On June 14, 2019, veteran big man Serge Ibaka reached the pinnacle of the sport when he won the coveted NBA title with the Toronto Raptors. This was the culmination of his improbable journey to where he stands today.
Sergeballu Ibaka was born on September 18, 1989 in Brazzaville, the capital city of the Republic of Congo. His father, Desire Ibaka, was a renowned basketball player in the nation, and was a member of the national team. Similarly, Serge’s mother, Amadou Djonga, was likewise a member of the women’s national team.
Ibaka’s love affair with the sport started at the early age of 7, when he would play in the streets of Brazzaville. At such an early age, he already dreamed of one day becoming a basketball star like both of his parents.
“I played every day,” Serge Ibaka said, via Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman. “If there was a day that I couldn’t play, I felt so bad, like something was missing that day.
“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,” Ibaka said.
One year later, though, tragedy would strike. Ibaka would lose his mother to natural causes, and at just eight years of age, he found it difficult to cope with such a debilitating loss.
This was barely the end of his suffering. Soon after, civil war in the nation would force Ibaka and his family to flee. To give you an idea of how bad the situation was, this was the advent of the Second Congo War, a war that would take the lives of no less than 5 million Congolese people. Ibaka and his family would be forced into hiding for around four years, during which living conditions were substandard. At one point, his father even became a political prisoner, only to be released once the war had ended.
It goes without saying that it was indeed a tough childhood for Serge. Nonetheless, he rose up from the rubble, and would continue to pursue his love for basketball. His rise in the sport was nearly meteoric after joining a local club at the age of 16. Not long after, Serge Ibaka participated in the U18 African Championships, and after being named MVP of the tournament, there was now no doubt for African basketball that a new star had been born.
By the time Ibaka was 17, he left Congo to pursue his very promising career. He would have a brief stint in France before moving to Spain, where he would make his mark on the international level. Ibaka admits, though, that the transition was anything but easy for him.
“It was hard for me going from Congo to Spain, leaving all my family and friends back home,” Serge Ibaka said. “I didn’t know the language. But little by little I got used to everything.”
Ibaka’s first opportunity to play in U.S. soil finally came in 2007, when he was invited to participate in the Adidas Nations camp. Scouts took notice of Ibaka’s raw talent and untapped potential, and at this point, he already caught the eye of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“All of the information that we were able to gather,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said, “about his focus, his work ethic and just his story, coming from where he came from intrigued us that this would be a guy that would fit the kind of profile that we wanted to add to our team.”
In 2009, it became official. OKC selected Ibaka 24th overall in that year’s draft.
Over the next few years, Ibaka would slowly develop into a legitimate NBA big man. He made the power forward spot his own, and by the middle of his sophomore year, he had already been given the reigns as the team’s starting PF. Ibaka quickly gained the reputation as one of the best shot-blockers in the league, leading the NBA in blocked shots in back-to-back seasons (2012 and 2013).
Ibaka played a pivotal role for the Thunder, playing alongside Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden (for a time). In 2012, OKC would make a historic run all the way to the NBA Finals, only to be defeated by LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
In the summer of 2016, the infamous departure of Kevin Durant also called time on Ibaka’s career with the Thunder. OKC would ship him off to the Orlando Magic as part of the Victor Oladipo deal. After just half a season, though, Orlando would once again trade away Ibaka, this time to the Toronto Raptors. Toronto knew that they had struck gold with Ibaka, and quickly signed him to a three-year, $64 million deal.
Two years after joining the Raptors, Ibaka would fulfill his lifelong dream of achieving penultimate success in the sport of basketball. Averaging 15.0 points (on 52.9 percent shooting), 8.1 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in 27.2 minutes per contest, Ibaka would prove to be a vital piece for the Raptors and their amazing championship run last season.
Interestingly, Ibaka’s current deal runs out by the end of this season. At 30 years of age, he still has a lot of gas left in the tank, and he will likely draw interest from a number of other teams once he officially becomes a free agent this summer. It’s not exactly a talent-packed free agency class, so Serge Ibaka might just be in store to a pretty hefty paycheck.