by Lang Whitaker / @langwhitaker
Thunder pride has come sweeping down the plain here in Oklahoma City. Windows of office buildings sport paint proclaiming various pro-Thunder slogans. Sidewalks in the Bricktown area have been marked to lead the way to the Ford Center, while reclaimed warehouses sport tinsel and lights. The streets are jammed with people, nearly all of them wearing some sort of Thunder gear. There are banners, street fairs, bands—the kind of pomp and excitement that’s usually reserved for an All-Star Weekend.
Though the Oklahoma City Thunder won’t begin Game 1 of their 2011 Playoff run against the Denver Nuggets for 90 minutes, in the OKC locker room, Russell Westbrook is holding court, simultaneously watching film and cracking on teammates. Near the middle of the room, 6-10, second-year power forward Serge Ibaka is sitting before his locker, headphones on, head down, back to the room. He seems to be in his own little world.
Weeks earlier, at the end of February, OKC rattled the NBA by moving swingman Jeff Green and center Nenad Krstic to Boston for bruising center Kendrick Perkins and diminutive guard Nate Robinson. Ibaka moved from the bench into the starting lineup at the 4, and, in turn, opened up his game: For the month of March, Ibaka averaged 11.9 ppg, 9.2 rpg and 3.4 bpg. He finished the season with 198 blocked shots, leading the NBA. (He also adopted the habit of punctuating the blocks with a Mutombo-style finger wag.)
“[Ibaka is] a terrific player, potentially,” said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, a few days before the Playoffs began. “He’s not yet, but he’s got great potential to be a player, and they probably made the move because they saw it would be the right thing to do in that regard.”
Settling into a chair in front of his corner locker, team leader Kevin Durant considers Ibaka. “I don’t really know his story. He has a lot of brothers and sisters, that’s about it. I haven’t asked him about it. I don’t know what he went through as a child, whether it’s good or bad.
“Sometimes people say a guy should sit and watch and you’ll learn,” Durant continues. “And that’s good sometimes. But to go through it, and to mess up, and to go through adversity? That’s what I went through. Coach said, ‘Hey, just go out there and go play. Do what you do best.’ Serge is teaching himself along the way, and that’s kind of what he did, moving over here and playing in the NBA. Everything’s parallel, basically.”
That evening, before their epically raucous crowd, OKC goes on to win Game 1, 107-103. Twelve hours later, the Thunder reconvene at their temporary practice facility, a converted roller skating rink just north of downtown in Edmond. (Their new custom spot should be ready to open this summer.) While Durant posts up against a wall and discusses the Game 1 win with the assembled press, Ibaka sits quietly a few feet away. He sips from a bottle of orange Gatorade as he begins to unspool his remarkable life story.
Serge Jonas Ibaka Ngobila was born in The Republic of the Congo in 1989. He grew up in Brazzaville, the nation’s capital, and he says he “grew up around basketball.” His father, Desire Ibaka, played professionally in Africa and for the Republic of Congo National Team; his mother, Amadou Djonga, played for the National Team of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “When my dad would go to practice—he was playing, my dad. After he was finished with his practice, he tried to show me how to shoot ball. That was how I learn basketball.”
Serge was the third-youngest of 18 children. Fortuitously for him, he was also the tallest. “When I was a kid, my dream was always to just play one game. I wanted to attempt to play professional basketball. My father’s dream was for me to play professional basketball.”
In ’97, when Serge was 8, his mother passed away. A few months later, the Second Congo War broke out. With over five million people killed, it was the deadliest war the world had seen since World War II. Hoping to escape the terrible unrest, the Ibakas left their home in Brazzaville and moved north. A few years later, upon their return home, Serge’s father was jailed, arrested basically for being on the wrong side of a battle line. With his father locked up, Serge was raised by his grandmother.
“I was two, three years with my grandmother. Then my father get back. It was real crazy. It was a tough moment for everybody. After that, everything was quiet, everything was good.”
When the war ended, Desire was released from prison, and Serge was able to focus on basketball. He played for a local club, Avenir du Rail, and made a splash when he won MVP honors playing in the Junior African Championships in ’06. Soon after, the 17-year-old Serge went to France to play second-division basketball, then jumped to Spain to play in the ACB’s second division. He not only didn’t speak any Spanish, he barely spoke basketball.
“My first time to play in Europe, I was shooting the ball well, I was blocking shots, I was rebounding. The most difficult for me was how to play team play, five against five, learning the offense. That was a real problem. I never played basketball with a shot clock in the Congo. In Congo, we played on playground. No clocks. So for me, everything was new—the clock, new referees. It was difficult. I wanted to keep working, with my team, to be more focused, to learn. Now I’m getting better. And I get more better.”
His skills may have needed developing, but his raw tools were wowing scouts around the world. He played in several international showcases in 2008, including the Nike Hoop Summit, and he won MVP at the Reebok Eurocamp. As an NBA scout at the Hoop Summit told SI.com, “He doesn’t know how to play. But athletically he’s off the charts—there’s no telling how good he can be.’’