When Serge Ibaka walks into a room, he makes the first move – immediately introducing himself to every person, with eye contact, a polite “Nice to meet you,” and then, with the same massive mitt that has blocked the best shooters in the NBA, he shakes every hand. This is Mr. Avec Classe, a nickname he’s given himself because he believes that the way you treat others and the way you present yourself comes down to respect. His passion and humour come across in all four of his languages (Lingala, French, Spanish and English), and he is an incomparable source of inspiration, considering he survived a harrowing childhood in the war–torn Republic of the Congo to become a reigning NBA champion. Thirty–year–old Ibaka is now in his 10th year in the league, his fourth as a Toronto Raptor, but he is starting to build a brand outside of basketball. This fall, he’ll launch the third season of his YouTube cooking and interview show, How Hungry Are You?, where Mafuzzy Chef (Ibaka’s onscreen persona) invites famous guests to try his take on traditional African dishes. He’s also developing a fashion-related program for LeBron James’ media company, Uninterrupted, and soon he’ll release a documentary about his experience this past summer bringing the NBA Championship trophy to the Republic of the Congo. We sat down with the 6'10" renaissance man at Seoul Shakers in Toronto to talk about his projects, the value of food and how, for Serge Ibaka, there are no limits.
enRoute After the Raptors’ momentous win, you declared, “I’m an NBA champion, anything is possible.” What led you to this reaction?
Serge Ibaka When I see myself now and think of my past, there’s no connection – it’s like day and night. The people where I come from, who saw me growing up, they don’t believe it. Even though I’ve been in the NBA for 10 years, they’re still shocked. They think that I do magic; they call it voodoo. It’s sad because they don’t believe that anything’s possible. I want people to see that through hard work, dedication, patience and sacrifice, you can reach your goal.
ER You were the third–youngest of 18 kids, your mother died at a young age and, for part of your childhood, your father was a political prisoner. You often didn’t have food or a place to sleep. What kept you going through the darkest moments?
SI All those bad things that were happening to me are what kept me going. I needed something to put those things out of my mind. So I put all my energy into basketball. People would see me out running at four in the morning and they’d say, “Basketball isn’t going to take you anywhere, nobody is going to see you, there’s no scout coming, why waste your time?” But I pushed myself because I didn’t have anything to lose. I told myself, “Nothing’s going to be worse than this, than what I’m living already.”
ER Since leaving Brazzaville, you’ve lived and played in Spain and in three different cities in North America. How do you describe home?
SI Number one, home is where you were born and raised. Congo is home–home. But of all the places I’ve lived, Toronto is home for me now. It’s going to stay that way forever. I was born in Congo, but Toronto was where I made my story.
ER You discovered you had a daughter, Ranie, in Congo, when she was already five years old – what qualities and life lessons do you want to pass down to her?
SI I want her to understand how blessed she is, to appreciate everything in life and to stay humble. It’s not easy these days, with social media and 10–year–olds having brand new iPhones. Recently, she told me that her favourite place to visit is Venice, Italy. I thought, “Wow, that wasn’t the world I was living in.” At her age, I wasn’t even thinking of a good education because I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I tell her how important it is to respect everybody. When she sees someone in the street asking for money, if she has something, she should give it because her dad used to be the same.
ER What do you and Ranie cook in the kitchen?
SI Actually, we compete in the kitchen. She thinks she cooks better than me. We give each other a hard time. But I’m glad that she loves to cook – she makes a good pasta.
ER You know what it’s like to be hungry, to not eat every day. How has that affected your outlook on your success?
SI My dream when I was growing up was not to play basketball, it was to have breakfast every day. I would dream about toast, omelettes, a soda. If I could have had breakfast, lunch and dinner, I don’t know if I would have trained to play basketball, because my life would have been perfect.
“My dream when I was growing up was not to play basketball, it was to have breakfast every day. I would dream about toast, omelettes, a soda.”
ER In your show, making food for your guests goes beyond just providing sustenance. What makes the act of cooking meaningful for you?
SI I know the value of food and I want to share that. You may not like a particular food, but somewhere people are praying to have it. Cooking is a way for me to connect with others. They know that I’m going to serve them something crazy, but they still come to my show – they trust me. This season I had Kevin Durant. He said, “I never had this before. I’ve been scared to try it, but today I’m going to try it.” It makes me proud that all of my guests have tried the food that I made for them.
ER On your show, you encourage guests to eat with their hands, as is often done in Africa. How does that enhance the experience of a meal?
SI I know when you go to some places you can’t eat with your hands, you have to follow the rules. But when I’m at home, I love to eat with my hands – I feel like food tastes better. I ask my guests to try it because I’m proud of my culture.
ER In the summer, you brought the Larry O’Brien trophy to Congo. You even took it to the restaurant where you used to beg for food. What are your most unforgettable memories from that trip?
SI I never thought that one day I would bring the trophy to Congo. I thought, “This must be fake.” I had to tell myself, “Serge, you’re not shooting a movie, you’re not acting, you’re an NBA champion and you’re bringing the trophy home.” When I brought it to the house where I used to live, my family was celebrating, jumping, cheering, screaming. Their brother had won the NBA championship. It was so emotional for me. It’s not a mistake – I didn’t do voodoo. It was hard work, dedication and no excuses. Nothing can scare me anymore, nobody can say to me, “You can’t do that.” No, no, no, anything’s possible, there’s no limit.
After Serge Ibaka’s cover shoot at Seoul Shakers, a Korean–inspired snack bar in Toronto that was a contender for Canada’s Best New Restaurants in 2019, he sat down with chef Jason Poon to chat food, sports and how to turn crickets into burgers.