• Olivier Auguste

Serge Ibaka's Journey to The North


Photo Courtesy: IG - Serge Ibaka

The Toronto Raptors have held the best record in the NBA for most of the season. Nearing the half-way mark of the NBA calendar, The North became the first team to reach 30 wins. They've defeated the defending champion Golden State Warriors twice already, quietly balancing injuries and rest.

Organized chaos is something Serge has become accustomed to, a byproduct of his tumultuous upbringing. He understands how to weather the storm, rally his troops, and fulfill whichever role is needed in order to get the job done.

Serge Ibaka in Toronto, Ontario, Canada makes sense. A world-class citizen residing in a city widely known for its many cultures from around the globe. Each one with the ability to coexist and cultivate one another. There is enough spice, flavor, and variety of life––he fits right in. His Raptors squad parallels the sentiment. A testy front office risking it all to win now, a stoic force in Kawhi Leonard looking to reclaim his dominance, and cohesive play courtesy of a youthful core. Serge has been here before, recognizing the environment and thriving amidst the madness.

It took the journeyman some time and travel across the world before settling in the way he has in the north. His experiences serve as the bedrock for who he is and how he transcends basketball with genuine connections. Serving tremendous purpose both in his life and on the basketball court, the camaraderie has pushed him through. It wasn't always so peaceful

The 6'10" center was born in the capital of the Republic of Congo, in Brazzaville. He has a Congolese-Spanish nationality and is of African and Spanish descent. His father, Desiree Ibaka played professionally throughout Africa. He represented the national team for the Republic of Congo.

His number 9 jersey is an ode to the elder Ibaka, who donned the number most of his career. Serge’s mother, Amadou Djonga, represented the national team of the Democratic Republic of Congo––the country formerly known as Zaire. He was destined for this game of basketball.

Although he began playing at a very young age, political warfare and strife ravaged his homeland. He lost his mother at only 8-years-old, she died of natural causes. The Second Congo War began days before his ninth birthday. He meditates and gives thanks with every breath, especially before games.

One of the deadliest wars in modern African history, it included eight African nations and more than 5 million deaths. His father worked on a port across the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo and was imprisoned for being on the wrong side of the country. Serge then lived with his grandmother, Christine Djonga until his father’s release.

When the dust settled years later, he focused on the game that gave him purpose. Upon his father's release and reunion, the two committed to learning the sport. With Desiree's guidance and support came the fabric of his style of play. A homemade recipe of bruising athleticism blended with the fundamentals and a natural physique courtesy of his strong family gene pool.

The NBA was still years removed from opening its NBA Academies, a concentrated effort to expand the game of basketball around the globe. The program nurtures young athletes while providing an education, trailblazing a path to the NBA via professional play, the NCAA, or G League play.

He ran through local clubs and tournaments, ultimately tapping scout's attention affording an opportunity to move to Europe. Serge was 17-years-old when he signed his new lease on life. He soon called France and Spain home, developing with DKV Joventut during the 2006-07 season. The NBA Academies opened in 2013 focusing on player development in China, India, and the continent of Africa.

Ahead of his time, Serge focused on the game of life. His education stemming from his father and lessons around the world. He speaks four-and-a-half languages fluently. English, French, Spanish, and Lingala––a Bantu language spoken throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo. The half is Catalan reigning from Barcelona. Serge teaches himself the Spanish language and builds on what he learned while in Spain.

Thunder GM Sam Presti garnered enough intrigue based on his work ethic, story, and focus. His play with Hospitalet's senior team in the ACB Division and performance in privately organized workouts sealed the deal. Ibaka is the third-youngest of 18 siblings, although he only grew up with ten of them. His homeland is known for its distinct palette and flavorful cuisine. He has always admired the fellowship that comes with tight-knit family and friends. He shared the sentiment years ago while playing with the Oklahoma City Thunder––the organization who drafted him with the 24th overall pick in the 2008 draft.

“Family pride is very important to me, which is also a common thing in Africa. You grow up with a strong sense of family––we took care of each other.” he shared with NewsOK upon joining the Thunder.

This still rings true today and it's evident in his style of play. He is consistent in his commitment to a unified effort on the defensive end, often leading the brigade every possession.

A bruising presence, imposing frame, and an athletic prowess allow him to facilitate plays for his teammates. Pick-and-pop action, a hard dive to the basket, or a solid screen––he’s always there for you in some capacity. His presence in the locker room comes from the heart and his teammates seem to appreciate the fraternal bond he is constantly nurturing.

Despite finishing in the top of the Eastern Conference the last few seasons, the Raptors haven't found much success in the playoffs––toppled by The King year after year. The acquisition of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green came with some disdain, mostly from their cornerstone point guard Kyle Lowry. The move has proved successful up to this point, scraping the best record in the league and great improvement from their core players.

With veteran leadership in tow from Serge, Danny Green, Kyle Lowry, and company––younger players like OG Anunoby, Fred Van Vleet, and Delon Wright have blossomed in the team dynamic. Pascal Siakam has already solidified a case for the Most Improved Player of the year award. Adding arguably the best two-way player in the game will boost your offensive and defensive ratings. Kawhi Leonard is averaging a career-best 27.2 points per game while also providing a solid MVP campaign.

With Jonas Valanciunas out with a thumb injury until presumably the end of January, Serge has filled the center position. He's adjusted well over the years. At 16.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game on 53.9 percent shooting from the field and 80.2 percent shooting from the free throw line, he's been an effective on the floor.

Capable of spreading the floor and knocking down the three, he is always a threat on both ends of the court. He reinforces their defense and enhances their offense, a complimentary piece capable of finishing plays at a high level.

Serge embraces the world view he's earned in his time as it's citizen, mastering the nuance of charming his teammates and intimidating opponents. There's a quirky relationship brewing between he and Kawhi. Never afraid to speak his mind, he has been vocal in his desire to retain his new teammate, keeping him in Toronto.

“We need him to stay,” Ibaka shared with Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix. “He keeps everybody safe—no one is safe if he leaves.”​ President Masai Ujiri certainly wants to keep Kawhi up north as well, but will do anything to construct a championship roster.

"I have a mandate to win a championship," Ujiri told Mannix. "You can't continue doing the same thing over and over again. We gave a chance to that team, we tried to build it as much as we can."

Serge has seen the potential of a championship dynasty falter and wither before. His Oklahoma City Thunder team housed three future league MVPs and a two-time Finals MVP. It's why he does all he can to keep it in the family, to keep it together. Although a champion in his own right, he recognizes the same de facto determination in Leonard as he did in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

This time around, he is pleading the former Finals MVP to stay––even working on Kawhi's guest appearance on his digital series, How Hungry Are You? With the same passion for food, it’s only right Serge has invited his closest friends into his world of exotic cuisine and the finer delicacies in life.

Guests have already included the bench mob of the Toronto Raptors, veterans Danny Green and Jonas Valanciunas, ESPN's Cari Champion, fellow Congolese native Bismack Byombo, Romelo Lukaku of Manchester United F.C., and of course San Antonio Spur DeMar DeRozan (he claimed a 50-point outburst in their first encounter, but instead manifested his first ever triple-double and the victory).

The honor comes with devouring lamb brains, fish eyes, worms, and a pig's head so far. You never know what to expect on Mafuzzy Chef's dinner table. This is the camaraderie and brotherhood Serge craves, bringing together his teammates and friends over the warm sentiments, laughter, and excitement of a home cooked meal.

This very innate, burning desire might be enough to push the Raptors far beyond where they've ever been. Given his experiences, Serge wants to keep this family close on and off the court, reaching its full potential.

Olivier Auguste is an NBA lifestyle writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter for more insight on hoops, music, and the culture we love.

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