The greatest instigators operate with an almost parasitic effectiveness, and Joel Embiid is so good at getting under his opponents’ skin that he easily could change his nickname from The Process to The Protozoan.
He infiltrates his target with a stealth-like ease so complete that, by the time you detect his presence, the blood-brain barrier has been breached. It is a hugely entertaining thing to watch, as evidenced by the energy that pulsed through the Wells Fargo Center in the wake of Embiid’s tussle with Karl-Anthony Towns on Wednesday night.
For 2½ quarters, Embiid had used the full force of his gargantuan frame to pummel the visiting big man, throwing his hips and shoulders into his overmatched opponent so often that you could almost hear the blood vessels bursting.
And then, midway through the third period, Towns broke, locking arms with Embiid after a Sixers defensive rebound and refusing to yield. Embiid pushed Towns, Towns threw a punch, and the two collapsed into a tangled mass that quickly escalated into a five-on-five dog pile.
From a spectator’s standpoint, it was a spectacle worthy of admission, and Embiid dug deep into his showman self to ensure the crowd maximized its fun. He and Towns had barely been pried apart when he broke into a broad smile, yukking it up with teammates as he awaited his inevitable ejection.
Before retreating to the locker room, he launched into a shadowboxing routine for the hometown fans, who responded with chants of “MVP” as he walked off the court.
If it had ended there, it would make sense to move on, perhaps even with a sense of appreciation. All the potential downsides of the altercation could be written off easily. The risk of injury that an injury-prone player confronts in a mass of writhing bodies and the resulting two-game suspension , one can argue that they are inseparable byproducts of the same sort of things that make Embiid and these Sixers great.
I was there. I enjoyed it. Sports are entertainment.
Yet sports are also sports, and given the way Embiid has behaved since Wednesday night, he might need a refresher. History will not define him by a measure of his personality. The same people who reflexively defend him now are those who will judge him on a strict basis of championships won.
I am one of those people, so don’t interpret this as an admonition. Rather, it’s a gentle reminder to Embiid that his personal legacy is intertwined with that of his team, and this is one of those times when it seems he has focused his attention on the former rather than the latter.
While you can talk yourself into thinking that his altercation with Towns can pay dividends for the Sixers in the long run, it’s awfully hard to see the benefit of the epic doses of trash talk he has delivered via social media in the aftermath.
First and foremost, this goes for himself as an individual. Wherever you stand on society’s current Wokeness Spectrum, I think we all can agree that it is not a great look to attempt to emasculate another man by calling him a series of derogatory female slang terms and making oblique reference to his private business.
This is what Embiid did to Towns in an Instagram post that ended with the declaration, “I OWN YOU.” In terms of interpersonal interactions, this did not seem like all in good fun. From the standpoint of the team, how can it possibly be constructive?
Granted, these are difficult waters to navigate. Over the last half-decade, the NBA has emerged as the prototypical sport for this current chapter of the American Experience.
I use the term sport loosely, because what we’ve seen in the NBA is the same real-time blurring of the line between reality and entertainment that has transformed other sectors of our society, Government becoming Politics, Cinema becoming Hollywood, and all of it becoming a different batch of the same visceral stew that our techno-industrial complex serves up daily to a nation of huddled masses yearning to be free from the boredom of their lives.
Are Embiid and Towns acting and communicating as flesh-and-blood human beings who happen to play a sport in the public eye, or are they simply characters playing roles in the professional wrestlingization of American life?
Maybe we’ve always walked this line, from the penny press and the USS Maine to the transistor radio and H.G. Wells, our search for entertainment and escape sucking us into a feedback loop that inevitably ends with the merger of what’s real and what’s invented.
Perhaps the only thing that has changed is the medium. Our technology is such that we are no longer passive spectators but active participants in a continuous live stream of everyone else’s experience.
We interact with our politicians and our movie stars the same way we interact with our high school classmates and our former neighbors and, at times, our immediate family and friends. We watch their experiences and we listen to their inner thoughts and we shower them with critiques and affirmations that they internalize or ignore. This is the world that the NBA has harnessed, a world in which athletes are no longer athletes or even entertainers but direct members of our tribe.
Except, inside that locker room, the game is still the thing, and the team is still the tribe. You might have been reminded of that last night as you listened to the oldest member of that room share his thoughts on Embiid’s antics.
Of course, Al Horford’s comments were not optimized for recirculation in our current media climate, so you might not even have heard them. But they are worth consideration, nonetheless, and one would hope Embiid considers them moving forward.
“I couldn’t believe it," Horford said. “Those two players are two of our great young players in the league. I’ve known Karl for years, I know his family; he’s a good kid, Joel is a good kid as well.
"It’s just one of those things that you don’t want to see the game — our game is a great game, and that happened, and it was unfortunate, but I do hope that they both learn from this. There’s just no place for this in our game.”
In everybody’s life, there is a series of dividing lines: between childhood and adolescence, between adolescence and adulthood, between adulthood and maturity. This last line is the one that is most difficult to identify, because it does not come with any physical markers.
By any physiological test, Embiid is a man, a reality that we have seen play out countless times on the basketball court. He is 7 feet and 280 pounds of some of the most impressive basketball you will ever see played, a fully formed adult capable of dominating any other man regardless of size or age. And yet, at 25 years old, he at times acts closer to adolescence.