Rex Kalamian noticed that Serge Ibaka was the most vocal Raptor on the floor during his first practices in Toronto this week. The power forward was quite different, the assistant coach reflected, from the Congolese rookie he had first coached in Oklahoma City some seven seasons ago, one who barely spoke English.
The Raptors assistant was happily reunited this week with a player he had coached with the Oklahoma City Thunder from 2009 to 2015, a kid who was raised against the backdrop of the Second Congo War, survived the death of his mother and the imprisonment of his father, and lived, at times, in the streets.
Today, the 27-year-old veteran rim protector is a newly acquired great hope for the Raptors, and fluent in four languages. He brings NBA Finals experience, fills the team's desperate need for a defensive voice, and will play his first game in a Toronto uniform Friday night against the visiting Boston Celtics.
"He can really clog the paint for us, take away some layups, rebound some misses, get to loose balls, and his length, speed and size will be tremendous assets for us," Kalamian said. "One of Serge's abilities is playing off the basketball. He played with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. When he sees the ball being driven, he knows how to relocate and how to play off a couple of stars. I anticipate he'll bring the same floor recognition and spacing to the floor here with Kyle [Lowry] and DeMar [DeRozan]."
Ibaka was born in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, the third youngest of 18 kids. He was just 8 when his mother died. Then, a few years later, his father was jailed for being on the wrong side of a battle line during the war. The boy who often lived on the streets, and seldom had food or shoes, was driven by basketball and eventually starred as a teenager at the 2006 FIBA Africa U-18 Championship.
After a short professional stint in Spain, the Seattle SuperSonics, the team that would become the Oklahoma City Thunder, selected Ibaka 24th over all in the 2008 NBA draft. By 2011, the athletically gifted 6-foot-10, 235-pound forward was a starter, thriving after centre Kendrick Perkins was traded to the Thunder to play alongside him.
"I've seen him grow out of that shell to the confident man he is today, and he's a very quick study," Kalamian said. "The players knew they could rely on him being at that rim to meet whoever was driving. Whatever breakdowns on the perimeter, he would be there to clean it up at the rim. Later on, he became a guy who could really switch onto point guards."
While Ibaka's skill set fits the gaping needs of the 33-24 Raptors who currently sit fourth in the NBA's Eastern Conference, the team is trying to manage expectations. His Raptors debut comes after just two days of practice in Toronto – both of them missed by all stars Lowry and DeRozan, who had yet to return from the all-star break (but are expected to play Friday).
"Serge can't come in overnight and pick up everything, but what he does pick up will be a huge help," said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. "I don't want us to expect 'Hey Ibaka's in, everything is fixed now.' No, we worked on some things for two days now that should help us, but it's on everybody that's dressed and ready to play to do their jobs."
In a few gatherings with media so far in Toronto, Ibaka has been a man of few words. Yet the fiery player with the humble back-story has always endeared himself to fans. Supporters in OKC nicknamed him "Serge I-BLOCK-a" and packed the local premier of the Grantland documentary on him, Son of the Congo.
He returns home each summer to help out – delivering hearing aids to malaria survivors, assisting orphanages full of sick, hungry kids and helping Congolese basketball players get noticed by foreign scouts. When he travels there, he's constantly swarmed by crowds of Congolese people wanting money, help or just to be near him.
"It was like travelling with Elvis," said Adam Hootnick, who directed the documentary. "It's been generations of near hopelessness in Congo. No matter how much he gives, it always seems like just a drop in the bucket, but that will never deter him from continuing to help."
He just spent a half season with the Orlando Magic, where he averaged 15.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, while shooting a career-best 38.8 per cent from three-point range. The big-game performer drew great acclaim for his play in the Western Conference final last season against the Golden State Warriors, when he was often forced to switch off Draymond Green to defend Steph Curry.
"I'm just going to try to bring my experience and my defensive game, my toughness, my energy," Ibaka said. "Because when you have guys like Kyle and DeMar, you don't need an offensive scoring guy really, you need a guy who can bring some physicality, defensive plays and energy."