When Ibaka’s home life finally settled, he set his sights on becoming a star.
Already equipped with natural athleticism and an elementary knowledge of the game’s basics from his father’s teachings, Ibaka sought to enhance his skills. At 16, he joined a local club team called Avenir du Rail, which specialized in developing young players. It was Ibaka’s first taste of organized ball. The coach, Maxim Mbochi, was a former teammate of Ibaka’s father and taught fundamentals.
Because he stood out with his raw talents, Ibaka earned an invitation to compete at the 2006 U18 African Championships in Durban, South Africa. He was named MVP of the tournament after leading all players in scoring and rebounding.
The performance proved to be his big break.
"I’ve been in 12 African countries, scouting hundreds of players and never have seen anybody like him,” said Gallego, the Spanish agent. "After watching him play, (I noticed) his attitude and personality. He was a fighter, a winner, a leader. And after talking to him, his mind and focus (stood out). He was a hard worker and ready to sacrifice for achieving his dreams.”
Gallego’s agency soon contacted Desire Ibaka and made their pitch. They told the elder Ibaka they could help his son develop. But it came with a catch — moving to Europe.
A quick study
Serge Ibaka was just 17 when he left his family to begin a new life. He lived in France initially and played briefly on the French circuit before making the jump to Spain.
"It was hard for me going from Congo to Spain, leaving all my family and friends back home,” Ibaka said. "I didn’t know the language. But little by little I got used to everything.”
In Spain, Ibaka built a name for himself. He also began having NBA aspirations.
He played for two second division teams in Spain, L’Hospitalet and DKV Joventut, clubs considered equal to or better than the competition in the NBA D-League. While in Barcelona, Ibaka lived with Jordi Ardevol, Hospitalet’s general manager who assisted him with the transition. Ibaka went out of his way to adjust on his own, too. He embedded himself into the community and read sports publications to aid his command of Spanish.
"I am a person that likes to make the effort to adapt quickly to things,” said Ibaka, who uses a translator when speaking English only for comfort.
Once Ibaka overcame the language barrier, basketball came easy. With DKV Joventut in 2006-07, Ibaka averaged 13.3 points, nine rebounds and 1.7 blocks. That summer, he was invited to participate in the inaugural adidas Nations camp in New Orleans, a grassroots program assembling the top 18-and-under players from Africa, Asia, Europe, Canada, Latin America and the United States.
Ibaka assembled a week that solidified his place on the NBA radar.
In his vertical jump test, Ibaka sprung higher than the measuring device’s pegs could record. Ibaka’s name quickly made its way to the Thunder.
"Serge’s athletic ability and energy at his position were things that intrigued us,” said Thunder general manager Sam Presti.
Fitting the Thunder profile
When Ibaka returned to Spain, this time playing for Hospitalet’s senior team in the ACB Division, NBA scouts were on his tail. Ibaka averaged 11.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and led the league with three blocked shots.
The Thunder’s last good look at Ibaka came in June 2008, nearly three weeks before the NBA Draft at an annual camp in Treviso, Italy. The team’s front office and scouting staff monitored a private workout. All in attendance gained a greater comfort level with Ibaka. They evaluated everything from his shooting mechanics to his communication skills.
"All of the information that we were able to gather,” Presti said, "about his focus, his work ethic and just his story, coming from where he came from intrigued us that this would be a guy that would fit the kind of profile that we wanted to add to our team.”
Presti made Ibaka the 24th overall selection in the 2008 NBA Draft.
After remaining in Spain for the 2008-09 season, Ibaka joined the Thunder last summer. He’s now become one of the most promising young big men in the league, averaging 5.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in just 17.3 minutes.
Presti admits no one in the organization knew he’d develop this quickly.
"Serge has a humility to him and a focus that gives him an opportunity to improve in the NBA,” Presti said. "He doesn’t expect to be given anything. He’s willing to work. He understands that he’s got a long way to go.”
Back home, no matter what happens in his career, Ibaka is a success.
"They view me as a superstar and everyone looks up to me,” Ibaka said. "People really like me, kind of like a respected figure. I thank God. I’m really proud of being able to accomplish something and the progress that I’ve made. It’s happening because of the work that I put in.”
But Ibaka knows his American fans want more. And while his English continues developing to the point he can convey the message himself, Ibaka wants his American followers to know he’s working to deliver. Just like he always has.
"They still don’t know me as a player,” Ibaka said. "But they will.”