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Suspension Journal: Enjoying Serge Ibaka’s unorthodox path to fan favourite

When the Raptors traded for Serge Ibaka in 2017, fans expected solid defense and some floor spacing. Three years later, Ibaka has woven himself into the fabric of Toronto and established himself as a fan favourite.

Toronto Raptors v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

There is no conventional formula to an NBA player establishing himself as a fan favourite. Some factors, like being a homegrown talent, can give a player an edge. Other aspects, like heart and hustle, earn bonus points in the minds of the people. What being a fan favourite means exactly cannot be calculated statistically, but it gives the player a sort of cultural capital. For example, Jerome “Junk Yard Dog” Williams was never a star player in the NBA and only spent two years with the Raptors, but he has remained a household name and nostalgic figure in Toronto by virtue of his impact on the fans.

Though there is no certain formula, there are absolutely things a player can do to attain the designation of fan favourite. Not one of these things necessarily puts you in rarified air amongst a fan base, but the right combination of them will do so.

The first is the outperforming of basketball expectations. A fan favourite does not have to be a star. In fact, the raised expectations that come with being a star make it quite difficult to do this. Instead, if they are consistently doing more than is asked of them, it casts them in a positive light and prevents frustration in the fan base. Additionally, the way they play and act has to show a commitment to winning. Sacrifice, effort, and selflessness get big points here. Yes, the basketball aspect is essential, but what really separates a player is their personality.

This personality has to show both in interactions with teammates and with the fans. If a player is a great locker room guy but distant with the fans, it is hard for the team’s followers to really connect. If they are fun and engaging with fans but seemingly a poison in the locker room, fans tend to feel as if their shtick is phony (see: Howard, Dwight.) Sprinkle in some leadership to go with the points listed above, and that is a recipe for a fan favourite.

Speaking of recipes, none other than Ma Fuzzy Chef Serge Ibaka, has solidified his status in Toronto as the most recent entry into the Raptors fan favourite pantheon — but he took a decidedly non-linear path to do so.

It was not always clear that Ibaka was the team chemistry savant, team leader, and local icon he has proved to be, nor that he would be the versatile centre who has performed admirably both off the bench and as a starter. Both roles have grown together.

Ibaka joined the Raptors just before the trade deadline in the 2016-17 season, getting dealt to Toronto for Terence Ross and a 2017 first rounder after a half season in the perpetually logjammed frontcourt of Orlando. He seemingly filled an area of need at power forward and gave the Raptors a veteran presence. The fit, however, was just a little bit off.

Though he had good moments, and showed flashes of the young, spry Ibaka, something was not quite right. His presence next to centre Jonas Valanciunas was often clunky and a tad awkward. Combine that with deteriorating athleticism, and regression seemed to have begun in 2017-18 season for Ibaka. In addition, his counting stats went down across the board. Those hints of regression wer reinforced with a ghastly performance in the series against the Cavaliers which eventually saw the year long starter moved to the bench as the Raptors were swept for the second straight year.

Throughout his first year and a half with the team, Ibaka’s personality didn’t necessarily shine through. It is understandable, as his role with the team was in flux, and it would be harder to be comfortable and confident in an environment such as that. Fans of the team would be less receptive as well, as frustration with his role on the team had reached a boiling point by the summer of 2018.

It was as if Ibaka knew that he was primed for a renaissance in the following season. It was during that summer he began his YouTube cooking show, How Hungry Are You?. This showed a creative, cheery, lighthearted side to Serge that endeared him to fans the moment the first episode began. Of course, that was the summer. Had he continued his downward spiral on the court in the 2018-19 season, Torontonians would have been content sticking with the Food Network.

Instead, Ibaka made some key adjustments that helped spur his journey to fan favourite in Toronto. He made a permanent switch to centre, a more fitting spot for his skill set in the modern NBA. In doing so, he agreed to platoon the starting spot at the position with Valanciunas. As a centre, Ibaka had a breakout year offensively as the middle of the floor opened up to him, using that newfound space to his advantage.

Ibaka showed a commitment to team success by switching positions, something many NBA players can be apprehensive about, and also by accepting an inconsistent role. In short, he stepped up in this new reality and became a star in his new spot. It was this season that Ibaka really became a Toronto Raptor. Fans stopped looking at him as a potential problem that would need addressing, but rather as an important piece as they geared up for the playoffs. Maybe he was not the player they thought he would be when the trade first happened, but this new Ibaka was indispensable in Toronto’s championship season.

Ibaka’s impact on team chemistry became increasingly evident in this time as well. How Hungry Are You? has featured past and present teammates, and they were always put at ease by Serge’s easygoing demeanor. Ibaka even drew some personality out of Kawhi Leonard on the show, something that I think qualifies him to be a professor of psychology.

Ibaka’s combination of experience in the league, tenure with the Raptors, rapport with his teammates, and stellar on-court play allowed Serge to step into an increased leadership role as well. Known for his work ethic and preparation off the court, Ibaka has always led by example in that regard. Teammates, including current rookie Terence Davis, have credited Ibaka with exemplifying to them what it means to be a professional athlete.

While those moments of indirect leadership are important, Serge has had powerful moments of direct leadership. Down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Milwaukee Bucks, Ibaka gathered his teammates and told them about his prior experiences in that scenario and gave them hope that they could still win the series. We all know what happened next. This is not to credit Serge alone with the next four wins, but having that steady presence in those moments was important to the team.

This is not dissimilar from what Serge is doing now, amid COVID-19 and the social isolation that has ensued. Not to suggest that sport is at all comparable to a global pandemic in terms of seriousness, but Ibaka’s steadiness and commitment to positivity is a welcome and calming sight to Raptors fans who are struggling to cope with the current reality. More on that in a moment.

While much about Ibaka’s status as fan favourite had rounded into form including the on-court play, the leadership, and the locker room presence, it was Serge’s personality, aided by OG Anunoby, that really elevated him.

His comedic chemistry with OG spread well beyond the niche group of online Raptors fans and became a brief cultural phenomenon. All the while, Ibaka’s play continued to blossom, as he turned in his best offensive season to date prior to the suspension of the NBA.

As I’ve alluded to a few times, Serge’s presence during the quarantine has cemented his status in the current cultural landscape of Toronto athletes.

Serge has been a beacon of light amid the social isolation caused by the spread of COVID-19. As soon as the Raptors were placed under quarantine, measures taken early by relative standards as a result of Toronto’s matchup with Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz, Ibaka made it clear that he was not going to let the situation bring him down. Serge posted a video of a relatively basic home workout early on in the Raptors’ quarantine.

This is a far cry from the typical NBA player workout video. Normally, they show athletes doing exercises and drills that very few can do, with resources that very few have. Ibaka, on the other hand, performed simple movements with limited equipment. It was not about wowing the internet or proving a point. Instead, it was about making the most out of a difficult situation, and inspiring others to do the same.

How Hungry Are You? has since shifted to How Bored Are You? and has seen Serge reach out to his teammates, take out garbage, and continue his virtual workout plan.

All of these videos have provided a brief reprieve from the outside world and some much-needed moments of levity for myself and presumably others. If you watch Serge’s scarf (art) lesson and don’t emerge both entertained and more informed fashion-wise, then you just don’t appreciate the little things.

Though off the court, Serge continues to cover all the bases of a local fan favourite. He has continued to show a commitment to winning by staying home (in this case, the opponent is COVID-19.) He has certainly excelled in his role, which is currently as a content creator and mood lifter for the general public. His interactions with teammates show that he is still an excellent teammate and supportive friend. Finally, Ibaka has had moments of social leadership by staying calm and steady, providing moments of positivity and optimism amid a chaotic outside world.

As I mentioned, the path was unorthodox, but Serge Ibaka is a Toronto Raptors fan favourite in the present. If Junk Yard Dog is any indication, however, Ibaka may have done enough to earn a more of a lifetime achievement-style award in the lore of Toronto athletes.