All throughout Pascal Siakam’s career, adoring fans and NBA observers have looked to take note of his mesmeric rise.
We know the story like the back of our hand at this point. From New Mexico State to G League assignment to G League champion to NBA champion and the stops in between. What we know so much less about is Siakam’s experience as a black man in North America. The success he’s had over the course of his basketball career has made his play the focal point. The loss of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery’s lives at the hands of police brutality and the resulting worldwide outrage have sparked the need for this overdue and necessary conversation.
“When you look at the issues, it’s about police brutality, and just watching that video, it’s really… it hurts,” Siakam said. “I’m speechless just thinking about it. Seeing someone take someone else’s life just like that, that’s heartbreaking. I think about the families and the people—you know, he was crying out for his mom. I know how big I am on family. I can just connect to that and I’m a black man. It hurts, like, it hurts…
“This is something that exists, and I’m sorry to say it, but if you don’t see it then you must be blind or something.”
"It can happen to anyone. I’m not from the U.S. but anywhere in the world when you see injustice, it needs to be called out."
Growing up in Cameroon, Siakam did not know what it was to be seen as a minority. Back home in Douala, it’s every other race but black that’s viewed as a minority. Coming to the United States of America at the age of 18 to pursue a basketball career and an education was always going to present a unique challenge.
“I think, for me, I was well-educated about other people existing, other races, and I knew what was coming,” Siakam said from his Toronto apartment. “But going into it, it was all so strange, just seeing different people, how people act in different cultures, and obviously it's a different culture than my culture where I'm from, and it's something totally different. Just seeing that was a shock. It was definitely a shock.
“But I think I've learned, and also being in basketball communities most of the time in the U.S., you have mostly more black people around you, and obviously I've learned to see different races for who they are and accepting every other race. But it was definitely a shock, a shock at the beginning.
Siakam noticed the way he would be racially profiled walking into a store, the presumption of guilt as if he was there to do anything but make a purchase. He knew his life was different, he knew that was something that never would have happened back home. But he also knew he was trying to survive, trying to keep alive the dream his father had of making the NBA. And so, he accepted it as a way of his new life.
“The sad part for me is having to normalize it. Like, I felt like that was, 'Okay, that's just what happens when you're that colour and you go into something that seems to be fancy,” Siakam explained about the realities of being black in America. “'Oh, I have to just accept the fact that people are going to look at me a little weird, and they're gonna watch me a little bit.' Which is sad. You know, it's sad that I have to program my mind to be able to think like that and know that, 'It’s okay, don't freak out, it's okay, they're doing that because it's supposed to be normal.'
“And man, that's sad… That's just the country we live in.”
"When people act like they are not seeing it, I think that is what hurts the most for me because it’s there."
Before Siakam made the trip from Douala to Dallas where he finished high school, his older brothers had already got a taste of America. Christian Siakam played for the IUPUI Jaguars for four years and James represented Vanderbilt. Neither had much to share about their experiences with regards to race but recent events have helped them realize that the times of those conversations going unheard have to end now. As a result, Pascal learned for the first time how his brother, when working for a car rental company, had a customer walk in and ask to speak to an American.
“I don’t know what that means,” Siakam said. “Maybe because he was African or maybe his accent or maybe because he was black. What was it? Just things like that, different things like that, that before I probably didn’t even know, but just learning that, man. It just shows you the true colours and how deep this runs. I think everyone is tired of it and everyone feels like it’s time that it stops.”
Within the organization itself, Raptors president Masai Ujiri was forced to face that reality in the wake of the team winning its first NBA title in franchise history. It beggars belief that the president of a championship-winning team could be forced to reckon with racial profiling in that moment, but racial discrimination has rarely been wary of status, as those who vandalized LeBron James’ Los Angeles property proved in 2017, spray-painting the n-word on his front gate.
Those are moments that sting, but Ujiri and James can still breathe. George Floyd can’t, and neither can Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery. Watching the video of Floyd being slowly murdered over the course of nearly nine minutes by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin while three other officers couldn’t have cared less for a black life has left a scar on Siakam. He wants to see changes in the police system that include better training, but also wants to see a greater sense of accountability from the public that includes learning about different races and places and specifically communicating about things people are unaccustomed to or uncomfortable with.
“I don’t have all the answers, but, as long as we admit that it is there, because I feel like most of the time we don’t,” Siakam said. “And when people act like they are not seeing it, I think that is what hurts the most for me because it’s there. There’s no way you don’t see it. We should be able to see it and admit that it is there and take steps forward. I think there will be a bigger conversation about this but, for me, I am always a person that likes to share love and that has always been my message. But just seeing the people hurting, like I’m hurting, man. It can happen to anyone. I’m not from the U.S. but anywhere in the world when you see injustice, it needs to be called out.
“That’s just what it is no matter what part of the country you are from. I think you have to be able to see that and be able to just say this is wrong and this needs to change.”