How Will Joel Embiid Stop Himself From Coughing Before Each Free Throw?

Joel Embiid — like every other athlete — has his own set of idiosyncrasies on the court. Will the NBA crack down?
Joel Embiid — like every other athlete — has his own set of idiosyncrasies on the court. Will the NBA crack down?
Photo: AP

Habits and superstitions are as much a part of the NBA experience as deception and dysfunction are in the White House. However, with COVID-19, everything has changed. There are certain aspects to players’ games that must be addressed.


Joel Embiid’s style scores about as much notice as his aggressive play. The dynamic Sixers center likes to amp up the crowd with his antics, while making like a plane after posterizing an opponent. The clever Cameroonian loves to get under his opponents’ skin.

However, the most dominant center in the game must dial it down a bit in Orlando, or the bubble that surrounds Embiid and the rest of the NBA may be pricked.

Reining in the unpredictable master of NBA Twitter won’t be easy. But Embiid has to make some changes. The first big step is altering his action at the foul line. Embiid coughs into his right hand before every free throw. It’s so noticeable that I asked a sportsbook, before the season commenced, if they could add an over/under on how many times Embiid coughs.

The request looked like it was going to receive a thumbs up, but it went by the boards as there is no official cough-checker in the NBA’s statistics department.

Embiid can’t tangle with his nemesis Karl-Anthony Towns if they run into each other in Bubble town. And there will be no bro-hugs with his close pal Jimmy Butler if the Sixers face the Heat during the playoffs.

It’s not only Embiid who has to watch what he does on the court. LeBron James can’t resurrect his celebrated chalk toss, which is one of the coolest ways to start a game. All that chalk, from even the seemingly immortal hand of King James, is dangerous during COVID-19.


Germs will spread. Don’t be surprised as the COVID numbers increase if Embiid’s hilarious Hazmat suit becomes the bubble uniform. If uniforms aren’t altered beyond nameplate requests, those on the hardwood bubble will have to make some changes.

But it’s just not basketball players who must alter their behavior. It’s going to be even more difficult to change the habits of baseball players, as their season gets underway tonight. The diamond is soiled by tobacco juice stains.


Baseball players expectorate more often than llamas and porn stars.

When Rockies right fielder Charlie Blackmon was informed that spitting would be verboten, the hirsute All-Star couldn’t believe it. “Wait, what?” Blackmon told Sports Illustrated. “I’m 100 percent gonna spit. That’s ingrained in my playing the game. Whether or not I’m dipping or chewing gum. I’m still gonna spit. I have to occupy my mind. It’s like putting things on autopilot. You see it like with Hunter Pence, where he would constantly be adjusting his uniform. I don’t have this idle time where my consciousness wanders. I fill my time with thought processes that are like cruise control.”


Braves pitcher Josh Tomlin concurs with Blackmon. “If I’m spitting, I don’t remember spitting,” Tomlin informed Sports Illustrated.

What fans fail to realize is that these walking corporations aren’t robots. Good luck telling the elite athletes to junk what has become second nature. Embiid probably doesn’t realize he coughs into his hand before every free throw. His ritual is akin to Jason Kidd blowing kisses before he attempted a shot from the line. That’s just what he does.


Athletes do weird things when they play, and it was cool before the pandemic ended life as we once knew it. Part of the fun will be how the referees and other league authorities in Florida will police Embiid, and whomever else, for giving into muscle memory.

All I know is that it will be entertaining. That reminds me of the profound perspective the comic iconoclast and unparallelled philosopher George Carlin hit me with during a 2005 chat.


“The whole world is a freak show. When you’re born you get a ticket to the freak show. It’s a circus, a cavalcade of entertainment. You should have fun with it.”

Carlin couldn’t be more spot on now since it’s more of a freak show than ever. Just look at the difference with what truly matters and what people desperately want in America.


And then there is the big picture. A pandemic is ravaging the world and there are billionaire owners and millionaire players who are worried about being paid. It reminds me of another quote from Carlin about how insignificant it all is. I asked Carlin if it ever bothered him that Hollywood either ignored him or offered him boring, predictable parts.

“The reality is that I don’t give a crap. I’m way out past the orbit of Pluto in my mind. It’s all a distant event, a drop in time. You know none of this matters at all.”