It was right after this hard time, however, that Ibaka's formal basketball education began. When he was 14, his grandmother sent him to train with one of his father's old teammates. On a dirt court, using cardboard insoles to cover the holes in his sneakers, Ibaka sharpened his game. Every morning before dawn, he would jog across the city to a steep hill dotted with earthen houses and sprint to the top. Soon, he was competing for the Republic of Congo's under-18 team at the 2006 African championships. Anicet Lavodrama, a scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers and an ex-player who'd competed against Serge's father, was watching. "There was no doubt he belonged in the NBA," Lavodrama says.
Ibaka left for Europe a year later. Lavodrama recommended him to Gallego, who placed him on a team in the Barcelona suburbs. Scouts flocked to the region that season, and Ibaka was picked 24th overall in the 2008 draft. Onstage at Madison Square Garden, 6,000 miles from his birthplace, he flashed a grin that suggested he was right at home.
Today, six years after leaving Brazzaville, Ibaka inhabits a very different world. He has deals with Adidas and Sprite, and a celebrity girlfriend, the singer Keri Hilson. He lives in a three-story townhouse five minutes from Chesapeake Energy Arena, next door to one of his new best friends, Kevin Durant. "He's always coming over, just walking into my house, eating my food," Durant says, laughing. "All my Pop-Tarts and chips." They are like brothers now, only one speaks Lingala better than English.
On a crisp afternoon in November, Ibaka sits beside the Thunder practice court in black jeans and a snug black tee. His deltoids bulge – he's gained 15 pounds of muscle over the past three years. He is the last player here, after shooting threes, lifting weights, and icing his thighs post-practice. "Blocking shots is about preparing your body," he says. "You have to lift weights – and your legs, make them solid. But from there, it's mental. Like, this guy has got two, three baskets. He isn't going to put the next one in."
That attitude drove a monster block of a LeBron James dunk during game two of the 2012 NBA Finals, one Ibaka celebrated with an irreverent finger wag. "Ibaka's one of the few guys in the league that can match LeBron in terms of size and strength," says ESPN analyst Chris Broussard. "He's very athletic, and he's got great timing. Even if he doesn't block the shot, he's changing the shot because you're thinking about where he is."
Ibaka is a work in progress, but teammates expect him to grow from a blocking specialist into a solid scorer. He's already moving in that direction, with more minutes and more points this season than last. "His offensive game is expanding every single year," Durant says. "Just look at him now – he's shooting threes."
During the summer, Ibaka returns to Congo to visit his grandmother, run a basketball camp, and volunteer with UNICEF, helping children who live on the streets as he once did. Asked how it feels to finally make it, he answers without hesitation. "I have not arrived," he says, glancing up through a bay of skylights. "When I was drafted, I thought, I still have a lot to work on, many things to do in order to arrive. Yet even now, I have not arrived. But I will."