Serge Ibaka | Photo: Private
Serge Ibaka | Photo: Private

Playing his 13th consecutive year at the top of his sport, Serge Ibaka is the African basketball sensation with the most seasons in the NBA. The Congolese-Spanish center, whose family fled heavy fighting in Congo-Brazzaville when he was seven years old, isn't just a celebrated basketball player but is also involved in many social projects.

On June 5, 1997, basketball legend Michael Jordan led his Chicago Bulls team to the NBA title against Utah Jazz in what is considered one of the most epic finals of the history of the sport.

At the same time on the other side of the world, 7-year-old Serge Ibaka and his family were trying to escape heavy gunfire and bombings during the civil war in Congo-Brazzaville that was exploding around them. This early traumatic episode in Serge's life was to become one of the events that would build the personality of the Los Angeles Clippers center.

Serge was born in Brazzaville in September 1989, in a family of 18 children. His father Désiré and his mother Amado, both former basketball players who shone in the country during their youth, gave him a deep rooted appreciation of basketball, despite the daily violence that surrounded him and his family.

"I will never forget the first times I was on the basketball court, hearing the sound of the balls bouncing against a backdrop of the violence in the neighborhood," Serge recalls. "This episode of my life remains decisive in my journey, because it is in this environment of tension that I fell in love with this ball that saved my life. It just goes to show that anything is possible, that you have to fight against the barriers that life can put in front of you."

'I wear the number 9 for my mother'

The years of his youth were marked by another tragedy: Serge's mother died when he was just nine years old. "I wear the number 9 for her, and it's her energy that keeps me going every day," he says. "I know she's proud of me from up there. I will fight all my life with my mother's love, for my family, to achieve my goals."

Serge's family felt that there was rising tension in Brazzaville. His father Désiré decided to move the family to Ouesso, in the north of the country, far from the gunfire. There, in this small town in the middle of the forest, on the border with Cameroon, there was not easy access to water, and electricity was intermittent too.

But Serge was hard working, he quickly adapted to the situation and focused all his efforts on school and basketball. "It was a shock, I'm not going to lie to you. Living in a very big city and then exiling to a smaller one, away from home, it was hard. But it's not my personality to complain or give up. I took this moment as one more test to overcome, nothing more and nothing less," he says.

Read more: From homeless to Olympic glory: One refugee's story of overcoming the odds

Young Serge was already plotting his next step: Europe. The teenager already had big dreams of breaking through as a basketball player.

His uncle, who was already settled in France, in the region of Tours, helped to bring him over, so he could try out for several clubs in Paris and the center of France. Despite Serge's obvious talent, he didn't get picked up. But this temporary rejection was not enough to break the ambitions of the basketball player, who set himself the goal of breaking through elsewhere, further south, on the other side of the Pyrenees. "I knew that if I kept working and knocking on doors, one day one would open for me. I never doubted it," he smiles.

Ambition without borders, and without limits

And the door did open. His Spanish adventure began via a Catalan sports agent, Pera Capdevilla, who had already spotted the talented young Congolese boy, through his triumphs on his national youth team and at basketball camps in Europe.

For him, Serge was a diamond in the rough. "When I saw him play the first time, I had no doubt: Serge was a pure talent that needed to be polished, and his personality, his tricky path had made him a determined man, a fighter. He had all the elements to get to where he is today, that is to say a star of world basketball, and the African player who has the most consecutive seasons in the best basketball league in the world," smiles Capdevilla, who is something of a second father to Serge.

Read more: Afghan boxers seek refuge in Europe

Now living in Spain, Serge signed with the Manresa club, which lent him to L'Hospitalet, a team in a suburb of Barcelona. He lived in a small apartment with four other players who, like him, were trying to break into the professional world. "We were very supportive, we stuck together, it was like a surrogate family," he recalls.

'One Saturday night, very late, Serge was practicing...'

Despite only being 18 years old, Serge was already working hard in the Spanish second division. "He was the youngest on the team, but already had an outstanding work ethic. He spent countless hours in the gym. He was always the first at training and the last to leave," said Juan Rodrigo, his first coach in Catalonia.

"After a few weeks, he came to my office and asked me if he could have a copy of the keys to the training room. I told him okay but that he also needed to rest, because recovery is also important. Shortly after, one of the club stewards came to get something from the room very late on a Saturday night, and he was surprised to see Serge practicing, even though we had played a few hours earlier! He was also often sleeping at the gym, on gym mats. When you put so much energy and sacrifice into your passion, only great things can happen to you."

All this intensive work did not go unnoticed by NBA scouts, who started to pay special attention to the young talent from Brazzaville.

The NBA doors finally open

At the beginning of the summer of 2008, the best league in the world opened their doors to him. With the 24th overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft by the Oklahoma City Thunder, Serge finally found himself playing with the world's elite in his sport. He arrived in the southwestern United States quietly, but did not wait to become an essential part of the franchise in the blue and orange jersey.

In less than a season, he became a starter on the league's all-star team, alongside stars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The meteoric rise of the Congolese youngster is a sensation, and he was selected twice during his years in Oklahoma in the best defensive team of the season. This is an extremely rare occurrence for a foreign player in the North American league.

After seven seasons, he left for Orlando, then joined the great Canadian North, in Toronto, for one of the most beautiful pages of his career. "I even brought the Larry O'Brien trophy to the Congo. I did a parade in the streets of Brazzaville to share this success with my people, and to show that if I have succeeded, they can too. With this title, I wanted to convey a message of hope and motivation for the youth of both Congos".

Read more: Italy: Junior basketball athletes with foreign parents excluded from championships

'Air congo'

Currently a member of the Los Angeles Clippers squad and in his 13th NBA season, "Air Congo", as he's nicknamed, is determined there must be more to life than just a sports career.

"Fashionista, athlete, influencer, cook, singer, dancer, YouTuber..., I don't know how to define Serge anymore, he is so active and invested in several fields. He is much more than an athlete, he realizes that high level sport also helps to open up other fields. He sets an example for all of us," said his club teammate and close friend, Frenchman Nicolas Batum.

With more than 3.2 million followers on various social networks, he is one of the most influential African personalities in the world. A lover of gastronomy and constantly wanting to promote his country, he created the show How Hungry Are You on his YouTube channel in 2017. He introduces himself under another of his pseudonyms Mafuzzy Chef and prepares African dishes for celebrities from the world of sports and television, such as NBA stars Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and actress Tiffany Haddish.

His latest big project is related to the world of music. "It's also a way to express my love for the Congolese culture, and to have fun" he smiles, from his towering height of 2 meters 11.

After featuring alongside Dadju for the track "Mafuzzy style" in 2018, Serge moved up a gear by releasing the track "Champion" a few months ago with Ninho (13 million views on YouTube at the time of writing), then "LEGGO" with Tayc (5 million views) and "Rumba" with Guy2BezBar (1 million views).

"It's about life, about love, about subjects that concern my compatriots and their daily lives. I am one of them, and I also use this platform to talk about what is happening in Congo. I am Congolese, and very proud of it, that will never change. I will be an ambassador for the country all my life".

Serge Ibaka Foundation

Serge also uses his fame to help Congolese youth in trouble, through the foundation that bears his name. "He likes to help discretely, to give to others without it being an advertisement for him. He wears his heart on his sleeve and he is very aware of the luck he has and the difficulties he has gone through. He wants to help young people who want to achieve the same dreams as him," says Jordi Vila, one of his close friends and manager of the social-educational projects for the Serge Ibaka Foundation.

Serge has invested hugely in the Congo. He has built orphanages and health centers all over the country. This is just one example among many of what makes Serge Ibaka a man who is determined to never forget where he comes from.


More articles