Ibaka’s winding road from Congo lands him in Tinseltown
OKLAHOMA CITY — Serge Ibaka isn’t nervous about battling three of the league’s top dunkers later this month in front of the basketball universe. The third youngest of 18 brothers and sisters knows a thing or two about competition.
And overcoming long odds.
"I’ve come a long way from Congo to here," Ibaka said earlier this week. "I’m working hard and all my teammates know and my coaches know I’m trying to do the best I can when I’m on the court. I play hard and with energy, and my confidence is coming."
Ibaka traveled a road to the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder both treacherous and amazing, spanning a civil war, three continents and several language barriers, all before he was 19. A native of Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, Ibaka was forced to leave home before he was 10 because of the second Congo War.
After living with his grandmother for a few years during the civil unrest, Ibaka returned to his hometown and began to pick up the game that would change his life. Ibaka’s parents both played basketball for the national team. some of his older siblings provided the opposition he needed on the makeshift outdoor courts of Brazzaville.
A dream was born. it didn’t take long to take shape.
His physical gifts are obvious: He’s 6-foot-10, a chiseled 235 pounds, with speed and exceptional agility. despite the educational challenges of his upbringing, Ibaka is a fast study, too. he spoke two languages in Africa — his native tongue, Lingala, and French. when he went to Spain to play professionally three years ago, he was speaking Spanish fluently three months after he arrived.
Oklahoma City drafted Ibaka 24th overall in the 2008 Draft after he played one season for Manresa in the ACB, Spain’s premier professional league. he stayed for another year before joining the Thunder last season. Ibaka, 21, has since learned English.
"He’s a lot smarter than me," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. "he can speak like seven different languages. when you can go to another country and pick it up that quick that’s impressive.
"Smart kid, he picks up things quickly and he’s prideful. he wants to be a good player and he focuses on all the little things that it takes to be good."
Ibaka began to turn heads last season, finishing first among rookies in blocked shots (1.33 per game) and fourth in rebounding (5.4) despite playing just 18.1 minutes per game. His impact on the defensive end was immediate. His responsibility grew as the season progressed.
The Thunder made a 27-game improvement during 2009-10 to 50-32 and battled the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in a thrilling first-round playoff series. Ibaka’s game has taken another step up in Year 2 for the Northwest Division-leading Thunder.
He’s sixth in the league in blocks at 2.02. In 18 spot starts this season, mostly due to injuries to center Nenad Krstic or power forward Jeff Green, Ibaka put up solid numbers — 9.6 points a game, a 53.3 field-goal percentage, 6.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. Oklahoma City went 13-5.
"He’s more confident and he knows his role — to come in and play defense, get rebounds, knock down open shots," All-Star forward Kevin Durant said. "He’s been working a lot on his mid-range game and it’s getting better. Confidence can do a lot, along with opportunity, and he’s getting an opportunity to play and he’s capitalizing."
Brooks said it’s a matter of Ibaka gaining a better understanding of the league.
"he knows the personnel he’s going up against, he knows their tendencies and I think that’s given him confidence," Brooks said. "he understands the communication gap that was there last year is not there as much. he understands English much better.
"His game has also improved through all the hard work he’s put in during the summertime and throughout the year. He’s a terrific 17-foot jump shooter. he can finish around the basket very well and his defense, when he’s on, is at a premium in the league."
Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha, one of Ibaka’s closer friends on the team, has been impressed by his work ethic. Win or lose, good game or bad, Ibaka is among the first players in the gym the next day.
"he works really hard at it," Sefolosha said. "I’m not surprised to see him make that jump. he has a lot of talent."
Oh yes, that jump. Ibaka’s gravity-defying jumps, along with his power-driving skills, earned him an invite to All-Star weekend in Los Angeles for the Feb. 19 Slam Dunk Contest at Staples Center. He’s competing in an event with two other big men, hometown favorite Blake Griffin of the Clippers and Washington center JaVale McGee, and Toronto guard DeMar DeRozan. (Ibaka is also suiting up for the sophomores in the T-Mobile Rookie Challenge on Feb. 18.)
Durant is Ibaka’s personal coach for the event. The two have begun preparing dunks and going over their gameplan after practices
Brooks couldn’t help but question Ibaka’s choice of Durant.
"we say he’s smart, but he’s not that smart. he picked the wrong guy to coach him," Brooks quipped. "Kevin has one dunk — the one-handed tomahawk."
Ibaka has been in dunk contests before, so this is nothing new. except that it’s at NBA All-Star weekend with the world watching.
"That’s going to boost his confidence a lot," Durant said. "He’s one of those guys where people are starting to know his name and this builds him up a little bit. it should help him out."
Ibaka believes he can win. he won a dunk title in Spain and can throw it down from the foul line. plus, he’s not one for fretting over the odds.
"In the Slam Dunk contest, you never know," Ibaka said. "I’m just ready to compete against all three guys."
Art Garcia has covered the NBA since 1999. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.
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