Olympic Games: NBA’s MVP Joel Embiid’s USA decision ‘very disappointing’ for Africa

BBC | Joel Embiid’s decision to represent the USA over his native Cameroon has left the African nation “legitimately annoyed”, according to a source at the country’s basketball governing body.

Embiid, the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player, confirmed on social media platform X on Friday that he will play for the United States at next year’s Olympic Games in Paris.

Cameroon were hopeful the Philadelphia 76ers star would choose the country of his birth, while France also had an interest after the 29-year-old centre received citizenship there last year.

“It’s annoying because many people thought he would choose Cameroon,” a source, who did not want to be named, at the Cameroon Basketball Federation (Fecabasket) told BBC Sport Africa.

“Embiid’s choice was legitimate and the reaction of Cameroonians, who are annoyed, is legitimate at the same time.”

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Liz Mills, who as Kenya coach became the first female to lead a men’s International Basketball Federation (Fiba) team, also vented her frustration at Embiid’s decision.

Mills, who was also the first woman to take charge of a team at the Basketball Africa League (BAL) with Morocco’s AS Sale, says Embiid’s decision is a missed opportunity for the entire continent.

“Imagine what impact he would have had if he had chosen Cameroon and how that would have reverberated right across Africa,” Mills wrote on X.

“It would mean so much more than helping the USA win another gold medal. Very disappointing decision.”

Embiid was born in Yaounde but was being heavily courted after rising to the top of the NBA. When making the announcement on Friday, he said that family had played a large part in his decision.

“I’m really proud and excited about this decision,” Embiid said in his post on X.

“It was not easy. I am blessed to call Cameroon, France, and the USA home. After talking to my family, I knew it had to be Team USA.

“I want to play with my brothers in the league. I want to play for my fans because they’ve been incredible since the day I came here.

“But most of all, I want to honour my son who was born in the US. I want my boy to know I played my first Olympics for him.”

Paris 2024 Olympic Games too big a pull

The USA are chasing a fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal in Paris but failed to win a medal at the FIBA World Cup in August.

Speaking at the 76ers media day last week, before revealing his decision, Embiid said his preference would have been to play for Cameroon if they were Olympic standard.

“Cameroon, I’m born there. I’m from there. I always want to represent my country, but the goal is also to play in Olympics,” he said.

“If we [Cameroon] qualified for the Olympics, that would be an easy decision, but that’s still up in the air, and I really do want to play in the Olympics.

“The US have been struggling the last couple of years trying to get back on the top.”

Cameroon will continue their qualifiers for the Olympics next year having beaten Senegal 80-74 in the final of the FIBA Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournament in Lagos, Nigeria in August.

Njie Enow, a Cameroon sports analyst, says the reactions across the country have echoed those outside of the United States.

“There’s a lot of disappointment amongst Cameroonian basketball fans and amongst sports lovers,” he told BBC Sport Africa.

“Cameroon is in the final round of qualifiers for the Olympics. You have some other Cameroonian talents in the NBA like Pascal Siakam and Christian Koloko, who both played for the Toronto Raptors.

“Fans felt that with Embiid coming to the national team, he probably would have attracted the other two players and Cameroon’s roster would have been stronger.

“The deeper issue with these reactions is down to the player himself. It is a common thing, especially in this era where many African basketball stars are going back to represent their country of origin.

“Jonathan Kuminga, after winning the NBA championship with the Golden State Warriors, went back to play with Democratic Republic of Congo.

“South Sudan’s basketball team were able to qualify for the World Cup and they will be going to the Olympics thanks to the foresight of Luol Deng.

“So one man with a vision has been able to impact the growth of the sport in the entire country and everyone is seeing how well they’re faring.”

Inspiring the next generation

Enow says one of the biggest frustrations for Cameroonians is that the centre was 16 before he was discovered at the type of camp that it was hoped Embiid would front while starring for the national team.

“It’s important to mention that this is a player who was scouted during the basketball camp that was organised by [former Houston Rockets star] Luc Mbah a Moute, who’s the second Cameroonian to be drafted into the NBA.

“We’ve not seen a basketball camp by Joel Embiid. Some of the courts where he played in Yaounde, they’re still there and they’re in worse shape than when he was there.

“This decision to represent the United States of America, instead of Cameroon, where he grew up for the first 16 years of his life, is what has caused all of this controversy and all of these reactions.

“[It was] felt that he could take up the leadership role within Cameroonian basketball, especially because Embiid is from a sports family.

“His father, Thomas Embiid, used to be the captain of Cameroon’s handball team, his uncle used to be the head coach of Cameroon’s volleyball team, and most of his uncles play professional basketball -some of them played for the national team. And so it’s disappointing not to see him play for Cameroon.”

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