For Toronto Raptors Serge Ibaka, Giving Back is Personal
“I don’t know if you know my story, but at one point, I used to be on the street”.
A humble Serge Ibaka stands by his locker as he speaks about how his past has helped shaped the player and the person he is today. The Toronto Raptors have just picked up one of the biggest wins of their season, routing the Boston Celtics by a score of 118-95, yet the 29-year old centre remains calm and collected as he discusses his life off the court.
“Coming from where I come from, to me, I feel like it’s an obligation to do that and I enjoy doing it,” explains the Congolese native, touching on his charitable efforts away from the hardwood. “My mom died when I was seven so all of my life, I grew up with my dad – with no mom – to me, I know what the struggle is for those kids out there. The ones with no parents or the ones that live in the streets because I used to be one of those kids too.”
Growing up Congo, Ibaka was raised in poverty. His basketball future was never guaranteed – in fact, neither was food.
“I used to go to the restaurants, so when people finished to eat, I could eat the rest of the food,” reminisces Ibaka. “I used to try to do whatever it took to find food, to find bread. I used to cover my face to ask for money, ask for food because my family was a big name before my dad went to prison and I had to put something over my face, a hoodie, so nobody in my neighbourhood could see my face. I had to do those kind of things.”
The third youngest of 18 children, started playing basketball at a very young age. At one point, his father played for the Congolese national team and his mother, prior to her passing, played for the Democratic Republic of Congo. The game was always in his blood, but it was the hurdles that Ibaka had to hop to find his way to the NBA.
“I was playing basketball and then I stopped because you know, no food or shoes,” says the 10-year NBA veteran. “I’m thinking, ‘why am I playing basketball?’ If I don’t have no shoes, it’s hard. I adore basketball, but I thought about stopping to go find some small job to find something to eat.
So when I stopped playing basketball, I went to live with my grandma and where she lived, there was no basketball there, so for me to play, I had to walk 2-3 hours. It was too much and I was still hustling for food. And then one day, one guy – he was old – he used to play basketball with my dad. One day he saw me walking. Maybe 2-3 years later, after I stopped playing basketball and he was like ‘Serge, come here. You got to go back to playing basketball. If you need bread in the morning, I will take care of that.’
I remember that guy, he was the reason I came back to basketball.”
That was when Ibaka’s future in basketball really took off and everything began to piece together.
“The same year I came back to play basketball, I got selected with the Junior national team for Congo,” explained Ibaka. “When we went to South Africa, that’s where everything started. It is where my agent saw me – the same year.”
It is his upbringing that keeps Ibaka close to home and focused on giving back to the people who are in a similar situation to the one he was in as a child.
“I don’t give my money to people who need it,” says Ibaka. “I give it to the kids who don’t have families or who live in the streets because those are the people who need it the most. How do I know they need it the most? Because I used to be one of those kids. My dream used to be to just wake up in the morning and just have one piece of bread. That’s it. I would be happy to just have bread in the morning, I would be happy. I used to eat bread in the morning, bread for lunch and then wait until like 9:00 PM to see if I had something to eat then.”
Now, a member of the Toronto Raptors, he constantly thinking of giving back. His very own Serge Ibaka Foundation is currently working on a new project that will aim to help the homeless people of Toronto.
“We are going to start a project,” explains Ibaka as he gives brief insight on his foundation’s big plans. “We are still trying to figure out a name for it, but we will try to give the homeless food twice a week, so they can go to a place [a shelter that Ibaka’s Foundation will support] and get free meals and clothes. I want to try to talk to my teammates or whoever wants to get involved and we will see.”
In April of 2017, Ibaka was named as the newest member elected to the board of directors of the NBPA Foundation. The foundation provides current NBA players with the funding and support they require for community engagement projects worldwide.
.@sergeibaka's mom passed away when he was 8, his father was wrongfully imprisoned for a year & he was once homeless and hungry on the streets. That is why he chooses to return to The Congo to help others through the @IbakaFoundation. pic.twitter.com/3CWlzHnd2C
— UNINTERRUPTED (@uninterrupted) October 18, 2018
“The funny story is, when I got to the NBA and started doing it,” says Ibaka. “I didn’t want anybody to know. Because I know only one person is watching, it’s G-d. To me that matters. He is the one that’s given me everything that I have right now.”
A fearless competitor on the court, off the floor, Ibaka is one of the true Giants of Africa.