Over the past two years, the most hardcore of Philadelphia 76ers fans have had to satiate their basketball appetites with Zapruder film footage of Joel Embiid warmups and grainy, pop-up ad-filled illegal streams of Dario Saric’s Turkish League matches. Wednesday night, the Philadelphia faithful finally had the opportunity to see the real thing. Embiid and Saric. In the flesh. Hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder on national television.
Before Wednesday, Joel Embiid hadn’t played a meaningful basketball game since March 1, 2014, when a stress fracture in his back prematurely ended his freshman season at Kansas. In the 971 days since, the 7’2” center has undergone two season-ending surgeries on his right foot and helplessly watched from the bench as his Sixers suffered 136 losses in 164 tries.
In a brilliant feature penned this week by Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, the 22-year-old Embiid admitted that there were moments during his lengthy recovery that he considered packing his bags, leaving the NBA behind, and moving back home to his native Cameroon. For many big men with injuries below the knees, they don’t have the luxury of making that choice—their bodies seal their fate for them. Fortunately for Embiid, his body has granted him clemency.
Owning a clean bill of health for the first time since college, the third-year rookie center has spent the past month working his way back into game shape.
“There are times I get emotional,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown admitted before the game. The 55-year-old developed a unique bond with Embiid since he was drafted third-overall by the team in 2014. “I lived every second of that journey with him—good times and bad. For him to arrive now, where he’s playing his first NBA game knowing the work, the uncertainty, and the emotional strain that he would have went through just wondering [if he would] play again. To see him arrive tonight, it’s a special night.”
But in addition to the 7’2” center, whose presence on and off the court makes him difficult to ignore, the team also added talented swingman Dario Saric of Croatia. Selected nine picks after Embiid, he too hadn’t played a minute of NBA basketball since being drafted in 2014. Saric hadn’t missed time due to injury, but rather due to the nature of his European contract. Having signed a two-year deal with Turkish League club Anadolu Efes before the draft, the 6’10” forward from Croatia was a player the Sixers knew they’d have to wait for to see.
Patience is nothing new for Sixers fans, even before the team took Embiid and Saric in 2014. The year prior, former general manager and team president Sam Hinkie traded All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday for a package that included Nerlens Noel, who was slated to miss the entirety of his rookie season while recovering from ACL surgery, and a future pick (which became Saric and yet another future pick). The year before that, before Hinkie was hired, fans hopelessly waited all season long for prized offseason acquisition Andrew Bynum to make his Sixers debut. The seven-footer never once donned a Sixers uniform and left in free agency the following summer; at 29 years old, he is now effectively retired from basketball due to chronic knee issues.
Hinkie, who resigned in April amid rumblings that the team was set to hire longtime NBA executive Bryan Colangelo to work above him, became the face of this patient approach. And in doing so, he earned praise from a small group of outspoken supporters in the Philadelphia area and admonishment nationally from many more. Brett Brown, though, has perhaps felt the sting of the Sixers’ long lens more than anyone. Listening to him talk on the day Saric and Embiid were set to finally suit up in Sixers red, white, and blue, his excitement is palpable.
“Now I can say, ‘There’s Dario Saric,’ and he’s not [made of] mist or vapor, you can actually see that he’s here,” he said with a smile. “I’m so excited to do what I’m doing, I feel incredibly fortunate, I’ve got a 19-year, two-time NBA Executive of the Year behind me in [team president] Bryan Colangelo…I’m coming into my fourth year ready to go, excited to get started.”
As he comes off the floor at the 7:47 mark of the first quarter, Embiid receives the first of roughly eight standing ovations he would get during the game.
For the Sixers, though, whenever one door opens another inevitably seems to close in its place. In late September, 2016 first-overall pick Ben Simmons suffered an acute Jones fracture in his right foot after taking an awkward step in traffic during a training camp scrimmage. He underwent surgery to repair the damage several days later. The 20-year-old Simmons spoke to reporters before the game, noting that while there is currently no timetable for his return, he doesn’t believe the injury will keep him out for the entire season. Brett Brown recently suggested Simmons might make his debut in January, but has since walked back the comment.
But while Simmons’ absence was somewhat sobering for Sixers fans, there were certainly enough fireworks to keep things interesting on opening night.
The energy in the building was discernibly different than anything felt since the team last appeared in the playoffs in 2012. A buzz emanated throughout the crowd in the hour or so leading up to tip off, grew when Embiid took the floor for pregame warmups, and was feverish by the time the lights dimmed for player introductions.
On the very first possession of the game, Russell Westbrook misses an 18-foot jumper and Embiid collects the rebound. In reaction to this, some fans instinctively leap from their seats to cheer, almost as if to celebrate their 7’2” center making a basketball play without snapping his legs. On the other end of the floor, Embiid floats to the top of the arc, where he finds himself wide open with the ball in his hands. As his 24-foot attempt gracefully floats through the air, the crowd inhales in unison, groaning loudly as it rims out.
At this point, the crowd is roaring every time Embiid touches the ball.
As Dario Saric steps to the free throw line for the first time, the crowd’s attention shifts. The entire crowd is chanting his name, “DA-RI-O… DA-RI-O… DA-RI-O…” He splits the shots, and the spotlight falls back on Embiid. Still looking for his first bucket, he takes advantage of a mismatch with swingman Andre Roberson and hits a nifty turnaround shimmy jumper over him from 16 feet for his first NBA points. The crowd goes bananas, and Embiid runs down the floor spinning his ringer in the air in a circular motion to indicate the move he’d just put on Roberson. Moments later, he swats Russell Westbrook at the rim, bringing the crowd to its feet. As he comes off the floor at the 7:47 mark of the first quarter, Embiid receives the first of roughly eight standing ovations he would get during the game.
Drunk off Embiid’s flashes of brilliance (and probably Bud Light), a man sitting courtside decides to get into it with Russell Westbrook, flipping double birds at the five-time All-Star and yelling in his face after Russ finishes a particularly nasty and-1 finish. Security escorts the man out of the building moments later.
Early in the second quarter, Joel Embiid returns to the floor with the Sixers up 36-29. Again he receives an ovation from the crowd, and after a controversial blocking foul call at the basket goes against him, the entirety of the Philly crowd begins chanting “trust the process,” something that almost assuredly never before happened at the Wells Fargo Center. This isn’t just a select group of fans, this is almost everyone in attendance.
The phrase, once the rallying cry of a niche group of Hinkie supporters who wholeheartedly embraced his aggressive rebuilding strategy, has recently been co-opted by Embiid. Not only has he adopted “The Process” as his nickname on Instagram, but he also apparently attempted to convince Sixers PA announcer Matt Cord to refer to him as “The Process” during player introductions.
In the surreal moment that was this first game, it didn’t matter whether you stanned for Hinkie and his rebuilding plan the way his internet disciples did or only recently jumped back on board with the team after three years of apathy. What mattered instead was that Joel Embiid was playing basketball, and ESPN was nice enough to broadcast it nationally.
When all was said and done, Joel Embiid had scored 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds with two blocks in just 22 minutes of action, a fantastic debut game for a player who hadn’t played a meaningful game since Derek Fisher was still lacing ‘em up. The Sixers lost the contest 103-97, but even with the team surrendering the battle, it appeared clear that they are moving towards one day winning the war.
Sitting at his locker after the game, Embiid shifts between answering questions in English and his native tongue, French, as a foreign reporter asks him about his family back in Cameroon. The 22-year-old tells him that his parents had watched the game on television, staying up late despite the 1 a.m. local start time in his hometown of Yaoundé.
“It was great. [The fans chanted] ‘trust the process,’ ‘MVP,’” Embiid joyfully recalls about his first meaningful NBA game. “You know, ‘trust the process,’ that’s my motto…[The trainers told me] I could only play 20 minutes. I felt like I could play more, but I’ve got to trust the process, got to trust those guys.”
after a controversial blocking foul call at the basket goes against him, the entirety of the Philly crowd begins chanting “trust the process.”
Saric struggled from the floor in his first game as a Sixer, going 2-for-12 from the field but contributing in other ways, pulling down seven rebounds and dishing out a pair of assists to go with five points in 27 minutes. Despite his obvious disappointment about his debut performance, he expresses excitement about his future with the team and about Embiid.
“It was so nice see the fans. They help us a lot, and I hope they will come, like, same number next games,” he says in his adorably broken brand of English. “They wait for us two years. Joel because of injury, I decide to stay two years in Europe. And it was nice, you know, when the fans, the people loves you like that, support you like that…I love [Joel Embiid] so much. He can be, like, unbelievable player. He got everything—shot, low-post game, he can shoot the three for big man...Believe me, he will be big player.”
After three years of impressively dutiful and exceedingly patient rebuilding, the Sixers and their fans finally have something tangible to hold onto this season. They may not win many games, but the foundation is in place, and the seeds have been planted. The process of rebuilding the Philadelphia 76ers is far from over, but that process will be a lot more fun with Embiid and Saric in the fold.