses manic regional pride that spills over to our sports franchises. It’s an environment perfectly suited for Joel Embiid to thrive. The 76ers big man rejects the conformity of NBA superstardom and embraces the strange passions of the city’s fan base. Hero or villain, asshole or savior, he will be the architect of his team’s salvation—or its demise.
It’s clear the Sixers haven’t reached their full potential this season. They’ve consistently failed to unlock their best offense, Brett Brown’s rotations don’t gel, and Ben Simmons still isn’t taking jumpers. They’re on pace to finish the year with a similar win total as each of their last two seasons, but it feels as though they haven’t taken the step forward that many expected. They sleepwalk through games at times, fall apart on the road, and only ever look dominant at home, where they’ve only lost twice this season. For a potential title-contender with two All-Stars in Embiid and Simmons, sitting in fifth in the Eastern Conference isn’t enough to satisfy salivating Philly fans.
On Sunday, Embiid shushed the Philly faithful in their own home during a win over the Chicago Bulls, placing a finger to his lips to tell the crowd to be quiet. He later added an expletive. “I don’t care how it looks. I’m just playing basketball,” Embiid said after the game, adding that he was “just getting back to myself, being a good asshole, just playing basketball and trying to dominate.” Embiid then made light of the situation in an Instagram post. When scorned former Sixers teammate and current Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler commented “I know a place where villains are welcome,” Embiid further inflamed Philly fans by replying, “Damn right my brother.”
The caricatures of Philly’s fan culture emerged almost immediately. One caller on a leading sports radio station said, “Joel Embiid is a coward and I will not watch any more Sixers games until he’s gone.” A caller on another station demanded the Sixers trade Embiid. “The fact that we’ve got people calling in and defending him just shows how soft of a fan base we’ve become. Are you freaking kidding me?! This guy just said, ‘Shut the eff up’ to the entire Philadelphia region and we’re like, ‘It’s OK, Joel!’ No! Get this bum out of this city. He’s worthless. He’s fat. He can’t take care of himself. I don’t care for him anymore. I don’t want him on my team. I’d rather restart The Process than root for this loser.”
Whether Embiid intended to antagonize Sixers fans, motivate himself and his teammates, amuse himself, or some combination of the three, it had a galvanizing effect. When the Sixers’ starting lineup was announced in Philly’s Tuesday home game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the first game since Embiid’s comments, he was met with light boos. Not enough to paint a cataclysmic scene, but plenty to know fans weren’t happy with him. That quickly changed: A minute into the game, Embiid grabbed a rebound and plowed through a defender for an and-1 opportunity, and the crowd roared with approval.
Embiid and Simmons each scored 26 points, and the Sixers won 110-103. During the game, Embiid baited Clippers forward Marcus Morris into a shoving match—whether that was symbolic of Embiid’s week, or just some general shit-stirring, it reenergized the home fans. The sound system played “Wicked” by Future over the loudspeakers, and Embiid gave one of his classic shimmies.
“The natural first question for you,” TNT sideline reporter Jared Greenberg posed to Embiid after the game: “Are you the hero or the villain tonight?”
“I’m always going to be both,” Embiid said with a wry smile. “I start with my city. I love my city. They’ve shown me a lot of love since I’ve been here. You know, we’ve gone through ups and downs. We learn from it. There’s nothing more. Just playing with each other, having fun. Like I said, I’m back to being a good asshole. Sorry for cussing, but I’m gonna do my thing.”
After the game, Embiid said he felt that if the fans can dish it, they should also be prepared to take it. “They’ve been going at me. I went back at them. We’re all human beings. If I can take it, everybody else can too,” he said, noting that he knows he could be doing a better job on the court and that the team still has championship aspirations. “I could have shushed them again, but it was all about having fun again, getting back to myself … I do know that [the fans] got my back. Through the injuries and what we been through, I’m still here.”
For much of this season, Embiid has largely taken a back seat in Brown’s offense. He’s averaging fewer points and rebounds than last season, he’s getting to the line less often, and his field goal percentage and attempts per game have decreased. He’s seemed less aggressive, less frequently the unstoppable force we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. As a team, the Sixers vacillate between lackluster and dominant performances. They needed something to push them closer to an identity. Perhaps Embiid provided it.
Many Sixers fans say Embiid can’t fit with Simmons and that he should be traded. It’s not uncommon for Philadelphians to boo when their best and brightest fall short of their expectations. They did it to Allen Iverson, Donovan McNabb, Ryan Howard, and many others. For once, an athlete spat back—regardless of motivation or catalyst—and said, “Fuck me? Well, fuck y’all, too.”
What we saw from Embiid and the Sixers this week might end up being a flashpoint in their season. The win over the Clippers was one of their most dominant performances. They looked like the team everyone envisioned, which made sense, considering they refocused the offense around Embiid.
Philadelphians crave the villain as much as they do the hero. They want to see themselves in their stars. A common online retort about the Sixers is that fans need to bully them into being champions. Embiid’s response, at least for a moment, gave Philly fans what they had been craving. What a beautifully deranged church, a fan base filled with haters who pray that their fanciful dreams, positioned as expletives, get answered. This all might seem silly to some. Where you come from, perhaps. In Philadelphia, next to our dirty rivers and even filthier dispositions, we just call this charm.