LOS ANGELES, May 10, 2012 — To watch Serge Ibaka play for the Oklahoma City Thunder is a cross between witnessing pure, uninhibited athletic ability and having a brief flirtation with an extraordinarily, heartfelt passion for the game that seems almost surreal to the average fan. At times, he does things with ease that don’t seem quite humanly possible, leaving us in a state of awe and questioning our own perception of reality for a moment or two.
A shot-blocking mixture of legends, Bill Russell and Dikembe Mutumbo, blended with Kevin Garnett’s impassioned hunger for the game, Ibaka has quickly become a force to be reckoned with in a league of basketball royalty. Two years after joining the talented Oklahoma City team, filled with imposing scorers and audacious playmakers, Serge has carved his own niche as one of the league’s leading shot blockers, thus having the fans affectionately nickname him, “Iblaka.”
Ibaka is destined for what could only be described as an accelerated path to superstardom, which brings about the subject of his quiet sense of humility and lack of prima donna attitude. With Serge, there is no grand entrance, no helicopter flight into the home games, no extra fanfare needed.
Humble in Basketball, Humble in Life
He is happy to sign autographs and take pictures, even at those times that would surely inconvenience the rest of us mere mortals. So I had to ask him how he maintained this perfect sense of humility and levelheadedness. “This is what I have always been taught. The coaches taught us to be humble in basketball. It’s been engrained in me.”
Serge’s long-time manager, Pere Gallago says, “He appreciates the good moments and knows that hard work brought him to this situation, so he’s going to keep fighting to achieve his goals without forgetting where he comes from.”
Forgetting where he comes from would be nearly impossible for Ibaka. Brazzaville, Congo has long suffered from civil unrest, enduring brutal wars and constant violence. In one year alone, over 10, 000 people were killed in Brazzaville, 100, 000 were internally displaced, 70% of the residents lived at or below the poverty line, and 40% of the nation’s children did not attend school. While this country has suffered a near humanitarian catastrophe for many years, it does not receive the media coverage that many other African nations do. This is where Serge’s project with UNICEF comes into play.
Ibaka has become a proud “Champion for UNICEF.” He works hand in hand with the UNICEF U.S. Fund, which is in charge of the UNICEF Congo activities and is running a program in the capital, Brazzaville, to give support, education and a future to street boys and girls. Over 50% of the reported street children are orphans and lack basic human need, schooling, and social development. This program serves the basic daily needs of the children and also provides recreational activities for them that will allow them to be reintegrated into normal society. Ibaka says, “I want to give boys and girls opportunities for education and a good life. They deserve much more in life than they have.”
The Plight of the Congo Is Ibaka’s Concern
Once you are able to grasp the severity of the situation of the country in which Ibaka grew up in and you wrap your brain around bits and pieces of the hardships he has dealt with and overcome in his very young life, you quickly begin to comprehend the aura of mental toughness and extreme humility that radiates from the depths of his being. You also begin to understand his deep-rooted love for the game that is carved into his very soul and flows through his veins every second of the day.
I ask, “What would you do if you weren’t playing basketball? In his very distinct, French accent, he replies, “I don’t know…I can’t imagine my life without basketball. It is a part of me. It’s what I know.”
In a post-Jordan era, where flamboyant play and impressive dunks are commonplace, there has to be something extremely special about a player to make him stand out. In Ibaka, fans see a player who puts it all out there every night: all of his energy, passion, whatever it takes to win.
In this, they also find a player who seemingly hits a certain level of euphoria during play. One who isn’t playing into the crowd, but is truly taking in the raw emotion of the game and allows the crowd to feed off of his own energy at times. Emotion like this doesn’t come from a million dollar contract or even playing in front of stadium full of adoring fans. It comes from love.
NBA Lockout Made Ibaka A Better Player
Growing up Ibaka played basketball whenever and however he could. He played in the streets, with broken shoes and scraped knees, morning to night. It didn’t matter. This was love. “We played because we loved the game. I didn’t grow up knowing anything about the Draft or ever thinking I would play in the NBA. I played because I loved basketball.”
After a 161-day NBA lockout, Serge Ibaka came back to the States a much tougher player. Joining fellow NBA players, Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon, Pau Gasol, and Marc Gasol, Ibaka led the Spanish National team to a gold medal in Eurobasket 2011. When asked if he thought that the lockout helped Serge evolve as a player, manager Pere Gallego responded, “Yes, no question. He gained experience playing at higher level in Europe and playing for such a big organization like Real Madrid.”
Ibaka isn’t a player focused on individual achievements, but rather a team player whose drive will propel a team to an NBA Championship. With a will to succeed and a mindset that doesn’t accept “no” as an answer, Serge has only caused his fan base to develop an awe-inspired curiosity about what his future will hold.
“Will we see you play for Spain in the 2012 Summer Olympics?” I ask. With no hesitation, Serge answers, “Yes! You will see me there!”
In every great player and great man, there must be a certain sense of level-headedness and humility. In the course of our interview, Serge Ibaka never ceased to amaze me with this factor.
When I asked him what big things we could expect in the future, he simply replied, “Every morning when I wake up is a big thing for me. It is a blessing and I am thankful.” And this, my friends, is a moment in which life, love, and basketball become intertwined for a much greater purpose than we can possibly ever understand.