Serge Ibaka: Defying The Odds – Becoming an NBA Star
How Toronto Raptor Serge Ibaka escaped poverty in the Republic of the Congo to become an NBA sensation.
The evening brims with excitement as Dolce takes to Toronto’s swanky hotel and residence, One King West for an exclusive with one of Toronto’s most celebrated athletes, Raptor Serge Ibaka.
Serge Ibaka’s story begins in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, a far stretch from the fast-paced, glamorous life of an NBA superstar. For Serge Ibaka, a childhood of poverty and struggle would be the driving force behind his motivation to succeed. In fact, it is in these humble beginnings that the Toronto Raptors’ power forward discovered his greatness.
The streets of the Congo are much like those of any third-world country: poverty-stricken and filled with adversities. Ibaka has shared memories of his harsh upbringing, one that includes children like himself suffering from malnutrition and selling water on the streets just to support themselves and their families — and often that was not enough. For those of us living in Western countries, these visuals and stories remind us the value of life and how fortunate we are to have basic necessities such as water, food and shelter.
Famed writer Elbert Hubbard once said, “The final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without resentment.” Often those who go on to achieve greatness are ridiculed for their extreme beliefs and out-there behaviour. This is especially true for Ibaka, who against all odds, ignored the taunts of his peers and generated the strength to push his mind and body to limits most cannot fathom. Despite adversities, Ibaka woke up every morning at 4 a.m. to go for runs knowing that with every step, he was building and shaping the NBA superstar he would soon become.
“If I didn’t wake up to go run, I wouldn’t be here right now. During those runs, while everyone else was sleeping, I knew I had to do something different from the rest to have a different future. People would make fun of me and tell me it was worthless. But in my mind, I always had a vision and a goal,” recalls Ibaka.
Ibaka suffered a series of losses in his life and used basketball as an escape. At eight years old, he lost his mother due to natural causes. Soon after, civil unrest in the country boiled over into the Second Congo War causing Ibaka’s family to flee the area. Upon returning to Brazzaville, Ibaka’s father was arrested for straying on the wrong side of the battlefield. Ibaka was left to live with his uncles, but then was turned out to live on the street.
“My father was a big inspiration, because he was a basketball player too. He was hard on me and pushed me a little bit, but he didn’t pressure me to play, as basketball runs in our family’s veins,” says Ibaka.
“It’s all about never forgetting where you come from. Every day I give thanks to God for the life he has given me, and I reflect on everything I have gone through — that is the key to living a balanced life. Enjoy what you have, but be aware that the most important things in life can’t be bought”
At the young age of 17, a move to Spain to play with second division basketball club CB L’Hospitalet would be Ibaka’s big break — and the place where NBA scouts quickly took notice of their next protégé.
On June 26, 2008, Ibaka was selected as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 24th pick in that year’s NBA draft, becoming the first player from the Republic of the Congo to be selected in the draft. He had a long career with the Oklahoma City Thunder (2009–2016) and went on to play for the Orlando Magic (2016–2017) before eventually signing a three-year contract with the Toronto Raptors on July 7, 2017, for a reported $65 million.
“I felt a good connection with the team and the city right away,” says Ibaka. “I really enjoy Toronto. It has been a great fit for me because it’s a very multicultural city. Canadians have really embraced me, and I like how open and supportive the city and its people are. I love Toronto!”
While the 28-year-old is known for his skills on the court, the public is learning of another side of Ibaka that sets him apart from his peers: his philanthropic endeavours. While some might do charitable work for good karma, Ibaka has made it his life’s purpose. Using his own personal struggles while growing up as inspiration, Ibaka began the Serge Ibaka Foundation, which aims to inspire children around the world to believe in themselves, despite their circumstances.
Some of the foundation’s great achievements include working with UNICEF and renowned organizations such as the Starkey Hearing Foundation, which he partnered with in the summer of 2014 and 2016 to provide hearing aids to children in his hometown of Brazzaville.
“It’s all about never forgetting where you come from. Every day I give thanks to God for the life He has given me, and I reflect on everything I have gone through — that is the key to living a balanced life. Enjoy what you have, but be aware that the most important things in life can’t be bought,” says Ibaka.
Ibaka is optimistic about the future. His no-holds-barred approach to life drives him to learn, create and better the world around him.
“What’s next for me is to keep being hungry for more, in basketball and in life. I want to be a better player every season and to win a championship with the Raptors. Off the court, I want to do more business ventures and contribute to society with my foundation.”