Serge Ibaka is sitting at his cubicle inside the sparkling new home locker room at the Ford Center, crouched over with his head bowed and his back to his teammates and the world.
The rookie forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder digests a passage from his French bible, closes the book and begins to pray. He is mouthing everything on his heart, but his mumbling is muffled by racket that fills the room.
While his American teammates bob their heads to beats and banter about shopping bargains, the African big man meditates. This is Ibaka’s routine before all Thunder games. It’s his quiet time, his moment to reflect and his chance to give thanks.
This is when Ibaka ponders his place, analyzing all the alternate routes his life could have taken. What if his mother was still alive to see what her little boy has blossomed into? What if he didn’t make it out of a war-torn country to go on to become the first NBA player from the Republic of Congo? How might his path have been different had he lost his father to a longer stint in prison?
“It’s very important,” Ibaka said of his pre-game prayers, “because some people don’t have life. I have free life and so I just give thanks. I have come a long way.”
Born into basketball
Serge Jonas Ibaka Ngobila was born September 18, 1989, in the city of Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, an impoverished country in central Africa branded by its history of warfare but distinguished by its indigenous cuisine and music. Ibaka is the third youngest of 18 children born to his father, Desire Ibaka. While that child count might come as a shocking sum in the States, it’s not an uncommon amount in Africa. Ibaka, however, grew up with only 10 of his siblings.
"I liked growing up in a family atmosphere,” Ibaka said. "Family pride is very important to me, which is also a common thing in Africa. You grow up with a strong sense of family...We took care of each other.”
Ibaka was born into basketball. His father played professionally in Africa and for the national team of the Republic of Congo. His mother, Amadou Djonga, was a member of the national team of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country formerly known as Zaire. They passed down a passion for the sport.
It was Desire Ibaka who motivated Serge to become a ballplayer. Serge Ibaka now wears No. 9 as a tribute to his father’s old jersey number.
Desire Ibaka would travel to games with his son in tow when Ibaka was just 3. As a 6-foot-7 post player, Desire Ibaka established a reputation as an enforcer. He took pride in owning the paint — gobbling up rebounds, swatting shots and stubbornly scoring only from in close.
"Desire was athletic, bulky, strong and quick, more of a power player with a short jumper,” Anicet Lavodrama, who competed against Desire in international competition, wrote in an e-mail. "There are similarities in the jumping ability and the determination. Serge is longer, has a much better shooting touch, more range and more versatility in his game.”
Ibaka’s official introduction to the game came at age 7, when he began playing casually in the streets of Brazzaville, a city just smaller than the Oklahoma City metro area. He spent his days in school and his free time shooting hoops with friends.
"I played every day,” Ibaka said. "If there was a day that I couldn’t play, I felt so bad, like something was missing that day.”
In Congo, Ibaka played through imperfections. Courts were creased with cracks and backboards were made of wood. Kids who had sneakers rather than the widespread plastic shoes remedied holes in the soles with cardboard inserts.
"It was something that we loved so much we didn’t care about how we did it as long as we could play the game,” Ibaka said.
The NBA still wasn’t the desired destination. Ibaka’s only goal was to play professionally outside of his country.
But the little boy’s dreams were interrupted.
A child of war
Ibaka’s mother died of natural causes when he was 8. It was a loss Ibaka struggled to understand at such a young age. Her death brought him closer to his family, particularly his father and grandmother, Christine Djonga.
Still, civil unrest threatened to tear apart Ibaka’s family. Ibaka was days shy of his ninth birthday at the start of the Second Congo War, the largest war in modern African history. It included eight African nations and recorded a death toll of more than 5 million, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II.
As millions of Congolese fled their homes, Ibaka’s family moved north to the small town of Ouesso. Ibaka remained there for nearly four years, living in adverse conditions that have been characterized as having no electricity or running water.
With political strife still going strong upon the family’s return to Brazzaville in 2002, Desire Ibaka was captured and imprisoned when he returned to his old job. Desire worked at a port just across the border of the neighboring country of the Democratic Republic of Congo. As a citizen of the Republic of Congo, Desire Ibaka was jailed essentially for being on the wrong side of the battlefield. Serge lived with his grandmother while his dad was in prison. His father wouldn’t be released until a year later when the war "officially” ended.
"Maybe for these reasons Serge is so tough mentally and is able to achieve one goal after another,” Pere Gallego, Ibaka’s Spanish agent with U1st Sports, wrote in an e-mail.