James Siakam gets goosebumps when he thinks back to the night his younger brother Pascal was drafted by the Toronto Raptors.
The four Siakam brothers had rarely been all together in recent years. One after another, each had ventured off from their native Cameroon as teens, scattering to play college basketball in different corners of the United States.
But on the night of the 2016 NBA draft, all four brothers reunited in Orlando and sat in front of a restaurant TV, celebrating as Pascal’s name was called, crying, embracing and thinking about their father.
Tchamo Siakam had regularly shared his fascination for the NBA with his four sons from their earliest days back home in the Cameroonian city of Douala. He spoke excitedly about his ambitious dream for them – to some day see one of his boys play in the league.
Pascal was the one to finally make the dream a reality – even opening his rookie NBA season being thrust into a starting role with the Raptors.
But the father didn’t live to see it happen. He died in a car accident in 2014.
“From the time we were very little boys, the NBA was all that our Dad talked about, and he would have walked on water that night,” James recounted in a phone interview. “We were screaming and crying with joy. Our Dad loved us like crazy, and it was what he always wanted for us, so we were overjoyed to watch Pascal make it happen.”
The four boys and their two sisters grew up in a modest family home, and like most kids in their West African nation, soccer was their first love – the sport their father had actually played. But school was the top priority in their house, and each of the kids left for local boarding schools, where their parents believed they could get the best education.
Pascal studied at a Catholic seminary from the age of 11 to 18. It wasn’t until he was about 15 that he began to play a little basketball – the sport his tall and athletically gifted brothers had all taken up, one that opened doors for them in the United States.
The oldest brother, Boris, went first, to a small independent high school in Kentucky and then earned his shot at Western Kentucky University from 2004 to 2008.
Christian was next, off to prep school in Ohio, then to play at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) from 2007 to 2012. James played at Vanderbilt in Tennessee from 2010 to 2015 after playing prep ball in Illinois.
Pascal didn’t warm to basketball right away. He wanted to go to the United States, but he was more interested in pursuing a business degree. But in 2012, the teen with obvious athletic talents changed his mind about the sport after taking part in a Basketball Without Borders camp for kids in South Africa.
“There were NBA players from Africa there who I got to meet, like Serge Ibaka and Luc Mbah a Moute, and I thought it was so cool,” Pascal said, noting that Nigerian Masai Ujiri – today the Raptors president – had been there too. “I didn’t come out of there as a guy you would notice. I was just one of many kids there – tall but skinny, lanky and with very little skill.”
Still, he followed his brothers’ path to the United States. Using their connections, he was able to land a scholarship to play at a tiny high school in Lewisville, Tex., called God’s Academy.
“I didn’t speak much English, but I had to live with my teammates, talk to the coach and shop for myself, so I had to learn quickly,” Pascal recalled. “I thought, ‘My parents sacrificed for me, so I’m going to make the best of it, I’m going to tough it out.’ For me, it was a way to a better education. I did want to make my parents proud, but I really didn’t think I was that good a player back then.”
Pascal didn’t attract much recruiting attention at God’s Academy outside of Marvin Menzies, the head coach from New Mexico State University, a school in the Western Athletic Conference.
“He was still very raw,” Menzies, now the head coach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, recalled in a phone interview this week. “Some others might have seen what he couldn’t do, but I saw a kid who had lacked much training or strength and conditioning work, but now that he was getting it, his incremental improvement from game to game was very impressive.”
Pascal said his brothers suggested that he should hold off on Menzies’s offer and go to a junior college first to see if bigger schools might come calling a year later. “I just had that feeling that if I worked hard, people would look at me no matter where I was,” he said. “So I told my brothers, ‘I feel comfortable with these people from New Mexico State; their program has a great family feel.’ ”
Menzies was in the midst of making NMSU’s squad into a perennial NCAA tournament team, largely on the strength of his ability to recruit international talent. Pascal was to become a significant piece.
The Cameroonian redshirted his first season on campus in Las Cruces, N.M, starting in the fall of 2013, doing most of his development in individual workouts and assimilating to life at an American college. He took full advantage of the best resources he had ever been offered: a gym open to him nearly 24 hours a day, a weight room and nutritional advice.
His big first season on court was to come, but just before it began, he got a call from back home about the death of his father.
“I just remember crying. I wanted to go home,” Pascal said. “But I knew that if I went home for the funeral, it might have been complicated with my visa to come back to the U.S. My family wanted me to stay; they said, ‘Don’t risk being able to do what Dad wished for you.’ It was a really hard time.”
His father’s passing ignited a desire to achieve that NBA dream.
The 6-foot-9 power forward had a breakout 2014-15 season, and was the WAC Freshman of the Year.
His sophomore season was even better. The relentless, high-motor kid led the conference by averaging 20.3 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.24 blocked shots. He led the nation with 27 double-doubles and ranked eighth nationally in rebounding. He was the 2016 WAC player of the year and a finalist for the Karl Malone power forward of the year.
He had also been fuelled by a mid-season surprise visit from Christian and James. They drove all the way from Kentucky and co-ordinated with Menzies to shock their youngest brother in the middle of an Aggies practice.
“We had always stayed in touch, but we rarely ever saw him in person for about eight years, so it was very, very emotional when we arrived that day,” Christian recalled in a phone interview. “But no matter how long we are apart or where we’ve been, when we get together, it’s like we never left. As brothers, the four of us have that kind of bond.”
NBA scouts, especially those from the Raptors, had been following Pascal. His stats jumped out immediately, but naturally many wondered if he could perform in the NBA the way he had against small conference competition.
Some, Menzies included, were skeptical at first that he would be drafted just yet. They thought that he should test the draft waters and return for a third season if they didn’t like what teams said about his chances. Although the feedback they got was mixed, Menzies and the Siakams felt that he should keep his name in the draft.
“The first thing that jumped out to me was how much energy he played with,” Raptors general manager Jeff Weltman said. “Then you start to look beneath that energy and length and you see an intuitive sense of ball-tracking. He’s always in the right place at the right time, and at first you see a raw player, but there’s way more skill there than initially appears.
“We challenged our analytics guys to dig deep on him, and we all reached a comfort level that a lot of the things we liked about him would translate to the NBA.”
On draft night, Pascal was still in Orlando after his last pre-draft NBA workout with the Magic, so his three brothers joined him there. The Raptors selected him with the second of their two first-round picks – 27th overall – making him just the third NMSU player drafted into the NBA and the first in 46 years.
The four brothers erupted in celebration for the baby brother they had always called a mama’s boy.
“I’m the little brother, so usually they all just make fun of me,” 22-year-old Pascal said. “I never saw my brothers so proud of me.”
Now, he’s adjusting to NBA life in Toronto. Boris and Christian, who both had pro stints in Bahrain, now live in Kentucky. James just landed a contract with the Island Storm in PEI, part of the National Basketball League of Canada. One sister, Vanessa, is a pro soccer player in South Africa, while the other, Raissa, is pursuing a nursing career in Washington, with their mother.
With Toronto’s projected starting power forward Jared Sullinger getting injured in the preseason, the starting role fell to Pascal. The energetic rookie has much to learn, but he’s sharing the position with veteran Patrick Patterson, averaging 5.1 points and 4.6 rebounds, and quickly intriguing Toronto fans.
“I have no idea what my Dad would say if he was here today to see this, but I think about it a lot,” Pascal said. “When my dad passed away, the NBA became a major priority for me. It became bigger than just loving basketball; I suddenly had extra motivation. I was willing to do absolutely anything I had to do to get to the NBA.”Report Typo/Error