When Serge Ibaka, made his annual summer trip home to the Republic of Congo, his itinerary was similar to his previous visits. He spent time with family members and close friends. He held basketball clinics for local youths, part of the charitable arm of his Serge Ibaka Foundation.
But this time, Ibaka, a member of the Toronto Raptors, was also returning as a newly minted N.B.A. champion, which meant he got to bring along the championship trophy. And while the trip included a visit with the country’s president, the highlight of his journey surely took place elsewhere — at a restaurant in Brazzaville, the capital of the country.
The reason was easy to figure out. Ibaka’s mother had passed away when he was only 8. And then, seven years later, during another period of Congolese strife, Ibaka’s father was put in prison for a year. Amid the violence, Ibaka found himself living on the Brazzaville streets, and he would visit the restaurant in hopes of getting some leftovers at the end of the day.
Now back in the restaurant for the first time since he ended up fleeing the country during that chaotic period of his life, Ibaka paid for his own meal, something he had never done before. His arrival had drawn a crowd. He sat with the trophy, and his plate of plantains and chicken, and told the restaurant owner he would buy a meal for every single person who was present.
For Ibaka, looking forward has always required him to look back as well. “My story. My past. I don’t want to forget that,” Ibaka said in an interview last week. “I want to think about it and be reminded of it so I can be thankful and appreciative of everything.”
When Kawhi Leonard stood at the free-throw line in the final seconds of Game 6 of the N.B.A. finals in June, Ibaka was on the court, with his hands on his head in disbelief. The Raptors were on the verge of clinching their first N.B.A. championship. In that moment, Ibaka said, he allowed himself to visualize his journey and how he got here.
“This kid from Congo,” Ibaka said. “He used to be out there cleaning the streets, asking for money, asking for food. He used to play basketball without shoes. Now, he’s a world champion.”
In his 11th season in the league, Ibaka has seen his role evolve. When he first joined the N.B.A., Ibaka was viewed as a one-of-a-kind player with an ability to guard multiple positions, serve as an elite rim protector and deploy an offensive game that was just blossoming. Ibaka parlayed his skill set into three consecutive selections to the N.B.A.’s All-Defensive team, from 2012 to 2014, and he led the league in blocks in two of those seasons.
During Toronto’s run to the championship last season, Ibaka, came off the bench in all 24 playoff games, having relinquished his spot in the starting lineup after the Raptors acquired Marc Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies at the trading deadline. In that new role, Ibaka delivered key moments in every series. In Game 7 of the second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, Ibaka came through with 17 points and eight rebounds. He helped even the Eastern Conference finals with 17 points and 13 rebounds in Game 4 against the Milwaukee Bucks. In the N.B.A. finals against Golden State, Ibaka scored in double digits in the final three games of the series, including a 20-point performance in a Game 4 road victory at Oracle Arena.
Off the court, Ibaka has also evolved. Jordi Vila, now his manager, first met Ibaka when he arrived in Spain as a 17-year-old basketball player, needing to still grow up. Vila remembers Ibaka’s obsessive drive to become an N.B.A. player. His workout routine meant he rarely took time off, even after the season was over. And eventually, Vila said, Ibaka learned to find more of a balance between work and making room for other things in his life.
“I forced him to take a vacation a few years ago,” Vila said. “I wanted him to do nothing for a month. He hasn’t slowed down with his workout routine, but he’s smarter now.”
Indeed, Ibaka admits he’s finally allowing himself to enjoy his life a little bit. “I’m mature enough to understand I can find time to do other things without disturbing my focus for basketball,” he said. “That was something I needed to learn, to understand that you can work hard and enjoy it, too.”
In Toronto, where Ibaka has played for the past three years, he has begun to reveal more of himself and his personality. Ibaka records karaoke videos with his teammates, and now has nicknames (“Ma Fuzzy,” “Mr. Avec Classe”) and has catchphrases on social media (“I’m the original man, 100 % pure from the motherland”).
He recently launched a digital fashion web series, and helped give teammate Fred VanVleet a fashion makeover in the debut episode. His trip back to Congo last summer was packaged into a one-hour documentary titled “Anything Is Possible.’’ On his cooking show, “How Hungry Are You?”, which is in his third season, he can be found joking around and playing pranks with teammates and celebrity guests.
In Leonard’s one season with the Raptors, Ibaka brought the notoriously reclusive star on his cooking show. Leonard opened up, chatting with Ibaka about his years with the San Antonio Spurs and his transition to Toronto. The two closed the episode by sharing a pizza together.
Ibaka was one of Leonard’s closest friends on the Raptors. When Leonard chose to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers last summer, Ibaka understood Leonard’s decision to go home, but admits it was difficult to have someone he grew close with leave.
“To me, it was more as a friend,” Ibaka says. “As someone you got to know and started getting used to, and they go to another team and you don’t get to play with them, that’s the disappointing part.”
Leonard’s departure has put the Raptors in an unusual position — a defending champion that lost its finals M.V.P. the following season. Some preseason predictions even had the Raptors completely missing out on the 2020 playoffs, a notion that Ibaka scoffs at.
“You can’t force people to love you,” Ibaka said. “If you love somebody, you love them because you love them. People who love you, it doesn’t matter, if you’re good or bad, they will still love you. ”
A recent groin injury suffered by Gasol has pushed Ibaka back into the starting lineup. He will be a free agent at the end of the season, and could be moved at the trade deadline, or be with another team by next summer. The goal of winning more championships might have to continue somewhere else.
In any case, Ibaka says he wants to play for at least five more years. Off the court, his next big project is to write a book that tells his life story. Winning a championship hasn’t made him content, but it has validated all of the hard work he’s put in over the years.
“There’s nothing more I can ask for,” Ibaka says. “Everything is going smoothly in my life. But now that I know how it feels to be a champion, I want more. Sometimes the hardest part is to keep going when you don’t see the results. Now that you see that it’s possible, and you see all of the hard work paying off, you don’t want to give up.”