The Rising Phoenix: Serge Ibaka
With just a few days standing between him and his first All Star appearance, Serge Ibaka is relaxed and personable. It doesn’t feel like only a few years ago he did not speak English and had never lived in America, he’s too comfortable in this moment. Eating a sandwich and requesting upbeat music on our set, he seems like one of the boys. A distant cousin or a childhood friend, someone we’ve met before.
In a way he is.
But in so many ways, we’ve never seen a man like him.
The story of NBA rising star Serge Ibaka is not a rerun. His journey has been monumental. From the untimely death of his mother to the imprisonment of his father during the second Congolese war, Ibaka embodies resiliency. With the weight of a country that was not long ago ravished by war on his back, a strikingly handsome and towering 6’10, Serge Ibaka boldly embraces his role as an ambassador for his people. “For me it’s very important, first of all for Africa and then for Congo, it makes me feel proud of myself. It makes me keep working hard”, he explains, “I know I have a large responsibility now. I know my country is paying attention to me.” Being drafted in 2008, to the then Seattle Supersonics, Ibaka became the first player from the Congo to be in the NBA, making him an instant hero and an example of triumph.
The attention is new to Serge, being the third youngest of 17 siblings; he doesn’t share the “apple of the eye” experience that many of his peers experienced throughout childhood. In fact while many athletes desire the fame that comes with the spotlight, Serge used basketball as an escape from the harsh reality of losing his mother at an early age and the wrongful imprisonment of his father. When we begin to discuss the events surrounding his life during the historically documented events in Congo, Ibaka’s calm and fun exterior takes a turn, as painful memories seem to flood his mind. Reluctant to give a detailed account, he simply says, “the war was my worst moment, it was a tragedy for me and my family, I won’t ever forget that moment even though I’ve moved past it”. His vulnerability leaves the room silent for a while until Serge flashes his smile of perfection and says “but I am here, now. I love my country and I will always honor it but I am here, now.”
And he has not arrived silently. After a show and prove season with the ACB League in Spain, in which he averaged 7.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1 block in 17 mins per game, Ibaka emerged as one of the premiere physical players in the NBA on a young and exciting Oklahoma City Thunder team. The team found themselves facing the veteran Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs last year and although they were defeated, they fight in the young players did not go unnoticed, especially the heart of a then 20-year-old Serge. “It was a good experience for me and for my team”, he says, “to play our first playoff series against the Lakers, it was tough but I think it was a really good experience”. Good indeed, the series showed a young Ibaka to be a fierce competitor when he refused to back down in the face of the Lakers big post presence and solidified him as a force to be reckoned with when he secured a record 7 blocks in Game 2 of the series. But don’t bother looking for Ibaka to talk dirty about the opponents he likes to see on the inside, he’s far too genuine for that. It’s simple in his mind, “I don’t care. I’ll play anyone. I’m just ready to play my game and give it my all”, Serge says.
The ability to explain the very core of his purpose is what makes Serge Ibaka so amazing. He has tapped into just how special an opportunity on this level is to a person with his life story. Having played basketball professionally at a very young age and watched his country be ravished by war, Ibaka possesses a maturity rarely seen in 21-year-old rising stars. He values morals and simplicity and knows that his gain is a very small part of the best things to come from his success. The big picture is not in what he becomes but who he is. “I’m a simple guy”, he explains in his endearing accent, “I’m good and sweet, I’m really a good person. I like to take care of my friends and everyone who’s close to me.” Though his sincerity is unparalleled, there is another dimension to the towering power forward: humor. Often throwing jabs at his publicist during our shoot, Ibaka admits that he knows how to have a good time. “I’m a funny guy”, he says, “you can see that in me—can’t you?” Precisely. Whether speaking in English or any of the other 3 languages he speaks fluently, there is always a hint of a smile behind his chiseled face, a nice reminder that his spirit; however troubling his life may have been before his emergence here, is not broken…and probably never will be.
In Greek mythology, the phoenix stands as a symbol of immortality and renewal. Its ability to be consumed in fire and rise unscathed has been well documented in religions, stories and speeches alike but with Serge Ibaka it is brought to life. For he embodies the essence of a thing that cannot be destroyed, ever rising to new heights from circumstances that others succumb to. With the phoenix is not the rise that most inspires us, it’s the fire. Fire being one of the most beautifully dangerous elements known to man…the phoenix bathes in it, welcomes it even. Ibaka has experienced the power of great loss, tragedy and peril but like the phoenix, he has not been defeated. He has instead come out victorious, bold and fearless. He’s risen from the ashes of his past and his journey is just beginning.
Written by: Iman N. Milner
Photos By: Ashley B. Nguyen
Styling: Seth Brundle
MUA: Sarah Bahlibi