Joel Embiid returns after hand surgery, wears No. 24 to honor Kobe Bryant

After missing nine games while recovering from hand surgery, Joel Embiid made his way back to the court on Tuesday night for the Philadelphia 76ers for their 115-104 win against the Golden State Warriors.

He made sure to honor Kobe Bryant in his return, too.

Embiid, who usually wears No. 21 for the 76ers, came out wearing Bryant’s No. 24. While Philadelphia already retired that number, in honor of Hall of Famer Bobby Jones, Embiid called Jones ahead of time to ask for permission to wear his number for Bryant.

“I got a call today from Joel. He explained to me how growing up in Africa Kobe was a guy who he looked up to as the star of American basketball at that time, and he is the player who made Joel want to play basketball,” said Jones, who played in the league from 1976-1986, via the 76ers. “I shared with Joel that Kobe, in addition to doing all that scoring, was a 12-time defensive player. I only made it 11 times, so there’s a lot of defense that goes into No. 24. I told Joel to play hard defense, because that is what the No. 24 represents in my mind.

“I thanked him for the call, and I’m glad he and I had the chance to talk.”

Embiid’s gesture was just one of many at Wells Fargo Arena on Tuesday night to honor Bryant — who, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, was one of nine people killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday morning just outside of Los Angeles.

The 76ers placed nine spotlights on the court before the game to honor all nine victims in the crash, and held a 33-second moment of silence — which was Bryant’s high school number at Lower Merion High School outside of Philadelphia — before ringing their ceremonial bell nine times. Philadelphia then showed Bryant’s final introduction as a Lakers player at Wells Fargo Arena.

Both teams also took the customary 24-second violation and 8-second violation to start the game, which has been common practice across the league in the wake of Bryant’s death.

Embiid wasn’t the only one who changed numbers on Tuesday, either. Zhaire Smith, who normally wears No. 8, switched to No. 7.

Embiid hasn’t played since he tore a ligament in his left ring finger earlier this month against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He underwent surgery just days later, though only missed nine games. He was wearing a protective brace on his left hand on Tuesday night.

To make the night even more special, Embiid finished with a double-double with a team-high 24 points and 10 rebounds. He hit the 24-point mark midway through the fourth quarter after drilling a turnaround jumper from the short corner.

Embiid, who grew up in Cameroon, said his love for Bryant was what got him into the sport in the first place.

“I think about where I came from and how I started playing the game,” Embiid said. “I go back to the first time I really watched basketball, which was in 2010, the [Lakers’ win in the] Finals against Boston, and that’s how I became a Kobe fan. I wanted to be like Kobe, and I wanted to play basketball.”

Raul Neto added 19 points for Philadelphia off the bench, and Ben Simmons finished with 17. D’Angelo Russell led the Warriors with 28 points and seven assists, shooting 6-of-12 from the 3-point line. Glenn Robinson added 20 points, and Marquese Chriss finished with 15 points.

Joel Embiid honored Kobe Bryant in his return to the court, one of many tributes for the fallen legend at Wells Fargo Arena on Tuesday. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

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