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Why Joel Embiid had to back out of starring in "Uncut Gems" with Adam Sandler

The Safty brothers revealed Embiid had the role, but even he wasn't their first choice - they originally had a Knicks star in mind.
Adam Sandler and Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid

Adam Sandler and Joel Embiid

“Uncut Gems” starred Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves legend Kevin Garnett, who earned critical praise for playing himself as a superstitious baller bewildered by a mysterious opal. Interestingly, Garnett wasn’t even supposed to star in the film. One of the filmmakers revealed that Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers was attached to the production for a long time.

Ethiopian opal

According to Josh Safdie, who wrote and directed the film with his brother Benny, Embiid — as someone who hailed from Africa — fit the perfect character profile they were looking for. It’s a great choice, especially with Embiid’s Cameroonian accent, which hasn’t been Americanized yet. It would’ve added an interesting layer of characterization.

It was Joel Embiid for a very long time. Joel made sense for the themes of the movie. It’s about this Ethiopian opal that gets smuggled into the city and this African player was going to basically reclaim it, and it was going to empower him. And then the schedule pushed into the season. We couldn’t use an active player anymore,” Josh Safdie, per The Ringer’s NBA Desktop.

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The Safdies started writing the film sometime in 2009. Adam Sandler was already their choice to play the protagonist, but his manager rejected the screenplay. So Sandler did not even get a chance to read the script. While trying to lure in Sandler, they were also trying to secure who’ll play the superstitious baller in their story.

The first choice

There were other names attached to the film. Even before Kevin Garnett and Joel Embiid, Ama’re Stoudemire was the first choice. The Safdies were looking for a particular player who had an interesting background. Stoudemire, who the Safdies observed was highly spiritual, fit the bill for the supporting role.

It started with Amar’e Stoudemire, who was a Knicks player in 2010. That’s when we started the project. He’s famously a Black Jewish person, so the themes of the movie presented themselves in that way: Ethiopian Jewish tribe. Beta Israelites,” Josh Safdie told Vulture. “Black opals, which were found by a Jewish tribe in the Beta Israelites in Welo mines. Amar’e is a very spiritual person. He calls himself the ‘spiritual gangster.’”

It’s an interesting little trivia. It shows the Safdies knew exactly what they wanted but had to remain open to other possibilities. We’ll never know how Embiid or Stoudemire would’ve fared in the film. But we can all agree that Garnett did a splendid job, even though he wasn’t the first choice. 

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