For the average sports fan, Serge Ibaka's story is inspiring. After using the sport of basketball to flee his war-torn home country of Congo, Ibaka has gone from unknown international prospect to a major success story, playing an important role on contending teams in both NBA conferences. Despite great personal tragedy—he lost his mother as a young man and his father was imprisoned during the Second Congo War—he beat the odds.
Ibaka has dealt with questions about his age during his entire career, with people suggesting he is older than his listed age of 27. There isn't much in the way of hard data to imply this is true, but it has persisted anyway, in large part because of outdated, sometimes insidious ideas of what other continents are like.
Ibaka finally got fed up with the questions and speculation on Saturday, and he released a written statement on his Twitter account to dispel the rumors.
The eight-year veteran makes a poignant point about how the public views players who come from the African continent. Africa is absolutely massive, containing farm lands, major cities, and suburbs just like any other continent, but it is often treated as nothing but a vast jungle by outsiders.
Other NBA players have been exposed to versions of this, or have even flipped the dynamic on its head. Sixers center Joel Embiid turned that ignorance around on his friends when he arrived in America, telling them he had once killed a lion back in his home country of Cameroon.
"When they think about Africans, they think about us running around with lions and tigers and all those other animals," said Embiid. "When I got to Kansas I kind of used that to my advantage, talking about how I killed a lion and that’s how I became a man. At six years old I had to go into the jungle and kill a lion and had to carry it on my back and carry it back to the village to show I’m a man. And they bought into it."
Not everything can be laughed off so easily. In Ibaka's case, the implication is not only that he's older than his listed age, but that he would repeatedly and routinely lie about this fact to help preserve a fake image. It's insulting to where he comes from, but it's also a pretty obvious shot at his character.
Fans applauded him for finally speaking his mind on the subject.
Tell 'em https://t.co/1hfPnwCMy5— Marcus Thompson (@ThompsonScribe) July 1, 2017
Read this. Pay attention https://t.co/R8ONhpTcDb— Doug Smith: Raptors (@SmithRaps) July 1, 2017
When an NBA player has to clarify that he 'was not born in the jungle', we're really not in an awesome place. https://t.co/wxSAW2XbcP— Olgun Uluc (@OlgunUluc) July 1, 2017
To echo the chorus here, it's a shame Ibaka had to formally address this topic, but of course he did so with grace. And while he can't satisfy everyone, Ibaka has at least one group of believers. The Toronto Raptors extended his contract for $65 million over the next three years, clearly believing he has plenty of impactful play left in him. That's not a bad way to get revenge on the skeptics.