One day last fall in a room at Heronville Elementary School in Oklahoma City, about 100 first-grade students began a spontaneous chant:
“Espanol! Espanol! Espanol!”
“It was like all of a sudden,” teacher Tiffany Olvera recalled. “It was cute.”
The students, had just been told Thunder forward Serge Ibaka would be a surprise guest in the Rolling Thunder Book Bus, a Thunder-blue school bus converted by the Oklahoma City NBA team into a library on wheels that gives away books to kids.
The thing that got Heronville's students, most of whom speak English as a second language, really stoked was hearing that the 21-year-old forward from the Republic of the Congo speaks their native tongue.
“Having a local celebrity come and speak to them just meant so much,” Olvera said. “Then the fact he could speak Spanish — it was just awesome.”
The moment showed the effect that a celebrity, especially a guy of Ibaka's popularity and renown, can have on children. That impact is magnified when kids can somehow relate, such as when the imposing visitor literally speaks their language.
Other adults can talk until they're Thunder-blue in the face to encourage kids to work hard at learning and reading, with mixed results, Olvera said.
“But when you have someone else who's made it so big, done something with their life, tell you, ‘This is what you need to do and this helps you,' they're like, ‘Hey, yeah,'” Olvera said. “It hits home a lot more that way.”
The Ibaka effect
Sandra Phillips is familiar with the Ibaka effect.
The player has made two visits to Mark Twain Elementary School, where Phillips is principal. He was there on back-to-school night at the beginning of this school year to help hand out food boxes provided by the food bank. Afterward, the 6-foot-11 Ibaka strolled the halls talking with students and signing autographs, Phillips said.
“The kids were very excited,” she said.
Ibaka showed up again later when the Thunder book bus visited the school, Phillips said.
He helped kids pick out books, conversing in Spanish with many students, about 70 percent of whom are Spanish-speaking.
“He was able to talk to all my kids,” Phillips said. “My teachers said it was really great.”
Success is possible
Ibaka is familiar with childhood challenges and how to overcome them. Born one of 18 children in a family in an impoverished and war-torn country, Ibaka lost his mother to natural causes when he was 8. But he endured, using his natural and developed basketball talents to make his way to America and a successful life.
Today, Ibaka, with help from a sportswear manufacturer, sponsors youth basketball camps in several African countries. In Oklahoma, he gives back when he can.
Those on the receiving end are grateful. Phillips said Ibaka's visits show kids that someone cares. It boosts morale and gives them hope that staying in school, having a dream and “plugging on” can pay off.
“It shows the kids that there are success stories, that just because we're in a high-poverty area here doesn't mean we can't make it,” she said. “It really gives them something to look forward to.”