Feature | Basketball

NBA star Serge Ibaka: His incredible journey continues

From the Republic of the Congo to the National Basketball Association via France and Spain, the country he now represents, Serge Ibaka has never forgotten his humble roots.

By ZK Goh and Samuel Friedman ·

It's perhaps hard to believe that the tall, powerful basketball centre and occasional power forward Serge Ibaka is still only 31.

After all, this is someone who has survived war in his home country, moved to Europe alone as a teenager to chase his sporting dream, and has now spent more than a decade playing in the National Basketball Association.

Ibaka still has some of his best years ahead of him, but one thing has never changed through his career – his connection with his birth country of the Republic of the Congo.

Even now, nearly 15 years after leaving the Congo, he remains well-known there and is one of basketball's best-known African role models.

War-torn childhood

Ibaka was born in 1989 in the Congolese capital Brazzaville, where he grew up. It was there where he first started playing the game when he was around seven years old, although the sport had long been in his family.

His parents both played basketball, representing their respective countries – his father for the Republic of the Congo and his mother for the neighbouring country of Zaire, later renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Although conditions weren't the best in Brazzaville, including having to play on courts full of cracks, the young Ibaka was hooked.

"It was something that we loved so much we didn’t care about how we did it as long as we could play the game," he told The Oklahoman in a 2010 interview.

However, things quickly turned south. Civil war broke out in the Republic of the Congo in 1997, and Ibaka's mother passed away of natural causes at around the same time. The Ibakas moved north, only returning to Brazzaville in 2002 after spending nearly four years away.

In the meantime, the Second Congo War had broken out across the border. It would go on to be the deadliest conflict since the Second World War, and result in the imprisonment of Ibaka's father for going to work in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo across the river from Brazzaville.

Raised by his grandmother while his father was in jail, the family finally reunited after the end of the war in 2003.

Overseas journey begins

However, Ibaka's difficult childhood never dampened his love for basketball. He continued making progress and at 16 was part of the Republic of the Congo team at the FIBA African Under-18 Championships in South Africa, where he led the tournament in points and rebounds.

That caught the eye of European agents, and soon Ibaka found himself on the way to France, aged just 17 and ready to strike it out alone. His French stay was short-lived; he quickly moved south to Spain where he played for two teams in the Spanish second tier.

Unbeknown to him, he had fathered a daughter in the Congo shortly before leaving; he would not find out until five years later, and did not get to meet her until she was 11 when he moved her to study in the United States.

In Spain, Ibaka quickly adapted, learning Spanish to add to his native Lingala and French. His strong performances saw him invited to take part in an NBA camp in New Orleans, where he caught the eye of NBA teams by jumping higher on his vertical jump test than was recordable by the measuring device.

He was taken 24th overall in the 2008 NBA Draft by the Seattle SuperSonics, which rebranded the week after as the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he opted to stay in Spain for an extra year with the top-division club Manresa.

The Thunder bought out his contract a year later, and he moved to Oklahoma to begin what would become a successful NBA journey.

Hard work

"Serge’s athletic ability and energy at his position were things that intrigued us," the Thunder's general manager Sam Presti explained a few years ago.

That intrigue paid off. In seven seasons with the Thunder (including the shortened 2011/2012 season due to the NBA lockout, during which Ibaka returned to Spain for two months to play with Real Madrid), Ibaka twice led the NBA in blocks and was named to the All-Defensive First Team three times.

He was part of a team that included Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden in an era of relative success for the team, including reaching the 2012 NBA Finals (which they lost in five games to the Miami Heat) and the Western Conference Finals four years later.

However, Ibaka – who quickly picked up English just as he had Spanish – stayed humble. In the 2010 interview, he said of his countrymen back in Congo: "They view me as a superstar and everyone looks up to me.

"I’m really proud of being able to accomplish something and the progress that I’ve made. It’s happening because of the work that I put in."

Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts after a play in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Olympic and NBA Finals success

While with the Thunder, Ibaka also naturalised as a Spanish citizen, enabling him to play at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Spain won silver, Ibaka's second medal with the national team after gold in the 2011 EuroBasket tournament. (He would miss Spain's Rio 2016 bronze medal outing due to a lack of fitness, and was not on the gold-medal-winning 2019 Basketball World Cup squad.)

A half-season stint with the Orlando Magic followed in 2016-17, having been traded from Oklahoma City in June 2016. That November, he set his single-game career-high points tally when he scored 31 points in a win against his old team.

But it was with his next team, the Toronto Raptors, where Ibaka once again made his mark. He was dealt to Toronto in February 2017 and signed a three-year extension that summer, although he suffered a disappointing first full season with the Canadian outfit.

Ibaka turned things around in 2018/19 and was a major factor in the Raptors' run to the NBA title. Toronto had added Kawhi Leonard to the team, and Ibaka was able to form a solid understanding and connection with Kyle Lowry. National team-mate Marc Gasol was also a familiar face for Ibaka, who averaged 15.0 points and 8.1 rebounds per game that regular season.

After the pandemic-affected 2020 season concluded with the Raptors losing in Game 7 in the Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Boston Celtics, Ibaka left Toronto for the next stage of his career.

Looking forward while giving back

With one NBA championship under his belt, Ibaka still has plenty in the tank and plenty to prove.

He has signed a free agent deal with the Los Angeles Clippers, teaming up with his former Toronto teammate Leonard and 2016 Olympic champion Paul George. The Clippers are building a strong team to rival the cross-town defending champion Lakers, and Ibaka figures to be part of that equation.

His international career is slightly more uncertain.

Spain have qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Games to be held in the summer of 2021, and will be looking for a fourth consecutive podium finish at the Olympics. However, Ibaka was left off the World Cup roster in 2019 despite having won the NBA Championship, with teammate Gasol preferred in his position.

One thing that won't change as Ibaka enters this next phase is his love of Africa and his work to give back.

As the NBA continues to expand its reach on the continent, Ibaka is one of the most recognisable African-born players in the league, among names like Cameroon's Pascal Siakam, a former teammate of his on the Raptors, and Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers).

Ibaka also works with the global children's fund UNICEF as an ambassador in the Congo, having started a relationship with the UN body in 2009.

He has donated to UNICEF, and has developed projects in both his native Republic of the Congo as well as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It's been quite the journey for Ibaka, who still has years of basketball ahead of him.

Whatever happens next in his career, Africa and the Congo will never be far from his heart.