It wasn't long ago that Serge Ibaka was just another poverty-stricken kid in the Republic of Congo, short on necessities but full of dreams.
Before he blossomed into the NBA's leading shot blocker, Ibaka went through parts of life living without running water or electricity. At times, shoes had to be lined with cardboard to cover holes in the soles.
“It feels like two days ago, and now I have $50 million,” Ibaka said at a news conference Monday announcing his lucrative four-year contract extension with the Thunder. “So life is really, like, I don't know how to say it in English but … unbelievable.”
It's been more than two weeks since Ibaka agreed to the deal that will keep him in Oklahoma City through the 2016-17 season. Still, the Thunder's starting power forward speaks about his $12.25 million annual salary — which kicks in before the 2013-14 season — with a humility that shows two things: NBA riches have yet to spoil Ibaka, and he's far from satisfied.
“It's amazing,” Ibaka said of his journey. “It's an amazing story. But the good thing about me, when I started playing basketball I was never thinking about money. I always told myself, ‘First of all, keep working hard. Try to do the best you can to get better and then everything will come.'
“But when I think back to where I come from to where I am now, I feel like it happened so quick, like everything changed like that.”
It's come as no surprise to the men who have guided Ibaka.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti labeled Ibaka, who turns 23 on Sept. 18, as someone with “supreme competitiveness and internal discipline as a work ethic.” Presti then relayed a story about one of his initial meetings with Ibaka. It was over breakfast, one that was short on dialogue due to Ibaka's inability then to speak English. Presti, though, said Ibaka spoke to him through his eyes.
“He had an unbelievable determination,” Presti said. “You could tell this was a really focused individual with great persistence. And as I think back to what's transpired since, a lot of things have evolved for this young man here. What's taken place for him is a result of determination, hard work and maximizing and seizing opportunities when they were there for him.”
Perhaps most impressive is that Ibaka has never had anything given to him and has rarely, if ever, taken the easy route.
When the Seattle SuperSonics drafted Ibaka with the 24th overall pick in 2008, Presti pushed Ibaka to join the franchise immediately. Ibaka's agents suggested the same. Even Ibaka's family back in Africa figured him foolish for turning down the opportunity. But Ibaka knew he wasn't ready. He signed in Spain instead — for what Ibaka called “like nothing” compared to the $1 million he would have earned as an NBA rookie in 2008-09.
But Ibaka never worried.
“I believe in God. I believe in me. I believe in my talent,” Ibaka said. “I know if I keep working the right way, everything will come naturally.”
That's one of the main reasons Ibaka said this new deal doesn't add pressure onto his sculpted shoulders. He figures if he continues to do the things that got him this rich reward, he'll perform with no problems.
“I know my focus,” he said. “I have my objective. No matter if I signed for $50 million, I have my objective … I'm going to keep going my way. I know where I come from, and I know where I'm going.”
Ibaka admitted that the money was important. In the next breath, however, he said it was more important for him to be happy, for him to remain with the Thunder after his rookie deal and for him to help the franchise finish what it's started.
“This is only the beginning of my career,” Ibaka said. “I know I still have a long way to go. I will keep working and keep my focus and try to get better and better every day.”
When Brooks shared a conversation he had with Ibaka last summer, it shed light on just how big Ibaka dreams. As the two rode neighboring stationary bikes — Ibaka peddling at a much faster pace than Brooks could keep — Ibaka told his coach he wanted to be the best defensive player in the league. He wanted to win Defensive Player of the Year.
“At that point, I'm looking at him and thinking, ‘How am I going to tell this guy that's probably not going to happen right now?' Brooks said, laughing at the memory. “But he was really serious and animated, and at that point I believed that it could happen.”
It nearly did.
Where Ibaka's career goes from here remains to be seen. But it became crystal clear on Monday that whatever is to happen, the Thunder surely is glad it will happen in OKC.
“He has earned our trust, but he's always had our belief,” Presti said. “We couldn't be more thrilled for him. He stands for a lot of things that we want to be about, and we're supremely confident that he's going to continue to improve and represent this organization in the fashion that he and his teammates will be proud of.”