Ibaka: Mental Toughness Trumps Genius
By Shlomo Maital
Serge Ibaka is a star player for the Oklahoma Thunder, now battling San Antonio Spurs for the Western Conference championship and the right to play Miami (probably) in the NBA finals. Ibaka is from the Republic of Congo, and a citizen of Congo and Spain.
Ibaka is injured. He could barely walk. His team was down 2-0 to San Antonio and on the verge of being eliminated. So Sunday, he decided to play. Oklahoma won 105-92, with Ibaka, a stellar defender who leads the league in blocks, playing a key role. (He is 6’ 10”, 245 lbs., won silver with Spain in Olympic basketball 2012, and gold in the European Championship in 2011.) Oklahoma is a different team when he plays. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook score scads of points, but Ibaka is vital for keeping the opponent from scoring.
Why did he play? Ibaka grew up very poor. His family suffered during the Second Congo War; his father was imprisoned. He played basketball on concrete, with worn out shoes or no shoes. He moved to France, then to Spain, playing with second division clubs and working his way up. He was one of 18 or 20 children. His mother died when he was 8. Then civil war broke out in Congo.
Here is what he said, when asked why he played injured. “The military, when they go out there to fight, when they sign up, they sign for evrything. No matter what happened last night, I signed up for this. That’s what I get paid for. When we sign here in the NBA, we sign on everything, man.”
Ibaka was in superb physical condition when he was injured. This is in part why he could come back so quickly. He is known as a rim protector, and is given nicknames like air Congo, Serge Protector and iblocka by his teammates.
Ibaka teaches us that mental toughness, commitment, loyalty, persistence, resilience, and in general character trump genius and innate skills. He has a $12 m. contract with Oklahoma. It hasn’t spoiled him. Because for him, it’s not about the money.
Ibaka reminds me of Fred Smith, founder of Fedex. Smith invested $48 million to launch Fedex. When asked whether he was not fearful of losing the money, he explained that he had served in Vietnam as a Marine, was in life-threatening situations, and “when you can lose your life, losing money has no fear.” Ibaka knew real hardship. Playing hurt, playing through pain, was not even close.