Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka had one of his best seasons ever in 2019-2020, but there’s much more to him than what fans see on the court. Like a handful of other NBA greats from Africa, he grew up impoverished in the war-ravished Republic of Congo, the youngest in a family of 18 children.
Basketball and food are pillars of the country’s culture and Ibaka has had a life-long passion for both. Even today, Ibaka’s African heritage plays a prominent role in his daily life.
From poverty to pro
According to Clutch Points, the Republic of Congo was in the midst of the Second Congo War during Ibaka’s childhood. His mother died when he was just eight and his father was captured as a political prisoner while trying to flee the country. Ibaka’s parents had both played professional basketball, so understandably, the sport became an outlet for him at a young age.
At age 17, Ibaka moved to Spain in 2007 to pursue a career in basketball. He played for CB L’Hospitalet, where he garnered attention from NBA scouts. The Seattle Supersonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder) ultimately selected Ibaka as the 24th overall pick in the 2008 draft.
However, Ibaka wasn’t headed to the U.S. just yet. As part of his contract, he stayed in Spain and played for the Liga ACB, one of the top European leagues at the time.
Ibaka’s skills developed quickly and in 2009 he moved to the U.S. to play for the Thunder, where he had an impressive rookie season. He averaged more than 6 points and 5 rebounds, despite getting a limited amount of playing time.
According to Bleacher Report, during the 2011 NBA lockout, Ibaka signed a contract with Spain’s Real Madrid, keeping the option to go back to the NBA once it ended. Ibaka returned to the NBA, but he also still plays for the Spanish national team.
From 2012 to 2016, Ibaka was a Defensive Player of the Year finalist, led the league in blocks three times, and helped the Thunder both the Western Conference Finals and NBA Finals.
In 2016, Ibaka was traded to the Orlando Magic and was traded again in 2017 to the Toronto Raptors. He signed a hefty three-year extension the following season and the Raptors won the NBA Finals in 2019, defeating the Golden State Warriors.
Food is love according to Serge Ibaka
Ibaka has a serious passion — and talent — for cooking, especially Congolese food, and he created a YouTube channel dedicated entirely to doing so. In each episode of How Hungry Are You? Mafuzzy Chef, Ibaka’s alter ego, prepares some of his favorite hometown foods for unsuspecting teammates and celebrity friends. Deep-fried snake, roasted crickets, and lamb brains have all been on the menu.
Knowing most people typically avoid these types of dishes, Ibaka gets great joy from introducing his peers to this cuisine he’s so passionate about. For him, cooking is a tie to his Congolese roots. Ibaka grew up watching his father cook for his large family, even when they were so poor that they had to wait outside restaurants for food scraps, and it brings him comfort to prepare the same dishes now.
Although Ibaka’s dinner guests may not enjoy what he dishes up, they thoroughly enjoy the bond created over trying new things. The audience can’t get enough either, as episodes typically get several million views.
A mogul of many talents
Basketball and cooking aren’t the only talents Serge Ibaka has. He speaks four languages: English, Spanish, French, and Lingala, spoken throughout the Republic of the Congo. He’s also always extraordinarily dressed, taking inspiration from La Sape, or sapologie, a Congolese fashion subculture.
Finally, Ibaka is notoriously for using his celebrity platform to help underprivileged children, particularly in his home country. He’s a UNICEF ambassador and established the Serge Ibaka Foundation, which focuses on health and education programs for orphans.
In 2017, he was invited to be a board member of the NBPA Foundation, the branch of the players’ union that focuses on charitable initiatives that’s headed up by LeBron James. What an incredible trajectory for a man who grew up often wondering if he would have enough food that day.