Serge Ibaka, basketball, NBA
Credit: Photograph by Ben Rasmussen

On Thanksgiving Day in 2011, while the rest of his teammates were taking tryptophan naps, Oklahoma City forward Serge Ibaka arrived at the Thunder's practice facility for a workout. He wasn't supposed to be there – even the security guards were off that day – but, undeterred, Ibaka used his passcode to enter. He was later fined for breaking team rules, but according to head coach Scott Brooks, "Every day is a day of work with him. He does not take days off. He comes back at night. On the court, in the weight room, in the film room."

That discipline has carried Ibaka, 23, all the way from his war-ravaged homeland of the Republic of Congo to the NBA elite. He led the league last season with 241 blocked shots – 106 more than the next guy – while playing just 27.2 minutes a game. He made the All-Defensive First Team and finished second in voting for Defensive Player of the Year. Now in his fourth season, he is the defensive key to the Oklahoma City Thunder's young core, a game-changing force with a bright future to match his $49 million contract extension.

Born in 1989 in Brazzaville, Ibaka grew up in a family compound of small brick homes. In the courtyard, his grandfather ran a low-key social club, playing music and serving drinks. Serge shot hoops in the street with a miniature soccer ball, emulating his parents – his father was a 6-foot-7 forward for the Congolese national team, and his mother played for the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. "I liked growing up in a family atmosphere," he told an Oklahoma paper during his first year in the U.S. "We took care of each other."

He lived a modest but comfortable life until his grandfather died, followed by his mother, both of whom had fallen ill.

When Serge was seven, war erupted – a localized conflict that became part of the broader Congo wars that, between 1998 and 2003, killed an estimated 5.4 million people. He fled with his grandmother to a town near the northern border until the violence subsided some three years later. With no home to return to, Serge moved in with his father, whose work as a customs agent frequently took him across the Congo River. But one day, during a period of political tension, his father was arrested while on a work trip in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, and jailed for two years.