Most NBA players spend their off-seasons in tropical locales, rolling around on pristine beaches and sipping on fine wines, their minds as far away from their jobs as possible.
“I mean, first of all, I’ve been to a tropical location already. I came back,” Siakam laughed. “But no, I think for me, I’m always wanting to do something [positive], and I know that I’ve been blessed with a lot of opportunities, being in the position that I am.”
The power forward was at Regent Park’s Bill Graham Youth Centre, sending a group of over 150 middle school girls into a Bieber Fever-esque frenzy as he gave them laptops to spark their interest in tech. The event was part of Siakam’s Coding for Champions program, in partnership with his PS43 Foundation and Penny Appeal Canada, which has so far devoted $406,000 to providing electronic access to local students in order to address the digital divide in the city.
This week’s event was aimed specifically at closing the gender gap in tech. Women currently make up only 25 percent of Canadians employed in science, tech, engineering, mathematics, and computer science careers.
“Knowing that technology is taking over, we just want to make sure that we give kids, especially young girls today, an advantage. It’s something that I’m really deeply passionate about,” said Siakam. “I would do anything to be here.”
With the support of local MP Marci Ien, the girls, aged 12 to 14, will hone their computer technology skills via a 10-week virtual course.
Siakam is coming off a stellar season, cracking the All-NBA team for the second time in his career. But he seems nearly just as passionate about his off-court work with the PS43 Foundation. He says his own experiences growing up in Africa, which is lagging behind the world in scientific and technological growth, made the Coding for Champions initiative especially important to him.
“Look around, man. There’s cell phones [everywhere]. I think that for me, being from Cameroon, I know the difficulties in not having access to technology. And I know that also here [in Toronto] as well, in some of these communities, you go to certain families and there’s one computer for the whole family. I think that just knowing that, wanted to make sure that I show support. And if a kid has an opportunity now to do his homework on his own and he has his own computer, they get to learn their own things. I think it encourages kids even more to want to learn.”
Sure, whenever athletes do these charity events, it’s easy to them write off as PR stunts—a way to counter public perceptions that they’re pampered and overpaid. But watching Siakam interact with kids, unable to erase the ear-to-ear grin from his face, it was apparent that he wasn’t in this for the brand-building. Dude genuinely wanted to be here. And seeing the can’t-believe-that-happened excitement on the young girls’ faces after talking to the Raptors star was enough to warm the coldest, most cynical of hearts.
Siakam has personal reasons for doing this kind of work as well. His late father, Tchamo—a former mayor of Makenene, Cameroon—always made sure to teach him about the importance of giving back. So this is one way of carrying on his legacy.
“It was something that my dad always was really big on,” said Siakam. “He really helped a lot of people and that’s something that he always instilled in me. He made sure that I continue his path.”
He’s also just got big love for Toronto. So it’s not that hard for him to spend his summers here being the people’s champ.
“There’s so many different people in Canada and in Toronto, especially, it’s just awesome,” he said. “And for me, being from Cameroon and being in a country like this, I feel really connected to the city, to the country, and so it’s easy to do things like this.”