Oklahoma City Thunder's Ibaka stands tall with students

School visits by Oklahoma City Thunder's Serge Ibaka give students hope for better life, educators say.
BY DAVID ZIZZO dzizzo@opubco.com Published: May 5, 2011

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.