PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid had to do it like the kids on the playground, a yell of “Kobe!” as he shot a fadeaway in the one-night-only number 24 jersey he wore for his basketball idol.
Embiid buried the bucket to give him a tidy 24 points — and yes, eight defensive rebounds — in a sombre night in Philly dedicated to Kobe Bryant.
Embiid returned early from a hand injury, in part to help the Sixers in their push for a better playoff seed in the East, but also because he wanted to honour Bryant. Embiid was a teen in Africa when he first got hooked on basketball watching Bryant in the 2010 NBA Finals. Bryant’s style and swagger inspired the seven-foot Embiid to give up volleyball and convince his father he had a new direction in his promising athletic career.
“That was the turning point in my life,” Embiid said. “It was watching Kobe. After watching, I just wanted to be like him.”
Wearing number 24 in honour of Bryant, Embiid powered Philadelphia to a 115-104 win over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday.
Embiid and the rest of the Sixers wore number 24 and number eight Bryant jerseys in warmups in honour of the Los Angeles Lakers star, who was killed last Sunday in a helicopter crash. Embiid was granted permission from Hall of Famer Bobby Jones to wear the retired number 24 instead of his usual 21 for his first game since he tore a ligament in a finger in his left hand.
“It was tough but that’s how you honour him, you go out there and you do your best,” Embiid said. “You work hard and you play through stuff.”
The Sixers went 6-3 without Embiid, the first Sixer to be voted to three straight All-Star Games since Allen Iverson.
Embiid had averaged 23.4 points and 12.3 rebounds in 31 games this season. Against the Warriors, Embiid played with a splint on his hand that didn’t affect him when he buried a three that sent the Sixers into halftime with a 59-54 lead.
“For his first game back, it was pretty impressive,” coach Brett Brown said.
Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons had “Mamba Forever” and “RIP Gigi” (for Bryant’s daughter, among the nine killed in the crash) on each sneaker and scored 17 points.
The Sixers were the latest team to honour Bryant in a pregame ceremony. Bryant led suburban Lower Merion High School to the Class AAAA state title at Hersheypark Arena in 1996, the school’s first since 1943. His framed number 33 Aces jersey was displayed at midcourt and the Sixers held a 33-second moment of silence of Bryant and the other eight victims in Sunday’s crash.
The Sixers rang a bell nine times and shone nine lights on the court during the solemn remembrance. The Sixers skipped pregame introductions for both teams and instead played a video of Bryant’s last introduction in Philadelphia in a December 2015 game and images of him with Allen Iverson and Julius Erving.
Yes, all teams have been affected by Bryant’s death, but it struck particularly hard in Philly, where the former NBA star had a turbulent relationship with Philadelphia. His high school coach Gregg Downer spoke to the media for the first time earlier in the day, and wore Bryant’s number 33 Lower Merion warmup jacket.
“Once both teams got going, then it felt like a regular game again,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “But it took a little while.”
The mood in the building also was tempered because the 10-win Warriors gave the Sixers a serious challenge. The Sixers were 12-point favourites but D’Angelo Russell, who scored a team-high 28 points, kept the Warriors within single digits for most of the fourth quarter.
Al Horford buried a number and Shake Milton followed with another to push it to a 16-point lead and send the Sixers on their way to a whopping 22-2 record at home.