For the new issue of ‘Men’s Journal,’ writer Chad Nielsen sat down with fast-rising NBA star Serge Ibaka, who in just six short years has gone from fending for himself on the streets of the war-ravaged Republic of Congo to a $49 million contract with the young and über-talented Oklahoma City Thunder. An excerpt from his remarkable story:
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.
According to Ibaka’s Spanish agent, Pere Gallego, who first signed the prodigy to a European team in 2007, he has spoken of a period when he slept on the street and snatched scraps from restaurant tables. When Ibaka is asked for details today, his easygoing manner shifts. “It was a hard time,” he says, voice trembling. “I don’t like to talk anymore about that time. It’s in the past now. I don’t want to go back.”
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.