Christmas can be complicated for many people.
There are the joys of the moment: of family and friends and new things, and to appreciate what you have and what the season brings.
And there are feelings that so many others share or even feel in parallel: thoughts about who is not there to share the moment with you, what you missed or never had.
In all of this, Serge Ibaka is no different from many others. His vacation memories as a child are full of joy, but also full of pain. Of what he had and what he lost.
Christmas in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, is different from that in Toronto. Ibaka will tell you that.
"Since I left Congo, I don't think I've enjoyed Christmas as much as when I was at home," he said recently after spending his typical full day at the Raptors OVO Athletic Center. "Now I'm old, so it's different. But when I was a little child it was so much fun, man."
NBA on Christmas day
The Raptors and Celtics give an indication of a full Christmas day on Sportsnet, Sportsnet ONE and SN NOW with reporting from 11:30 ET / 8:30 PT, followed by 76ers vs. Bucks, Lakers vs. Clippers and nuggets vs. Pelicans.
This is Ibaka's 11th NBA season and the 15th as a professional since the 30-year-old left home – first to France and then to Spain before joining the NBA at the age of 20. He didn't make it back to the Congo at Christmas, since then the memories of home still light up his broad, chiseled face. His eyes dance.
"At Christmas in the Congo you can see everyone outside on the street – it is so nice outside, unlike in Toronto. All children dress well, play with their toys, their games, plastic guns, bicycles, wear masks and make Photos, it was beautiful, I miss those moments.
"We would have a big dinner with my grandmother and there would be music."
And – not surprisingly, since Ibaka made a name for himself as a chef with his popular YouTube series How Hungry Are You – there was food and goodies.
"We drank soda and it was special," he says. "It's not like what you say here:" I don't drink soda. "No, it was something special – you didn't get it every day. It was on special occasions.
"And everyone would eat rice with" Saka Saka "(a dish made from cassava leaves, ground with palm butter, okra, garlic, peppers and other ingredients). You have to have it, it's so good."
This Christmas in Toronto, he starts his day with his father Desire and his 13-year-old daughter Ranie.
"I give her what she wants," he says. "What I didn't have, she did."
And then he'll go to work and speak at the Scotiabank Arena with the Toronto Raptors against the Boston Celtics as the NBA's annual Christmas calendar ends outside of the United States for the first time. It is an honor to win the NBA championship.
Among other things, such an award was a larger platform for various members of the Raptors to share their stories and reconnect with their communities. The Larry O & # 39; Brien Trophy served as a shiny, gold touchstone – proof of what is possible, regardless of the circumstance.
Raptors Point Guard Fred VanVleet brought the trophy back to the hard streets of Rockford, Illinois, where they held a parade for their favorite son. Kyle Lowry took it to the C.B. Moore Recreation Center in North Philadelphia, where he learned the game, and offered a lesson about where it can take you. Raptor's President Masai Ujiri brought the dusty dishes from Zaria, Nigeria, and Pascal Siakam to Douala, Senegal.
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When Ibaka got his chance, he took the trophy to the streets of Brazzaville, where Christmas was not always filled with toys and family and soda and Saka Saka.
Sometimes playing basketball on Christmas Day was an escape.
"That's why I love basketball so much," he says. “When I needed something to lean on, when I had to go somewhere to spend my time and forget things. Basketball was there. "
Ibaka's mother died when he was seven years old. When he was 12, his father was jailed for political reasons, a byproduct of a bloody civil war in the region.
For a few years – between these childhood memories full of color and celebrations and later when basketball took him around the world – Ibaka was essentially an orphan who took care of himself.
"Christmas in Brazzaville for young Serge had many ups and downs," he says, and the third person offers a bit of distance. “When I had my parents, it was different. Then I lost my mother and my father was in prison and it was different again.
“I remember when my mother was alive for Christmas, she bought me everything I wanted. I was the only boy, the only son, and I knew that, so I was greedy. I think those were my favorite moments. And then she was gone and it was rough.
"Of course, I wouldn't lie to you at the time when it was difficult, I wasn't happy about it. It was sad. It was disappointing. I asked myself:" Why me? "
The run of the Raptors & # 39; Championship was not only the trigger for the first game on Christmas day of the franchise – one of the coveted slots on the NBA game plan – but also provided an opportunity to experience some of the moments in which it was grew up rethinking to better understand his story and the inspiration it can give to others.
The result was a recently released documentary, Anything is Possible, in which Ibaka brings the NBA championship home. One of the film's most powerful moments is Ibaka's return to the little street cafe where he was a boy eating the leftovers left by strangers on plates, and remembering how he walked the streets of the The city had run dark hunting bottles to trade for money.
When he first approached the old neighborhood as an adult, champion and rich man, Ibaka – one of the NBA's toughest rivals, a both respected and feared physical presence – was moved to tears.
The documentary premiered earlier this month in the TIFF Bell Lightbox in front of fans, friends, and teammates, some of whom knew its story – or the outline thereof – and many who did not.
“To actually see it on the screen and see what he went through to get to this place, it speaks volumes about his work ethic and why he does what he does. You will understand him better, ”says Raptors attacker Malcom Miller. "People don't see the vulnerable Serge. They see him diving and screaming, but it's not the basketball Serge Ibaka – it's the human Serge Ibaka. You can see how these two lives interlock and one after the other added to create the player and the person he is today. "
No one was happier for Ibaka to tell his story than his teammates who saw him grow from the somewhat reserved presence that joined the Raptors three years ago to the outgoing leader he has since become ,
"If you know Serge, you know he's begging for food in this restaurant and cleaning the streets for money," says Lowry. "But it was incredible that he was filming it and people were watching it and seeing it for themselves.
"[But] he's more confident. You win a championship and something like that happens. You can go other ways," says Lowry. "I think winning a championship gave him a bigger stage to be on his continent People, and he is doing even more now. "
Ibaka's purpose in sharing his story is not to draw attention to the low points in his life, but to demonstrate that these challenges need not be defined.
They were not for him, even if it is easy to draw a line between these difficulties in childhood and his tireless – almost legendary – work ethic and careful preparation or his extrajudicial passions for food and fashion.
He is not the first to experience trauma, who is determined to work hard to protect what he deserves, to be aware of how fragile it can be, or the first to as an adult appreciates what he didn't always have as a child.
His motivation to share his story is not at the beginning, but at the end. This is the gift he wants to share for Christmas.
"It was painful, but it's part of life. That made me who I am," he says of those early years in Brazzaville. "Ultimately, all the big things you see have small beginnings .
“Sometimes things happen for a reason, and those reasons make us what we are now. I feel like it made me stronger. "
Not surprisingly, he is ready to help those who need it. Through his charitable foundation, Ibaka is working to make a career-long dream come true, to fund an orphanage in Brazzaville to help children who had the needs he had at a young age. He also runs post-school basketball programs for teenagers and girls in six different West African countries.
It has been a long process for Ibaka to become the person and player he is today. Not everything went smoothly. There have been storms that many people would never have weathered.
But this Christmas the boy from Brazzaville can call himself a champion and he hopes that this is a gift that he can give again and again. He deals with the season and all its complications.
"[Before] I didn't want to talk about the bad things," he says. "Most people ask me about life in the Congo and it is not always poor – it is not always sad.
"But [now] I am happy to talk about my story because it is who I am – it is what made me. So if you want to achieve something but … you have doubts, you can help my story.
"As a small child, the moment you wonder if it's Christmas – why don't I have that?" Why don't I have my mother? Why don't I have my father? "But now I look back and think:" That's why. My story can help everyone – that's the beauty of it. "