Scroll through Serge Ibaka’s Instagram account and it won’t take long to spot his go-to caption: “#mafuzzy.” The Toronto Raptor treats the hashtag like Frank’s RedHot — he puts that shit on everything. And yet, hardly anyone — not even his teammates — knows what it means.
“Ma fuzzy is a mystery,” Ibaka chuckles when asked to define it. “One day I will reveal to the world what it means. Ma fuzzy man! I’m a mystery man. I come from nowhere.”
He’s not wrong. The 6’10” forward routinely appears out of the blue to block even the surest of layups. Moreover, the 29-year-old’s journey to becoming one of the NBA’s most fearsome — and stylish — defenders essentially began in the abyss.
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Born in the war-torn Republic of Congo, Ibaka had a childhood of immense poverty and struggle. His mother died when he was seven, and his father was imprisoned for several years, forcing Serge to live on the streets. During this period, hoop dreams were the only thing keeping him going. “My hunger and my sadness — when I played basketball, I forgot about all that,” he says. “I had no shoes, no jersey. All I had was my mind. The good thing about dreams is they’re free.”
Ibaka’s big break came in 2006, when he blew away European scouts at a youth tournament in South Africa. That led to playing pro basketball in Spain, which led to being drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics (later known as the Oklahoma City Thunder) in 2008. He’d become the first NBA player from his nation, leading the league in blocks twice and earning three selections to its All-Defensive First Team.
These days, Ibaka gets just as much attention for his swag off the court. He describes his personal style as “classy,” and influenced by sapologie — the subculture of extraordinarily dressed dandies in Congo. He turned heads at New York Fashion Week in September, and earlier this year he even inspired French-Congolese pop star Dadju to drop a song about him, entitled — you guessed it — “Mafuzzy Style.”
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The Raptor’s Ma Fuzzy empire only seems to be expanding. In his new web series, How hungry are you?, Ibaka, aka “Ma Fuzzy Chef,” invites former and current teammates to his kitchen, where he challenges them to eat “Congolese dishes” — from worms to fish eyes to lamb brain. Naturally, the show’s gone pretty mega-viral.
All that aside, Ibaka vows not to get distracted from his ultimate goal this season: to take the Raptors to the NBA Finals. Considering the odds he’s already overcome, he doesn’t think it’s terribly implausible. “My family and my people, they didn’t expect me to get this far,” he says. “They’re like, ‘How did this happen?’ Ma fuzzy! That’s how.”