Pascal Siakam and his older brother Christian wore dark suits and ties and flashed smiles as they walked the red carpet at Toronto’s Rebel night club Tuesday night, in honour of a man they admired.
The hot-scoring Toronto Raptors forward from Cameroon and his brother posed for cameras at the annual gala in honour of Nelson Mandela. It was an event put on Giants of Africa, the not-for-profit founded by Raptors president Masai Ujiri. As children of Africa themselves, it brought back a cherished memory for the Siakam brothers.
The Siakams made a family trip to visit Mandela’s home in Soweto, South Africa, when they were kids. Now here was Pascal Siakam – the youngest of four brothers who had all dreamed of fulfilling their father’s wish to play in the NBA – having completed that journey from Cameroon to the NBA, where he’s now playing for the league’s hottest team.
Congolese NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo was among those who had walked the same carpet minutes earlier. Raptors Congolese star Serge Ibaka would walk it minutes later – all in support of Ujiri’s event for Mandela, peace and the power of sport to help empower youth.
“This event means everything to us, the cause, being from Africa and now being here in Toronto after this journey, here in Toronto for Nelson Mandela. This feels special,” the third-year Raptor said. “I look at all the African players in the NBA now, and it’s special to have a bond with them – guys like Luol Deng, Serge Ibaka. ... Some day we’ll stop counting the number of African players in the NBA because there are going to be so many, and it’s going to be so common. We can all help make that happen.”
Ujiri, a native of Nigeria and the first African-raised person to serve as a general manager of a major North American sports franchise, founded the Giants of Africa not-for-profit in 2003 with a mission to “use basketball as a means to educate and enrich the lives of African youth.”
The Mandela tribute, a formal gala full of sports and entertainment personalities, marks the fifth consecutive year that Giants of Africa is paying homage to the late South African president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, kicking off two days full of festivities in Toronto.
Siakam grew up in the port city of Doula, the youngest of six kids, the last of four brothers to go the United States on scholarships striving for an NBA career. He attended a camp held by NBA player Luc Mbah a Moute in 2012 – now a player for the L.A. Clippers. That’s how Siakam earned a spot at the Basketball Without Borders clinic.
There, Siakam earned a scholarship at a high school in Texas, and parlayed that into a college scholarship at New Mexico State. In 2016, the Raptors picked him 27th overall in the 2016 NBA draft, but his father died in a car accident and didn’t live to see his son drafted.
Now, Siakam’s third NBA season is his best yet. He’s averaging 14.8 points and 6.4 rebounds over 29.9 minutes, and has started 24 of Toronto’s 25 games. His name is being mentioned as an early bet for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award.
Recently, the immensely athletic Siakam has displayed some extraordinary spin moves used to elude defenders on his way to the hoop. He credits the fast feet he acquired as a soccer-crazed kid scoring goals on the pitch growing up in Cameroon.
Behind him on the red carpet, his teammate Ibaka is decked in a grey suit and bow tie yelling to Siakam, “Hey Spicy,” a nickname that has caught on for the youngster from Cameroon.
“We have a bond for sure, the NBA players from Africa. We are all here together, and we all know we have work to do for Africa, and we can do it together,” Ibaka said. “Pascal, I feel like he is my little brother.”
Mandela will be honoured throughout the Raptors’ game on Wednesday as they take on the Philadelphia 76ers. Four players with ties to Africa will star in the game: Philly’s Joel Embiid of Cameroon, and Toronto’s Siakam, Ibaka and OG Anunoby, who has Nigerian family roots and also attended Tuesday’s event. Wednesday will also include a youth summit in Toronto and basketball clinic.
Initiatives of Ujiri’s not-for-profit organization have also included a Giants of Africa documentary, and yearly basketball camps and community outreach in places such as Rwanda, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Senegal.
“You can see that there is talent there. Honestly, it’s a gold mine. It’s just the challenges of infrastructure, and coaching and leagues and structure,” Ujiri said.
“In terms of physical talent, I’m confident to say there are 10 Embiids walking around, there’s 10 whomevers walking around in Africa. It’s really interesting that there are people that have gone through their lives that have that athletic ability that didn’t even touch a basketball, but they have that gift but they never had the courts, they never had the opportunity. People are beginning to realize it now.”