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Joel Embiid’s decision to play for USA and not Cameroon has no room for criticism

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2024 USAB Men’s Portraits
Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Who Embiid plays for at the Olympics has become the stupidest internet argument.

The 2024 Olympic games in Paris is going to be a statement for Team USA men’s basketball. Years of hearing how the “world is catching up” and one year removed from a pathetic fourth place showing at the FIBA World Cup has lit a fire under the United State to prove its still the dominant global force in basketball, and that nobody can touch Team USA when it sends its best players.

Couched in the discussion of global basketball in Paris is Joel Embiid, who has chosen to represent Team USA at the games. A Cameroon national who moved to the USA at age 16, Embiid’s participation in the games is being slammed on social media, fueled by accounts with large followings branding Embiid’s decision as “taking the easy way out.”

Is there anything to this? Is it fair to label Embiid as a medal-chaser? No — and also no.

Comparing Joel Embiid and Jose Alvarado is utterly hilarious

In the above tweet, which has been liked over 35,000 times and shared almost 4,000 times it positions Jose Alvarado as a paragon of virtue for lifting Puerto Rico up by its bootstraps, while Embiid simply accepted a position on a team that was given to him.

Here’s the problem: Alvarado wasn’t born in Puerto Rico. He was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Queens — and didn’t accept an invite to join Puerto Rico until 2022, when he was actively recruited by national team manager Carlos Delfino.

Alvarado has Puerto Rican heritage through his father, but has no further connection prior to 2022 when he was actively courted by the team to play for them. Of course, none of this really matters either because ...

Nationality and ethnicity are social constructs

Anthropologists and sociologists have agreed on this point in peer-reviewed journals as early as the 1960s. The essential argument is that geopolitics and colonialism have no fundamental bearing on which ethnic groups or nationalities that someone identifies with.

This was of particular prevalence during more overt colonial periods where nations were under clearer foreign occupation and governance, such as England’s control over India, Dutch rule in South Africa, and Eastern Bloc states which were part of the USSR.

In these cases native, indigenous people rarely identified with their occupiers socially, culturally, or anthropologically, which led to a school of thought which mandated that personal identity was far more important to ethnicity and nationality than simply a factor of where someone was born.

Now, Embiid might considered a more extreme case since he didn’t move to the USA until age 16, but that’s of no consequence sociologically. He has lived his entire adult life in the United States, he has chosen to raise a child here, in two years time he will have spent more time in the USA than he did in Cameroon. If he personally identifies as “American,” then that’s all that matters.

The history of Olympic basketball is LITTERED with examples of this far more extreme that Joel Embiid

Part of what makes the Embiid story more pronounced was a global “courtship” of sorts, which saw Cameroon, USA, and France all being potential teams Embiid would join. A driving force behind much of the ire isn’t coming from Cameroon (which didn’t qualify for the Olympics in the first place), but France, who feels like they were spurned by Embiid when he was granted French citizenship and expected to play for the host nation, only to change his mind and join Team USA.

Essentially we have a 30-year-old NBA MVP whose country of birth didn’t qualify for the Olympics, and he was coveted by numerous countries. In the past we’ve seen some frankly hilarious examples of players representing other countries for the Olympics either because their birth country didn’t qualify, they had no chance of getting on Team USA, or they believed their medal chances were better playing for another nation.

  • In 2008 Chris Kaman (then with the Los Angeles Clippers) was granted German citizenship shortly before the Beijing games to play alongside Dirk Nowitzki. Kaman was born in Michigan, neither of his parents were born in Germany, and the only tie he had to the country was through his great grandmother. Kaman played for Germany in the Olympics despite being unable to speak any German.
  • Serge Ibaka played for Spain in the 2012 London Olympics. Ibaka was born in the People’s Republic of the Congo, lived there until he was 18, and began his basketball career in Congo. He elected to obtain Spanish citizenship because he liked it when he played there from age 18-22, before he entered the NBA Draft.
  • For the 2020 Olympics Jahlil Okafor played for Nigeria. He was born in Arkansas, raised in Chicago, and played for Team USA as a junior from 2010 until 2013. It wasn’t until he got to the NBA and it became clear he wasn’t good enough to make the Team USA senior team that he decided to play for Nigeria in Tokyo.

All of the above were accepted as fine, largely because they were mid-tier players and not elite NBA superstars. Still, this doesn’t change the fundamental fact that people have been choosing their nationalities forever when it comes to the Olympic games.

This is a chance for Embiid to win something

It’s unclear what the future holds in basketball for Joel Embiid. The Sixers once again figure to be in the mix for an NBA championship — especially with the addition of Paul George, but that has also been the case for much of Embiid’s career. Philadelphia routinely fall short of expectations, and now as injuries rear their head and Embiid rounds 30 there’s a very good chance the Paris Olympics will be his best chance to win a major team award in basketball.

Trying to dunk on Embiid for not representing Cameroon is dumb. It’s been established that ethnicity and nationality are a personal decision which shouldn’t be defined by geographic boundaries — and even if they were there’s been an established history of players competing for other nations when it comes to the games.

At the end of the day Embiid is free to play where he wants in the Olympics, and while there was a prolonged process to work out where he would play, we don’t get to decide if he’s worthy of representing Team USA. That’s up for Embiid and the selection committee to decide, and they made their decision.


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