The NBA Africa Game 2017 is the clear focus for all of the players participating in the exhibition game in Johannesburg on Saturday. The players have been heavily involved in the 15th edition of Basketball without Borders Africa and have spent a lot of time training with and imparting their knowledge of the game to the campers. They have also spent time giving back to the communities in need by working with Habitat for Humanity South Africa as well as SOS Children’s Village. But the Africa Game itself is the cherry on the cake of a special week.
For many it’s about the chance to show African NBA fans what they can do. For Serge Ibaka the Toronto Raptors forward/center it is a dream come true. The player who was born in Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo was injured in 2015 but still made the trip to South Africa to support the initiative and the players involved. Two years later and Ibaka is fit and raring to go and he’s backing Team Africa to win as he savors the experience. “Playing in my first NBA Africa Game, I’m going to enjoy the moment, I’m going to make sure I enjoy the moment. It’s going to be an historic moment in my life. One day I’m going to tell my kids (that I played in the NBA Africa game)” said a fired up Ibaka.
The magnitude of the occasion is not lost on the 2.08 metre Congolese star player. He’d dreamed of making it in the NBA when he was a young boy and his dreams came true. The NBA Africa Game is the culmination of those dreams and the merging of the dreams of many others who closed their eyes and imagined the world’s top stars playing on African soil. From the mind’s eye to reality is a big leap and its one Ibaka is proud to be making. “To me it’s more than a game. For the continent it’s more than a game. Maybe for a few of the people (out there) they may think it’s only a game. For us coming from Africa, and knowing I was born here I grew up here, this is more than a game.”
A few of the players on the Team Africa roster are returning to the fray for the 2017 Africa Game. Gorgui Dieng, Bismack Biyombo and Luc Mbah a Moute all took part in the very first game. It’s Ibaka’s turn now and he’s ready, ”I’m looking forward to playing with all of the guys, the African guys for the first time playing together. Because most of the guys, we don’t play together. I used to play with Thabo Sefolosha, he used to be my teammate in OKC. I think it’s a great opportunity to get together and get to know each other.”
Team World will be no pushovers though. Lead by 20-year NBA veteran and 13-time All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki, as well as All-Star guard Kemba Walker, they have a team of skillful and competitive players. Ibaka isn’t shying away from the challenge. In fact he’s rising to it and he wants Team Africa to rise to the challenge collectively, “I’m looking forward to playing against all of them. When you play against the best, it’s always fun to play against the best. It’s going to be a challenge for us. It’s going to be great for the young players from Africa to watch how we play against the best.”
The fun of the Africa Game is one of the aspects that Ibaka is enjoying, but he also thrives on giving back to the disadvantaged and he also loves helping young players reach for their dreams. Though his focus is the game on Saturday at 17:00 CAT, all of the events leading up to the game are equally as important as the game itself for Ibaka. The Congolese feels that the leg up the young players get these days is a phenomenal advantage. He started playing the game young as his parents played basketball but he didn’t have the same level of advice and training as the young campers are getting in the Basketball without Borders camp and also at initiatives like the NBA Academy in Senegal. Ibaka was struck by the opportunity afford the youth, both boys and girls who are getting a chance to rub shoulders with current and former NBA stars.
That fact that he didn’t have that option didn’t deter him, so he believes this current crop of talented young players have the world at their feet. Ibaka got emotional thinking about the experience the campers of today have compared to the lack of opportunities he came up against growing up, “I always tell those young players when I started to play basketball I didn’t have all of this. When I started to play basketball I didn’t have all of these opportunities. Coming here with nice shoes and nice jersey’s you know, playing on the same court as the NBA stars, man they’re blessed you know. I didn’t have that. When I played basketball, I played basketball just to play basketball, you know. There was nobody who’d believe in me, nobody who believed that one day basketball would take me that far. But now everybody believes in basketball.”
The NBA Africa Game is a chance for Africa to share it’s love for the game with some of the globes biggest stars and will be broadcast live on Kwesé’s television and digital platforms, as well as through its affiliate partner stations in more than 40 countries.
By Cyrus Rogers