Serge Ibaka just might become your new favorite NBA player.
AUSTIN, Texas — "Let's take a selfie," Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka tells his eight-year-old daughter Raine as they sit on a patio early in the filmSon of the Congo. Raine stands behind her dad and plants a kiss on his cheek. Ibaka makes a goofy face and snaps a photo.
It's a sweet moment between the 25-year-old Ibaka and his young daughter — but also so much more, as the documentary that premiered at SXSW Interactiveon Saturday night reveals to powerful effect.
Ibaka didn't know Raine existed for the first five years of her life. His father in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, had begged family to keep her a secret from Ibaka. He wanted to reduce stress on the then-teenage basketball phenom after Ibaka left their poverty-stricken home to chase a pro hoops future in Europe. (Raine was conceived with a girlfriend before he left, but not born until after.)
Earlier in Ibaka's life, that same father had been imprisoned without charges for two years as their long-tortured former Belgian colony erupted in violence yet again. That absence helped send the future NBA star, whose mother had already passed away, to the streets of Brazzaville, where he spent many nights sleeping on the ground or in cars, often lacking for food and water.
All this and much more is revealed in Son of the Congo, which follows Ibaka on a trip home this past summer to tell his incredible story of escaping poverty and violence in Congo to become an NBA millionaire. The film is notable for a second reason, too, marking the first feature-length documentary produced by Grantland, the acclaimed ESPN-owned site founded by star columnist Bill Simmons in 2011.
The film is also a lifelong dream of Ibaka's.
"I always said to myself since I was young that if I make it to the NBA, I want young people to know my story, to know where I come from," Ibaka toldHDT in Austin after the premiere. "I want young people to see how far someone can come from nothing to become something, and to try it for themselves."
The final result is a stunning portrait of Ibaka's journey — remarkable, given that the project almost didn't happen at all.
'Make it how long it is'
Last year, a representative of Ibaka emailed Simmons' fan mailbag, which he doesn't check regularly, proposing a documentary project with Grantland. Simmons happened to catch this message though, and forwarded it along to David Jacoby, who manages much of the site's podcast and video content.
They determined the offer wasn't a prank, and got acclaimed documentary filmmaker Adam Hootnick to direct. It would make a nice short, they all initially figured, not unlike previous Grantland productions.
But they quickly realized otherwise.
"What a feature-length piece allowed us to do is really introduce Serge and to Congo and to Serge's past, as well as set up the significance of the things he's going through and doing and seeing there on the trip," Hootnick told HDTafter the premiere. "You just couldn't do all that in a short — you could do maybe one of those things."
The production, which runs about an hour, represents new ground for Grantland, but also shouldn't come as a total surprise. The site originally launched as a print-style home for the type of long-form feature writing that's tough to sustain on the web, standing as its own brand while backed by ESPN's massive budget and platform. Fast-forward a few years and Grantland has a host of podcasts,YouTube shows and even The Grantland Basketball Hour, which airs on ABC.
So does Son of the Congo mean we could see another feature-length Grantlanddoc soon? Jacoby indicated that's highly possible, but said nothing is in the works right now.
"People always ask, 'Well, how long is gonna be?,'" Jacoby said about the site's philosophy, following the film's premiere. "I always just say, 'Make it how long it is.' When we saw that this project was this length and this good, we decided to just go for it."
A jarring contrast of worlds
One of Hootnick's slickest film-making tricks in Son of the Congo is weaving in a second sub-narrative that follows a basketball-obsessed teenage boy from Brazzaville during Ibaka's trip home.
As powerful as seeing Ibaka visit family, speak Lingala and describe his own former hardship is, watching a young boy live much like Ibaka once did gives his past an immediacy that otherwise wouldn't exist. Like Ibaka did once upon time, the teenager plays on outdoor courts without shoes and struggles to make it under extremely tough circumstances.
But make no mistake, Ibaka is the star of this flick. His trip home provides no shortage of impacting moments.
In one scene, we see him wrestle with how to address a gathering of people asking for money at his door in Brazzaville. It's a tense situation full of aggression and poignancy at the same time. In another scene, we see him at a hospital as he fits hearing aids on a young girl who then listens to her mother's voice for the first time. In another, we see him glow with pride while driving past a billboard for The Ibaka Games, a basketball showcase he founded in Brazzaville to help young hoops hopefuls there gain the attention of foreign scouts.
When Hootnick cuts to a game in last year's NBA playoffs — picture a booming announcer, bright lights, screaming fans, and so much glory — the shift is jarring. A middle ground of sorts comes when Ibaka unveils a once-decrepit court in Brazzaville that he paid to have refurbished.
"I'm still grateful for where I started," he tells a gathering of kids and officials in Brazzaville at the unveiling. "I can never forget it."
After the premiere's credits rolled in Austin on Saturday night, Ibaka was called up to the stage. The audience greeted him with a standing ovation.
Viewers, it seemed, had all reached a similar conclusion: While it's hard to watchSon of the Congo as a sports fan and not have Serge Ibaka become one of your favorite NBA players, it's impossible to watch as a human and not have him become one of your most-admired people.
How to watch: Son of the Congo will be available on Grantland.com beginning March 23; it will air on ESPN on April 17.
'Son of the Congo' mesmerizes in telling NBA star's inspiring story by HotGirl
Tags: English, ENTERTAINMENT, FILM, NBA, SPORTS, SXSW 2015