I must have been looking elsewhere at first, because all I remember was moving closer to the screen at one moment, saying to myself: “Who is this and how did I miss him?” The person in question was Serge Ibaka. His magnetic presence had appeared on my screen at the 2011 Slam Dunk Contest, as he stepped into the flashing lights and cheers, the NBA AFRICA flag flying behind him. It meant wherever the cameras pointed, the word ‘Africa’ and its most recent ambassador was being beamed around the world.
I wasn’t alone in my admiration. Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, commentating on the Dunk Contest remarked: “Tell you what, that kid has a great body.” That comment led the other commentators to tease Barkley about his body when he was Ibaka’s age. Barkley said they needed to come over to his house and watch old Barkley tapes. Ibaka then dunked from the free throw line. No seven-footer had attempted that dunk before. It was always left to the realm of the guards, especially Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving and The Greatest Michael Jordan. Ibaka dared to fly with the gods of the court and he soared.
In April of 2015, xenophobic violence spread throughout Durban in South Africa, and later spread to other parts of the country.
Back in September 2006 at a youth tournament in Durban, a young Serge Ibaka won MVP honors at The Afro-Basket Tournament. He was the top scorer, top rebounder and top shot blocker. Two years later he was playing in the NBA. His journey there was not anything like the journeys of the 700 Africans who perished at sea in April 2015 and the many others before and after them.
For every soul driven to a watery grave on the journey to seek a better life, there are a few that break through. That is the premise of the story of The Son of Congo directed by Adam Hootnick and produced by the sports and culture website Grantland. It’s their first documentary and it follows Serge Ibaka on his return to the country of his birth, The Republic of Congo.
The documentary also tries to tell the story of 15-year-old Ricardo. A boy, who dreams of the hardwood and of the United States. He plays barefoot (what else?) and wants to be like Serge. This story runs parallel to Serge’s visit home. While admirable Ricardo’s presence in the film is problematic – or unsatisfying – because we never know what will happen to Ricardo. The legendary 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams had the benefit of time – we follow the young protagonists and aspiring basketball players for years. This documentary doesn’t allow for the time and patience needed to do justice to Ricardo’s story and motivate his presence, other as the mirror of the young Serge. There is a scene where the two meet but for it to really ring true and for us to really sense who Serge used to be, and equally important who Ricardo is today – we need to know more about Ricardo. To use an example, this famous picture of Clinton meeting JFK only has resonance because we know that years later Clinton became President.
I understand why Ricardo is there but as Ibaka says the dream is free, so why not include more Ricardo’s – who deserve to be more than a mere story device – dream and journey too?
I thought of a few things while watching the documentary on Serge Ibaka. The documentary premiered as a full feature at the SXSW festival in March, and is available to be watched in episodic format on Grantland.
When Serge walks the streets of Kinshasa, he is greeted with a chorus’ of people asking him for money: ‘Give me the money and I’ll go!”, “I never get to see you, so give me the money so I can”, “Give me some money man”, “Give me something so my kids can have something to eat”, “Tell him to leave something”. In these scenes there are people that are happy to see him, but the pressure to drop something reigns supreme. What the film doesn’t provide, and maybe it doesn’t have to is the context of this poverty, beyond the spectacular. It’s the context that leads people to say “I’d rather die at sea than stay there”. It doesn’t mean that the film must tell the entire story of the Republic of Congo, but again, it means treating context and juxtaposing elements as more than just backdrops.
“There” is where most people live. And people look to folks like Ibaka to lift them out of “there”. Ibaka understands that. He lifted himself out of “there” against incredible odds. To hear his grandmother, Mama Titi tell the story, she uses Serge’s Christian name of Jonas. As Jonas sacrificed himself to save the sailors at sea and lived in the belly of the whale for three days, Ibaka, she maintains has returned from his journey to save the family.
Both Serge’s parents played for their national teams. His father Desire is a legend in Congo and his late mother Amadou represented her country, The Democratic Republic of The Congo on many occasions. The story of his mother is fondly recalled by his grandmother in a touching scene when the family reunites.
Serge’s mother died when he was very young. He grew up to a soundtrack of guns and death. This did not deter him. Basketball was the way out. He woke up at 4 A.M every morning to jog, sometimes with no food in his stomach. He kept his dream alive. His father, Desire, who worked in the ports of Brazzaville and Kinshasa was captured as a suspected anti-government rebel after crossing the Congo River in 2001. He was held without charge for two years and Serge had to fend for himself, first staying with his uncles. After an argument, he was kicked out of the house. He roamed the streets doing menial jobs, until he went to live with his grandmother. These same Uncles are the one’s he supports today. He forgave them. I thought of footballer Emmanuel Adebayor’s famous letter on Facebook in which he basically accuses his family of robbing him blind, which he posted, as he says: So other African families learn from this.
Ibaka’s family problem doesn’t seem to be at that level but scenes in the documentary reveal his frustration with his family at times. Along with the people of the streets and his family, Ibaka is the genie that they all wish to rub. Like others before him, his money goes into the community in other ways. The documentary shows him supporting Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo’s Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital in Kinshasa where he witnesses a young girl through the help of hearing aid that he puts on her, hear for the first time, his own money goes to support The Pediatrie De Kimbondo orphanage, he set up The Ibaka Games which are a series of clinics and exhibitions he created to help young Congolese basketball players get training and visibility with foreign scouts and he oversees the reconstruction of the Avenir du Rail basketball court, where his parents once played and where a young Serge first learned to play basketball.
He also learned something else on his journey, that he had a daughter, Ranie. This section of The Son of Congo is where the documentary sizzles because Ranie, like her dad is a force of nature. Her mother, who remains nameless, was Serge’s girlfriend before he left. He left not knowing she was pregnant. When the news about the pregnancy reached Ibaka’s family, his father Desire told the family that he would take financial responsibility for Ranie. Not wanting to put more pressure on a son that had left home for foreign lands, Desire kept her a secret for five years. The scenes between Ibaka and his daughter are the strongest scenes in the documentary as they reveal rare moments of intimacy in the context of a sport where the image of black male is both lauded and exploited to the maximum and where stories of caring fathers don’t really fit in. The Riley Curry press conference when MVP Steph Curry brought his two-year-old daughter to the podium is another such moment, which has become legendary. For me, its moments like Riley with Steph, Ranie with Ibaka that their true characters are revealed and one cannot help but smile.
While I am touched and moved by what Ibaka does to empower others, I’m more interested in his budding relationship with his daughter. Given his history, his upbringing, he is faced with the challenge of now raising a daughter. The image of African families torn apart by colonial exploitation and war is a real one that permeates today and so positive reinforcement of an attempt to redress that image is welcome. It’s something Brain Windhorst, Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless may never understand.
Documentaries like this live and die by their subject. In Serge Ibaka, the film has the perfect host. Charming (his nickname is Mister Avec Classe), funny (He states that the crocodiles of the River Congo know him by name) and a genius on the basketball court. He sacrificed a lot and gives a lot, for me, his greatest gift is his daughter.