Sometimes it seems like Joel Embiid is a ghost, as if he exists more as an idea than an actual person. After suffering a stress fracture in his back during his one and only season at the University of Kansas, Embiid was discovered (by the Cleveland Cavaliers during pre-draft workouts in 2014) to have an ailing right foot. He would eventually need two screws in his navicular bone. The Philadelphia 76ers knew about the injury, but they drafted Embiid No. 3 overall in 2014, understanding he would miss his entire rookie season. Then Embiid broke the same bone in his foot again, and we haven’t seen much of him since.
The idea of Embiid, though, is compelling: a big man who can move with grace, pairing whirling post moves and hook shots with the ability to step out to the elbow and even to the 3-point line and drain jumpers at a high rate. The idea of Embiid is why there’s a ripple on the internet whenever he is captured doing anything resembling physical activity. The idea of Embiid is why his appearance before a recent 76ers game (to get some pre-game work in) became the talk of the NBA.
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Amid rumors of an addiction to Shirley Temples and a distaste for rehab work, Embiid emerged from the Philly wilderness to run through an impressive 10-minute on-court workout, including one-footed jumpers, shimmy-shakes in the post, and bombs from several spots beyond the 3-point line. He looked surprisingly fleet of foot for a man who hasn’t played since entering the NBA, leaving many to wonder what’s been going on behind the scenes.
As it turns out, according to a piece on ESPN, Embiid had just got off a 12-hour flight from Qatar, where he spent his days at a facility called Aspetar. According to its website, Aspetar is “the first specialized orthopedic and sports medicine hospital in the gulf region,” providing “the highest possible medical treatment for sports-related injuries in a state-of-the-art facility, staffed by some of the world’s leading sports medicine practitioners and researchers.” The site also states that 20 players who appeared in the 2014 FIFA World Cup spent time at Aspetar, and the facility has served 15,000 athletes in total.
Aspetar offers all sorts of services, from sports psychologists to performance nutrition to athlete screening that allows doctors to see what areas of an athlete’s body might be problematic.
Embiid rehabbed and received treatment there, off the radar and out of the country, at the behest of the 76ers’ sports scientist Dr. David Martin. The 76ers have made sports science a priority within their organization. The entire team meditates after practices. The players fill out health questionnaires every day to inform the staff of their physical needs. The team tracks each player’s water intake to make sure they are consuming enough each day.
For Embiid specifically, the 76ers hired a personal chef to ensure that his dietary need for proline, an amino acid that promotes bone and tissue growth, is met. They serve him fresh-squeezed mango juice every day, Embiid’s personal favorite, so he can get the proper amount of Vitamin C.
The 76ers are dedicating a lot of time and effort to a player who hasn’t seen the court yet in his career, but that’s what the idea of Joel Embiid engenders. Sports science is the fuel that will ultimately create a basketball playing machine.