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Serge Ibaka: My crazy summer

From being stuck in a foreign country during a coup attempt, to being traded from the only team I’ve ever played for, it’s been a wild ride.

The second time my phone blew up this summer, I couldn’t sleep at all. Instead, I stayed up until 5 a.m. watching the news. It’s not that I was scared — having grown up in the Congo, it takes a lot to scare me — but I was worried. It’s not every day that you’re in a country in the middle of a coup.

We had arrived in Turkey a day earlier, on Thursday, July 14. My friend, Samuel Eto’o — the striker for Turkish club Antalyaspor and one of the greatest African soccer players ever — had organized a charity soccer game to be played in the city of Antalya on Saturday. The rosters featured some of the best current and former players in the world, like Lionel Messi, Eden Hazard, Michael Essien, and Jay-Jay Okocha. I love soccer and I was excited to be a part of the weekend. I spent Friday at the pool of our hotel then put on my tuxedo for the evening gala.

At first, everything was great. Everyone had smiles on their faces and good food on their plates. Then, around 11 p.m., my phone started buzzing. Friends were texting me, and fans were tweeting at me. People wanted to know if I was safe. Others at the gala began receiving similar messages. That’s when word of the military coup started to spread. All we knew at the time was that some members of the Turkish Armed Forces were attempting to seize control of certain parts of the country’s capital, Ankara. 

Antalya is about a six-hour drive south from the capital, but this clearly was a dangerous time for the country. You could see the expressions on the faces in the room flip from happiness to fear. At that moment, it didn’t matter how far the capital was from where we were. All we wanted to do was go home.

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We knew Saturday’s soccer match would be canceled, so we started looking for flights home. One of my managers, Jordi Vila, was really pushing to leave that night, but all of the airports were closed. We didn’t know when we’d be able to leave, or what would happen. The United States canceled all flights to Turkey, and the State Department issued travel warnings. I had no idea when or how I’d get back home. All we could do was go back to the hotel.

So, I spent the night watching the news. I learned that the military forces trying to take control of the country were fighting civilians and police in the streets. Hundreds of people reportedly died, and more than 2,000 were injured. Some Turkish Parliament buildings were bombed, too. 

By later Saturday morning, though, the government had wrestled back control of the country. Things, it seemed, were safe. I still couldn’t fly back to the United States, but on Sunday, we boarded a plane to Barcelona. We stayed there one night, and then caught a flight to Las Vegas, where I would be training.

That was certainly not how I expected my summer vacation to end.

Then again, not much the past few months have gone according to plan.

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It took me a long time to get over our loss to the Golden State Warriors. Up 3–1 in the Western Conference finals, we had them. Honestly, I’m still not over it, but I couldn’t talk about that series, or basketball, for a couple of weeks afterward. During the NBA Finals, friends came over to watch one of the games, but seeing the Warriors on the screen got me so upset I had to leave.

It was actually my 10-year-old daughter who finally snapped me out of my funk. We were out at dinner one night, and a TV was showing the Finals. I kept turning my head, trying to avoid watching, and my daughter saw how unhappy I was.

“It’s O.K., Daddy,” she said. “You did everything you could.”

Hearing that from someone I love brought me back to life. I realized it was time to get on with my life and take advantage of the summer. NBA players don’t get that much time off, so it’s important to take advantage of what little vacation we get to spend time with our families and refuel our souls.

This summer, my schedule included a ton of traveling. The plan was to visit Milan, Paris, Barcelona and then Antalya, before heading to Las Vegas. Of course, then Orlando was added to the itinerary, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

There’s never really any downtime as a professional basketball player if you want to continue to excel at your craft. My trainer comes with me everywhere I go, and we always check beforehand to make sure the places I’m traveling will have gyms available nearby. My leisure time is the part of my vacation days that makes it into pictures and videos — really, you see enough of me playing basketball during the season — but I’m still waking up at six in the morning so that I can work out for a few hours before going out for the day.

Still, it’s important to have passions off the court, too, and one of mine is fashion. As such, my first stop was Milan, a place I had never been before, for Fashion Week. I get my appreciation for style from my father and my culture. Where I come from, we’re a people that love to dress well. 

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When I was young, I didn’t have the money to buy fancy clothes, but the thing I always wanted and dreamed about was a pair of J.M. Weston shoes. They’re beautiful, and they didn’t even have a store in the Congo; you had to go to Spain to get them. But in Congo, if you were really into fashion, then owning a pair J.M. Weston shoes was a must. It showed you were very successful and aware of high style.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I decided I could finally afford them. I bought one pair for myself and a pair for my dad. They cost me like $10,000, but I didn’t care. Some things are priceless, especially when it fulfills a childhood dream. I wear mine whenever I can, and they remind me of home. NBA fans know me from my time in the United States, and from playing internationally for Spain, but I definitely haven’t forgotten where I from, and I put a lot of my off-court time and effort into doing things for my native Congo.

After Milan, it was time to visit Paris, a place I love. I have family there and know the city well. Also, Paris has great Congolese food, which annoyed my friends because it’s all I wanted to eat. They kept trying to make reservations at fancy restaurants when all I wanted was a nice plate of saka saka! Food arguments aside, we were having a great time. We saw some wonderful museums and shows, and I even ran into new Chicago Bull (that still sounds odd) Dwyane Wade and the New York Giants’ Victor Cruz at Palais de Tokyo. 

Then came June 24, Thursday night, and my phone started buzzing with alarming frequency. We were at dinner when I started to get text messages, tweets — all types of people reaching out and asking about the rumors. At first, I had no idea what anyone was talking about. Then I recalled it was draft night, and saw talk that the Thunder, the team that drafted me in 2008 and the only NBA team I’ve ever played for, were thinking about trading me. 

Still, I assumed the rumors were just, well, rumors. We live with these kinds of things all the time, and there are always rumblings around draft time, so I was confident that this was nothing of substance. I was so confident, in fact, that I decided to turn my phone off, and after dinner went straight back to the hotel to go to sleep.

I slept well that night, too.

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When I woke up that Friday, I checked my phone and saw that I had missed calls from my agent, manager and dad. That’s when I knew that the rumors must have been true, and that my time in Oklahoma City had come to an end. I called my manager, who asked me to meet him in the hotel lobby. There he told me that I had been traded to the Magic. I spent most of that day on phone speaking to different people, including Orlando GM Rob Hennigan. He used to work for the Thunder, and I’ve known him for a while. He told me how happy he was to add me to the team, how he trusted me and believed in me. That conversation made me feel good about my new opportunity and the future.

I never asked to be traded, even though there was a lot of media conjecture that I was unhappy with my role. I had an exit meeting with Billy Donovan and Sam Presti after the season, and both went well. But this is still a business, everybody has to do what’s best for them, and I let my agent deal with the business side of things. I just focus on basketball. I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to go in and ask for a trade, and I would have been happy staying with the Thunder. Playing in the NBA was my dream, and I’d be happy playing anywhere.

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Still, I’m really going to miss Oklahoma City. The fans love basketball there and the Thunder is one of the best organizations in sports. It’s been a tough summer for them for sure. I didn’t know what Kevin was going to do but I know it was a big decision for him, and if it makes him and his family happy then I’m happy for him. I have the utmost respect for both him and Russell Westbrook. Obviously, I’m disappointed that our group was never able to bring the city a championship, but I had some great times there, and so many moments I’ll never forget.

Right now, though, I feel like a rookie again. I’m thrilled to be in Orlando. I know that might sound crazy to some people, that I’m excited to go from a contender like the Thunder to a rebuilding team, one that hasn’t made the playoffs in four years, but playing now for Frank Vogel, a coach who prides himself on defense, is very exciting for me. We have a core of like-minded, young, athletic players, which is going to be very fun. We are an old-school, smashmouth team, and I can’t wait to don a Magic uniform on opening night.

The trade has given me a renewed opportunity to show you all of what I can do, and I can’t wait to see what happens in Orlando. We’re going to make some noise. It’s been a crazy summer, and I’m very ready for the fall to begin.