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Trusting the process: the Sixers' plan to get Joel Embiid healthy

After Stephen Curry's, few pregame workouts generate the same type of anticipation as Sixers center Joel Embiid's. Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

THE MOST CAPTIVATING pregame show that doesn't star Stephen Curry can be found in Philadelphia.

In early March, about an hour before tipoff against the Miami Heat, Joel Embiid is working up a sweat with 76ers' strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright. Hundreds of Sixers fans stand in the lower bowl and gaze with their iPhones out filming the workout. Their 2014 draft pick is finally playing basketball again. And doing it brilliantly. This is the Philly fans' Bigfoot protruding from the woods.

Five makes in the paint standing on one foot, the same one that required surgery eight months ago. Then jumpers on both feet by the free-throw line; he makes 20 of 22. Then hook shots on the block with hard counters, left to right and then right to left. Then free throws and midrange jumpers. Then 3-pointers, where he effortlessly drains about 70 percent of his tries.

All of this is documented on Derek Bodner's nine-minute video he posted for Philadelphia Magazine. Embiid's workout has generated more than 100,000 views on YouTube. The last head coach Brett Brown postgame news conference clocked in with 257 views; it was dated Jan. 21, 2015. Bodner has stopped posting those since. The other day, a fan sent a direct message to Bodner on Twitter asking which courtside seat he should buy to get the best view of Embiid's workout.

What many 76ers fans uploading Embiid-centered Snapchats may not know is that their subject had just returned from Qatar -- yes, the Middle Eastern country whose national basketball team ranks 50th in FIBA world rankings. The Sixers flew him to Doha to rehab at a sports science facility and sports medicine hospital called Aspetar, on the advice of Philly's world-renowned sports scientist Dr. David Martin, who came from the Australian Institute of Sport last July after 30 years working in the land down under.

Two weeks after Martin took the job with Philadelphia, Martin was running errands when he got a phone call with the news of a worrisome Embiid MRI. Martin had never met Embiid, but nonetheless, he remembers being filled with emotion.

"It was a day that was very ... " Martin's voice trails off as if to carefully select the appropriate word.

" ... exciting," Martin says. Yes, exciting.

"It was disappointing for Joel; I don't want anyone to get hurt," Martin says. "But I kind of went home with the feeling like I had been preparing my whole life to help this guy."


The 76ers are awful. The team is currently mired in a 13-game losing streak, which isn't even their longest losing streak of the season. Their record is on pace to be one of the four worst in NBA history. Postgame news conferences exist as a mere formality.

Still, behind the scenes, the Sixers aren't going through the motions. Sending a rehabbing basketball player on a 12-hour flight to Hamad International Airport in the middle of the season? American athletes don't do this kind of thing. Which is precisely why the Sixers were intrigued by the idea. "The facilities are A+ all over the place," Brown says. "For us, it was an A+. For Joel, it was an A+. We wanted to go outside the box and do something creative and shake Joel's world up a little bit and make it exciting."

In Europe, it's common to send professional athletes to Aspetar, which was built in part to support future Olympic bids and the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which was awarded to Qatar in 2010. On its website, Aspetar boasts 15,000 registered athletes; 20 professional soccer players received treatment at Aspetar before playing in the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. If IMG Academy partnered with the Mayo Clinic, you'd have something like Aspetar.

But the biggest thing that Aspetar might offer is a place of familiarity for Embiid. For a French-speaking Cameroonian athlete who grew up playing soccer, a medical staff that widely speaks French is a little slice of home. Not only that, it's a whole lot nicer to be in Doha, Qatar, where the highs are in the upper 70s than in the harsh, dark winters of Philadelphia. "He bought in in a big way," Brown says of Embiid. "He is doing great. I feel like I see an older player, a more committed, excited player. The recognition that he hasn't played basketball in a while, he can't miss a bit, he can't miss a step. The circle of people we've put around him is massive."


When Martin met Cadel Evans, he had no idea the scrawny 18-year-old would one day win the Tour de France.

Evans was a teenage mountain biker who joined the Australian Institute of Sport on a scholarship when, in 1996, he posted the highest aerobic capacity -- a VO2 max of an astounding 86 ml/kg -- the AIS had ever tested. It hasn't been beaten since. In 2009, Martin presented a paper at a conference in Seattle that showed this Australian cyclist had better performance indicators than Lance Armstrong. Two years later, Evans won the Tour de France. Before Evans, an Australian had never finished in the top three in the 100 years of the competition.

It's hard not to draw the parallels with what the 76ers are trying to do and why they might be interested in Martin, who has been a part of five Olympics with Australia. The Sixers spent a year interviewing him and his colleagues at AIS. At first, the headhunter didn't tell Martin which NBA team was interested, just that one was looking for someone with Martin's credentials. Three months of interviews went by before he was even introduced to general manager Sam Hinkie and Brown.

"I don't think they called my mom and dad, but they checked with everyone else," Martin says.

The Sixers hired Martin in July as part of a three-year agreement to join the team. Within a few days, he was dispatched to come to Embiid's rescue. The Sixers found out about Embiid's troublesome MRI on Friday afternoon and by Saturday morning, Martin and Hinkie were on a flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles International Airport to meet with the doctor who diagnosed it. In the next few weeks, Embiid, Martin and the Sixers spoke with about a dozen doctors to decide which would be best for his full recovery. After Martin whittled the list down to two surgeons, Embiid made the final call to go with Dr. Martin O'Malley, who replaced two existing screws and performed a bone graft using bone from Embiid's hip.

Martin wasn't the only addition to the Sixers' staff. This past summer, the organization also added Todd Wright, a 14-year strength and conditioning coach from the University of Texas known for his nutritional expertise and work with Kevin Durant. Wright and Martin joined Philly's longtime strength and conditioning coach Jesse Wright (no relation) to spearhead the sports science initiatives built for long-term growth.

Martin points out it took Evans 15 years to go from VO2 max savant to Tour de France champion. Stockpiling with draft picks and long-shot gambles on the roster, the Sixers are likewise built for the long fix.

Even while they pile up losses by the dozen, they're seeking to assemble a sports science program that will be unrivaled in the NBA, with the largest practice facility in the NBA, slated to open in August, complete with basketball courts, lap pools, napping pods and state-of-the-art kitchens. But first, Martin would have to learn how basketball differs from cycling.


Ask Martin how he's approaching his new job, and he talks about college campuses. Imagine a university trying to decide where to build sidewalks for its students, he says. Where would you lay down the cement? Rather than concoct a blueprint, Martin says it's smarter to sit back and watch the students create their own paths on a grassy field. Once the natural flow creates beaten trails, the pavement goes down over it.

For weeks, Martin traveled with the Sixers during training camp, sleeping in the same hotel rooms, traveling on the same buses, setting the same alarms. He embedded himself to understand the rhythms of the game. He was looking for their beaten trails.

What he found was a travel schedule that makes it nearly impossible to maintain, as he calls it, a regular "sleep architecture."

What he learned was that NBA life is exhausting.

"This part has been a little bit of a readjustment for me," Martin says. "You get a feel for the rhythm of just logistical fatigues, just what wears people down. People talk about the games all the time -- the games are so hard and all that. But not a lot of the guys are playing in the games and those that do play in the games don't play that many minutes. Pack here, unpack there, go here, go there, meet here, go there, drive here, fly there. It wears you down. I'm learning how this NBA circus works.

"Sleep is magic in a bottle for an athlete," Martin says. "It is so underutilized as an agent of change and recovery. Cycling teams from the minute the bicycle goes across the finish line, we are thinking about how to get the guys fed, massaged and into bed."

"Instead of everyone going their separate ways, we have one spot we can go and just enjoy each other's company. It just continues to build the camaraderie that you need to be successful from year to year."

Steph Curry

Keeping this in mind that the Sixers are trying to implement recovery methods to combat the rigors of the 82-game schedule. Jesse Wright established meditation time after practice during training camp. Practice would end a few minutes early, and the players would lay down on their backs, feet resting on the bleachers, towels over their eyes. Through the speakers, players heard sounds of nature, birds chirping, ocean breezes. Other times, yoga music.

"I enjoy it," Jahlil Okafor says. "We just lay down and listen to music. We did not meditate at Duke."

Martin emphasizes the long term on this exercise, too. The Sixers are interested in building habits that can help them in other areas. For example, they hope that meditation will help them give them tools to mentally "turn off" at night and fall asleep faster after game nights, a common gripe of NBA players.

Point guard Isaiah Canaan played for the Houston Rockets, run by analytics pioneer and general manager Daryl Morey. Still, he'd never meditated before he came to Philadelphia. "It was different, definitely," Canaan says. "But I like it. It was a little chill down. You know, you're so amped up in practice and we take a beating. It gets you back to normal."

Okafor, who says he always figured the NBA was all about toughing it out through injuries, was taken aback by how deeply invested the Sixers have been in player health. "I always had this image in my mind in the NBA that if you're in the NBA, you just go about your business and if you're hurt, they still needed you to play, because there are other things involved. I was surprised to see how much [the Sixers staff] care about how you felt, if you're tired, if you had nick-nack pains and bruises. The second I got here, I met with the sports psychologist. They care about how we're feeling."

The Sixers have also implemented a daily health questionnaire, mirroring those that the Spurs and Warriors adopted in recent years.

"You know they're keeping track of everything that's going on," says guard Nik Stauskas. "And you feel safe knowing that if there is something wrong with you, they're going to catch it before you do."

They also track water intake by assigning each player a Gatorade bottle with his number on it, at the end of every practice and game, monitoring how much water the player consumes, customized to his hydration needs determined by a sweat test.

"Isn't it funny," Brown says, "that after all these studies after all these years, it still ends up with, did you sleep enough? And did you drink enough water? This is a recovery league. You better back it up."


Dating back to seminal work of Richard deCharms in 1968, numerous studies show that humans derive more satisfaction around a certain exercise if given a choice within the task. Call it the Burger King "Have It Your Way" theory. Consider a child that needs to eat vegetables. Instead of scooping broccoli onto a plate and saying "eat your veggies," it's more effective to ask the child to pick between broccoli, spinach and green beans. The sense of ownership and control over the decision makes a person more motivated to complete the task again, even if the task is as bland as a broccoli stem.

The Sixers have taken note. They offer four recovery stations after every game; every player must undergo one of the following: ice bath or cold tub; massage; NormaTec recovery boots; or one-on-one stretching. According to Brown, participation has skyrocketed.

"I feel like the Sixers are adding years onto my career," says Ish Smith, in the midst of his second stint with the team.

Elton Brand, who was signed in January, says he hasn't seen anything like it in his 17-year career. "Never," Brand says. "It's amazing. From sleep to sports science to recovery to nutrition, we have it all. I didn't know what to think coming in, you know, with the record. But every advantage you could possibly think of, this organization has it."

"I always had this image in my mind in the NBA that ... if you're hurt, they still needed you to play. The second I got here, I met with the sports psychologist. They care about how we're feeling."

Jahlil Okafor

When asked what he wishes he had at his disposal during his prime, Brand pointed to his back and mentions the 76ers wear Catapult devices to track their workloads in practice. The Sixers combine the Catapult practice data with algorithms from Second Spectrum to account for in-game workloads, informing them whether players are "too hot" to play in the next game, or whether they need to limit their minutes. "What I really like is the sports science stuff," Brand says. "The mobility and flexibility with the hips, especially. We were static, all powerlifting and squats, when I came in 17 years ago. Back then, it was basically Gold's Gym."


Embiid, of course, is no stranger to adversity. He's had two surgeries on his broken foot, jeopardizing his NBA career before it could begin. In the fall of 2014, his 13-year-old younger brother Arthur died in a car accident back home in Africa. On the one-year anniversary of his brother's death this past October, a lengthy Cauldron/Sports Illustrated report about Embiid's alleged attitude problems was published, generating headlines like the one found on Deadspin, "Joel Embiid Drinking Shirley Temples By The Pitcher Is Today's Great NBA Gossip."

Martin knows about the Shirley Temple thing. Embiid has told Martin that he has a thing for the sugary cocktail. Still, he says, "I've never seen him drink a Shirley Temple, I've never seen him drink 10 Shirley Temples, I've never seen him weigh 300 pounds," Martin says. "I have never seen that side of him at all."

The way Martin sees it, Embiid suffered from an availability problem. There is just too much junk food at a typical NBA player's disposal. "There's food everywhere," Martin says. "Everyone wants to be nice to the NBA player so food availability is high. If you're trying to lose weight and somebody keeps coming to your office and putting latkes and chocolate bars in front of you, that's not really fair is it? We're all human."

Martin notes that Embiid has a personal chef now who has curated a healthier menu with a dietician specifically catering to Embiid's taste and nutritional needs during rehab. The diet is enriched with proline, an amino acid that promotes bone and connective tissue growth. To get his Vitamin C, the Sixers had given him orange juice. Turns out, Embiid doesn't like orange juice, but he loves mango juice. Now, the Sixers squeeze their own mangos in-house.

The Sixers operate in the language of probability. Within that lives the understanding that all the Catapult gadgets and tracking technology in the world cannot replace the fact that that this is a people business, and the fate of the Sixers is subject to the whims of random luck and pingpong balls. They know Embiid's recovery could fail, no matter how smart their capital may be.

"Sometimes it's not knowing the solution, it's how to deliver the solution," Martin says. "That's where the magic is."

Martin brings up a cautionary tale about technologies and sport. In the 1970s, hospitals began using fetal heart rate monitors like a miracle technology as obstetricians for the first time could examine the heart rate of an unborn child. Doctors got feedback that they'd never seen before. But cesarean section deliveries skyrocketed by three or four times the normal rate because the obstetricians were seeing things they weren't ready for. Disease detection and care didn't improve, however. "The whole industry was worse off," Martin says.

The Sixers know the odds aren't inspiring on big men with foot problems, but when it comes to sports science, they've gone all-in. "Regardless of how it goes," Martin says, "we want to know that we played this card and we played our hand well."