• Gus Saltonstall

Pascal Siakam: Bafia, Religion, and a Father’s Legacy

Sports Illustrated

The casual NBA fan most likely didn’t know the name Pascal Siakam before the start of the 2018-19 NBA playoffs. Heck they might not have known his name before Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The name Siakam is officially here to stay after his huge Game 1 performance — 32 point, 8 rebound, 5 assist game on an incredible 82.4% shooting from the field. Kawhi Leonard was good, but Siakam was the undoubted star.

As Doris Burke grabbed Siakam for the post game interview, my thoughts drifted away from the master class performance the Raptors just put on. I realized I had never heard the man speak.

“Just doing it for my dad. Going out there every single night. Not worry about what’s going on. Just have a bigger purpose.”

Understanding the words in this small quote gives a window into the person Siakam is, and how he got to the position in the NBA he’s in today.

The third year player out of New Mexico State averaged 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists on a 54.9% shooting rate from the field. He’s the favorite to win the Most Improved Player in the league after only averaging 7.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists last season. Even more importantly he has a legitimate shot at winning an NBA Championship and being named the Finals MVP. His odds in the category went from +6000 to +850 after Game 1.

Siakam’s journey to get to this position can only be classified as one of the most impressive and unique in the NBA.

Siakam grew up in the small town of Bafia, Cameroon — some 80 miles away from the country’s capital. The youngest of four brothers Siakam was raised with religion at the forefront of his life. He had been “handpicked” by his family, and his father Tchamo, to embody his family’s Catholicism, according to an article by ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan.

Pascal came quickly though to believe that the church was not his calling. However, the word of his father had an incredible importance to Siakam.

“I would never go against his wishes,” Siakam says. “There isn’t a better man I’ve known in my life,” Siakam told ESPN.

Siakam stayed at the Seminar until he graduated in 2012. However, an event six months earlier would prove to be a life changing one.

Siakam incredibly didn’t start playing organized basketball until he was 18 years old. His late start to the game didn’t however mean that the sport wasn’t part of his life. All three of his older brothers had earned Division 1 scholarships to different programs in the United States. Siakam had also been given the gift of his body, with a 7-foot-3 wing span, the young man from Cameroon certainly had the frame to succeed at basketball.

Luc Mbah a Moute is the undoubted God Father of basketball in the NBA for the current generation. Much of the African talent in the NBA today was discovered at the free camps Mbah a Moute puts on throughout the continent to help the sport flourish.

In the summer of 2011 Siakam tagged along with friends to attend one of these camps. Not putting too much thought into the endeavor, the only reason he was able to gain entry was because of the basketball reputation of his family.

Pascal however immediately impressed scouts with his potential that first summer, and after his return to the camp the following year he was chosen to attend Basketball Without Borders. The selection was of great surprise to Siakam.

His performance at the BWB camp earned him a scholarship to God’s Academy in Lewisville, Texas, and then one year later a scholarship offer to New Mexico State, according to MacMullan.

Siakam redshirted his first year, using the time to add skill to his incredible frame and athleticism.

The young Cameroonian’s life changed though right before the 2014-15 New Mexico State preseason. His sister Raissa, who was also pursuing academics in the United States, called to inform him through tears that their father had been killed in a car accident.

Pascal’s immediate thought was that he needed to return home. His sister had already booked his flight, but there was one immense problem for the youngest Siakam brother. His application for a new visa was still being processed. Meaning that if he left the country to return to Cameroon, there was a strong chance he would not be allowed to return to the United States.

His family members advised him to stay put, so did New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies, who despite looking for any possible way to get Pascal back to Cameroon — came to realize that he would most likely lose his scholarship and NBA future.

So again let me repeat Pascal’s answer to Doris Burke’s question after Game 1.

“Just doing it for my dad. Going out there every single night. Not worry about what’s going on. Just have a bigger purpose.”

Siakam dedicated his first season at New Mexico State to his father. Winning the WAC Freshman of the Year through a myriad of mourning and pain. The following year he came back even stronger, averaging 20.2 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks on his way to being named the WAC Player of the Year.

New Mexico State Coach told ESPN, “Pascal became more passionate about his development after the passing of his father.”

The next year Siakam was taken with the 27th pick in the 2016 draft by the Toronto Raptors. A few months later before a preseason game, Siakam saw his mother for the first time in four years. In fact, according to ESPN, it was the first time in 16 years that all the Siakam siblings had been in the same room together.

Even then NBA success however did not come easy to Siakam. In his rookie season he spent a good deal of it playing for the Raptor’s G-League affiliate. The rookie out of New Mexico State was far from happy with the role, but he made the most of it. Winning both the MVP of the league and a championship. The following season he played the entirety of the year with the Raptors, serving as an important part of their bench unit, before having his break out year this season.

The 2018-19 NBA Finals are filled with too many storylines to count. Judging the importance of each of these would be a fool’s task, but I ask you to at least acknowledge just how far Siakam has come from that bunk bed in Bafia, Cameroon, to helping an NBA team win a championship.

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