LEANING AGAINST THE tan leather seats of a Rolls-Royce Phantom, Serge Ibaka opened up Snapchat and hit record. The previous night had been a parade of drinks, restaurants and clubs. On this sunny afternoon along the Las Vegas strip, Ibaka and Kawhi Leonard finished lunch, piled into the back seat and headed back to the Wynn hotel.
“I’m here with fun guy,” Ibaka said, pointing the camera toward Leonard. “Fun guy, what’s up baby?”
“What it do, babyyyy,” Leonard exclaimed.
“Yeah! You already know,” Ibaka responded.
Except, Ibaka didn’t know.
“I didn’t know what it was,” Ibaka says now in a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “I was like, ‘What he say?’ I had never heard that before. I didn’t even ask him what it meant. I was like, whatever you say.”
The clip soared around the internet. The expression was printed onto T-shirts, made into memes and morphed into a rallying cry synonymous with the Toronto Raptors‘ breakthrough in the 2019 NBA Finals. It was only four words, but Leonard’s relaxed, celebration-induced declaration teetered on the edge of surprise. Ibaka, one of the NBA’s most talkative players, was breaking one of the league’s quietest out of his shell.
Leonard might answer a total of four questions in postgame interviews. Ibaka chats up almost anyone he meets — in four different languages.
Leonard applied for a trademark on the phrase “city views over interviews.” Ibaka has his own digital cooking show.
Leonard rolls up to games in monochrome tracksuits. Ibaka has his own avant-garde fashion line. But on the floor the pair was tailor-made for the Raptors’ title run.
And it’s why the LA Clippers reunited them with hopes that the bond forged between the eccentric big man and stoic superstar could help spark a Clippers chemistry that had deteriorated inside the Orlando, Florida, bubble.
“What happened to them last year, that makes this a challenge,” Ibaka says. “But guess what? That kind of challenge is what makes us better.
“That’s what makes me better.”
NO, IBAKA SAYS, he doesn’t do postgame facials.
He doesn’t actually get out seaweed wraps or a machine that generates a thin stream of pore-opening steam in the locker room — although he knows his teammates, current and former, swear that he does.
“Come on,” Ibaka laughs. “Who does facials in the locker room? I know it’s a running joke. I like to clean my face. I have sensitive skin. But my teammates do tease me.”
He won’t give up the brands of the expensive facial serums, soaps and lotions he uses, instead saying they’re “Mafuzzy soap” and “Mafuzzy lotion.”
But don’t expect to find bottles of Mafuzzy next to the La Mer at Sephora. Mafuzzy is a lot of things: a hashtag, the title of a rap song and a scarf. Mafuzzy Chef is featured on Ibaka’s cooking show.
“Mafuzzy is his word for his personality,” his friend and longtime manager Jordi Vila says.
As Ibaka explained ahead of the release of his 2019 documentary, “Anything Is Possible,” when he was a kid and walking two hours to play basketball, hungry and in the blaring heat of Brazzaville, the Republic of the Congo’s capital, he would tell himself that he is “Mafuzzy man” — a person who doesn’t give up. A person who cannot be stopped.
Ibaka is one of 18 children — although they didn’t all live under one roof. His mother, Amadou Djonga, who played basketball for the Democratic Republic of Congo national team, died when Ibaka was 8, just as the nation became embroiled in civil war. It pushed the family to move north for four years. His father, Desiree, played for the Republic of Congo national team and, after crossing the border of the neighboring DRC, was imprisoned for a year.
When he was 17 years old, Ibaka moved to France briefly and then to Spain — where he played for two years on his way to becoming the 24th overall pick in 2008.
Ibaka’s upbringing had sculpted his internal monologue. He would tell himself, “You’re different. Since day one, everything you had, you had to go get it. Nobody gave you anything.”
Ibaka would coach himself through this message in his native language, Lingala. Or sometimes, it would be in Spanish. Before he became fluent in English, he often used a translator when communicating with teammates, coaches or reporters.
“I had to get in and find my place in the league. The only way to do that is you have to work five, 10 times harder than other guys because you come from different situations.”
Early on, when then-Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks wanted Ibaka to rebound, run faster or slide defensively, Brooks and other coaches used visual cues to communicate, waving their arms or mimicking the desired action to navigate the language barrier.
“I had to get in and find my place in the league,” Ibaka says. “The only way to do that is you have to work five, 10 times harder than other guys because you come from different situations. So, if you want to survive — if you want to eat at the same table as them — now you have to work twice as hard. I have to be the first one in the gym and the last one to leave.”
Ibaka’s work ethic earned his teammates’ respect, and even if it meant butting heads at times, they always found common ground.
“There were so many, I mean, so many nights that him and I would just go at it,” says Brooks, now the Washington Wizards‘ head coach, who guided Ibaka in his first six seasons in Oklahoma City. “Russell [Westbrook] and him would go at it. KD [Kevin Durant] and him would go at it. James [Harden] and him would go at it.
“But it was always about winning.”
LEONARD WAS ALREADY inside when the elevator doors opened.
It was the first day of training camp ahead of the 2018-19 season, and the Raptors were congregating at The W Hotel in Los Angeles for team workouts. It was here where Ibaka and Leonard first met.
Leonard was the new guy — traded to Toronto in a blockbuster deal that summer — so Ibaka remembers going out of his way to be friendly. Leonard represented a renewed hope — the superstar who burst open another championship window for Ibaka after he and the Thunder fell short in the 2011 Finals. “I was like, ‘Hey, what’s up man! Welcome, bro! We are so happy to have you here!,” Ibaka recalls. “Man, he was so cold like, ‘Yeah …’
Ibaka became determined to crack Leonard’s chilly exterior shell. He would rib him with jokes in their huddles but also wasn’t afraid to say something when he thought Leonard could’ve made a smarter play. “Through practice and the game, he talked to me. He listened to me. So, I guess that is who he is. That’s how I started to understand who he is,” Ibaka says of Leonard.
“A lot of people from the outside, they see like, ‘Oh. Kawhi is like this, he’s like that.’ But if you know him, you understand.
“He is just quiet off the court. But when it’s time to work, he communicates. I am fine with that. I respect that.”
On most game nights in Toronto — after the final buzzer sounded and players dispersed to their respective corners of the locker room and then throughout the city — Ibaka would take the Scotiabank Arena elevator up to the third floor, take a left turn and retreat to the team’s practice court. He was rarely alone.
Across the court on some nights and at an opposite weight rack on others, Leonard would get up a handful of shots or work through a half-hour of strength training as a part of his quad rehabilitation. If they talked, the conversations don’t stand out in Ibaka’s mind two years later. What does linger is what was born out of watching each other work.
“Sometimes, I am out there working on a basket and I am looking at him to see how he is working,” Ibaka recalls. “And I am sure he does the same when I am working — he looks at me. We only think about winning.”
It’s why the Clippers recruited him as a free agent in November, and why Leonard was on the front line with his own pitch for Ibaka to join him in Los Angeles. It was short and sweet, of course.
“‘Bro, are you coming or no?'” Ibaka recalls Leonard texting him. “Just picture Kawhi in his voice: ‘Bro, are we doing it?’ It was very funny.”
Leonard had kept in touch with Ibaka during their season apart, even FaceTiming on occasion. But this time, Leonard didn’t bother with a virtual connection or even an old school phone call. Heck, he didn’t even try to sell Ibaka on the glamour and weather L.A. offers.
“I ain’t got time to be telling you all the things that L.A. has,” Leonard explained at the start of camp in December. “He knows what I am about. …
“That was my text: ‘Are you coming or not?'”
ON CHRISTMAS DAY, while jockeying for a rebound against the Denver Nuggets, Ibaka caught Leonard with a sharp elbow that split the inside of his mouth and left the Clippers’ franchise player gushing blood in a scary scene on the Ball Arena floor.
In just the second game of the season, Leonard left holding a towel to his face, which would need eight stitches.
He missed the next two games and had to play in a protective face mask when he returned. Leonard complained about how uncomfortable it was and how he couldn’t breathe, while teammates gave Leonard a hard time calling him “Leatherface.”
In a rare moment in which Leonard let reporters see his humor, the All-Star returned the perfect deadpan jab at Ibaka.
“We got him on the trading block right now,” Leonard said after his first game back on Dec. 30. “Whoever wants him, let us know, because we’re trying to trade Serge.”
Ibaka has managed to loosen up Leonard even more during their second stint as teammates. Ibaka sees a visible change in the demeanor of the Clippers’ superstar.
“This year, Kawhi is smiling all the time to everybody,” Ibaka says. “This year is a different Kawhi, because I can see he’s happy, he’s talking more. He’s laughing with everybody.
“I used to be the only one he would laugh around.”
“Just picture Kawhi in his voice: ‘Bro, are we doing it?’ It was very funny.”
Ibaka, who signed a two-year deal with the Clippers, was recruited not only for his rim protection and floor stretching, but also his ability to cut through the din of an NBA locker room. Halfway into his first season with his new team, Ibaka is already making his presence felt.
After the Clippers lost by 28 points against the Grizzlies on the first night of a back-to-back set in Memphis on Feb. 25, Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue was seething during his postgame news conference. Around the corner in the FedExForum visitors locker room, Ibaka and Patrick Beverley were animated as they addressed their teammates.
“We literally spent 30 minutes after just talking about the game and what we can correct,” Clippers forward Nicolas Batum says. “What we can improve, what we can’t do again. And really that was Serge and Pat Bev leading the way.”
“He’s an additional coach on the team,” All-Star guard Paul George says. “He always just gives his input, and I think whether he’s right or wrong, what just makes it so good is that he starts and sparks a conversation and we just go from there.”
The Clippers avenged that loss with a 20-point win over the Grizzlies the next night, but LA limped into the All-Star break on a season-long three-game losing streak.
Fed up with the way he and the Clippers were playing, Ibaka came out in the first game out of the break and hit his first four shots, had nine points and six rebounds in the first quarter and finished with an impactful 16 points and 14 rebounds in a rout over the Golden State Warriors.
“It was important to come and set the tone,” Ibaka says. “And just to let them know, like, ‘Listen, whatever happened in the last game, it’s not who we are.'”
The Clippers are still searching for their identity 41 games into the season. But they, including Leonard, hope Ibaka can help them find it with more moments like that.
“You always want to learn. And I’m sure all of those guys do,” Ibaka says of the Clippers’ collapse last season.
“That’s one of the things I had confidence in coming here.”