BOSTON -- Philadelphia 76ers superstar Joel Embiid said the chances of someone like him -- who started playing basketball in his native Cameroon at the age of 15 -- winning the NBA's Most Valuable Player Award are "probably negative zero," but that it is proof that "improbable doesn't mean impossible."
Embiid was named the winner of the league's top individual honor Tuesday night, claiming 73 of 100 first-place votes to finish ahead of Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, who had beaten Embiid for the award in each of the past two seasons.
"It's hard to win this league; it's hard to be successful in this league," Embiid said after Philadelphia's shootaround at TD Garden ahead of Wednesday's Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics. "There's a reason why these are the best basketball players in the world. And to be sitting here and feel like I won something as far as the Most Valuable Player is great. But then again, it's also part of my story because I've always felt like I was a role model -- especially to my Cameroonian people and my African people -- and I feel like, just looking at my story, they can look at it and be like, 'Wow, he did it.'
"Probably the probability of someone like me, starting playing basketball at 15, to get the chance to be the MVP of the league is, I'd say, probably negative zero. ... We don't have a lot of opportunities back in Africa in general to get to this point. But improbable doesn't mean impossible, and you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. As long as you believe in it, and you know, keep working hard, anything can happen."
After being particularly disappointed over not being MVP last season, Embiid repeatedly said throughout the 2022-23 season that it wasn't something he was focused on anymore -- though he admitted Wednesday those comments were half-hearted, at best.
Embiid said he was invested in winning the award -- something he has said he has dreamed about since he started playing basketball -- as part of his desire to accomplish everything he can in the sport, including winning championships.
"I think a lot of people have this misconception of the difference between being competitive and wanting to win everything possible," Embiid said. "I don't want to win this award because it's just the MVP. I want to win it because it means a lot to me. I went through a lot and that's just a validation of everything, the sacrifices and everything you went through just paying off in some ways.
"Obviously winning a championship is going to be way better and we have that opportunity. But I'm just competitive. I want it all. I want to win everything that I can get my hands on and everybody around me knows that. It doesn't matter if it's about basketball or if you're playing a game in life or whatever. I want to win everything. I want to be first."
Embiid has certainly taken a singular journey to winning the honor. After his late introduction to the sport and then arriving to the United States, he eventually starred at Kansas for a season. He then missed the first two seasons of his NBA career with foot injuries -- a period during which his brother, Arthur, tragically died -- before finally making his debut in the 2016-17 season.
Since then, Embiid has blossomed into a dominant two-way center and one of the most skilled players in the league.
He also became the first MVP winner to have participated in a Basketball Without Borders camp. Embiid credited Luc Mbah a Moute, a former NBA player from Cameroon who is a close friend, for helping him reach this point.
"We were just talking about the whole journey of what it took for me to be here and it just feels amazing," Embiid said. "Being a role model and mainly to my African people, that's the best of all, because I want us to succeed.
"For us to usually achieve something, we have to work twice as hard as everybody else, and I want them to understand that we can do it. It's possible. You just got to be a little bit lucky, but it's possible. If you get this opportunity, you got to just keep going and believing your goals and it's going to happen."
long overdue, well deserved... #Uno pic.twitter.com/UM4QzmVSVQ— James Harden (@JHarden13) May 3, 2023
Embiid also credited his teammates, whom he asked to be with him Tuesday night when it was announced he was the winner, for helping him achieve this goal. He specifically credited James Harden, who hugged him and presented Embiid with a gold Rolex watch that had "MVP 23" inscribed on the back.
"I think since he's been here, he won't tell me, but I think he kind of made it his goal for me to be the MVP," Embiid said of Harden. "He's given up a lot. I've always said he is the best playmaker I've ever played with, and he's the best playmaker probably in the NBA.
"He was just extremely happy for me, just like all [of my teammates] were. And that meant a lot for me. That meant a lot to me, to know that your teammates care about you as much as I care about them."