Joel Embiid is, for now, one of the most popular professional athletes in the United States. He is one of the most exciting young players in the NBA, and one of the funniest characters currently at large in popular culture.
Everybody loves Joel Embiid, which is a sure sign that most people will soon hate him.
“People love you at the beginning,” Embiid explains. “But at some point they’re gonna start hating you. LeBron. Russell Westbrook. All the superstars. Even Steph. He’s so likable. He does nothing wrong, but some people still hate him. It just comes with the nature of it. I’ve seen it.
“I feel like I’m about to go through it. I think it’s coming. People always want something new.”
Embiid said this in a profile by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, revealing a level of comprehension about the American fame cycle that is as startling to see from a 23-year-old native of Cameroon as it is to see a eurostep from a 7-footer.
Despite his popularity, Embiid is still an outsider in all this, a guy who was well into his teens before he moved to the U.S. and became a basketball player. That gives him certain advantages when it comes to analyzing or trolling American culture, and he has shown uncommon dexterity in doing so.
But he has never been more correct than when he said people will eventually turn on him even if he remains unchanged. People will say they are “tired of his act” or that he “needs to grow up.” Invariably, he will at some point do something that crossed “the line.” Perhaps a veteran player will even throw some gasoline on the fire. All of these will sound like real arguments, but in actuality they will amount to a chorus of people saying, “I want something new.”
“Because I want it.”
That little inflection point comes as an unexpected twist for a lot of athletes, because they don’t think of themselves as pop stars, even though that’s essentially what they are. Athletes who become pop stars in the manner of Embiid do so because they (consciously or not) represent something vaguely counter-cultural.
But as with an indie band that gets too big, that’s only good for as long as that player is on the come-up. The moment the counter-culture becomes the culture, it becomes a commodity, then a cartoon, and, as Lenny Bruce said, “There’s nothing sadder than an aging hipster.”
Pretty soon we’re all going to hate Joel Embiid, and it’s going to have nothing to do with him.
The Big Lead