Raptors’ revelation: Cameroonian Pascal Siakam ‘has the spirit our game needs’

BY Marc J. Spears

Cameroon born Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, who was recently named a finalist for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, is focused on helping his team make its first Finals appearance in franchise history.

Off the court, however, he is hoping to make his long-awaited return to Cameroon this offseason to finally pay respects to his late father, Tchamo Siakam, who died in a car accident in 2014.

“It would be a mix of emotions,” Siakam told The Undefeated. “Excited to go back because we miss it, but also nervous because we don’t know what to expect and how people are going to respond.”

Siakam lost his father when he was a freshman at New Mexico State in October 2014. He received the news from his sister, Raissa, who called him sobbing. While he yearned to go home for his father’s funeral in Cameroon, visa issues would have likely prevented him from returning to the United States. So Siakam decided to stay in school.

“That was tough, one of the hardest moments of my life,” Siakam said. “But I felt that I had a bigger purpose and I was doing the right thing. But it was heartbreaking. …

“My father means everything to me. Growing up he was always an example and made me the man I am today. He is the reason I play the game of basketball. He taught me to always be kind to people and help others.”

It was his father’s dream to see one of his four sons make it to the NBA. (Siakam’s three older brothers all played Division I basketball.) That wasn’t always the case for young Pascal, though.

When Siakam was 11 years old, his father put him in the St. Andrew’s Seminary school in the village of Bafia, Cameroon, with the desire for his son to become a Catholic priest. But during that time, Siakam misbehaved in hopes of being expelled, according to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan. The religion route was not for him.

While Siakam would occasionally play basketball on a damaged rim when he had free time, hoops wasn’t his guiding light. Siakam played in Luc Mbah a Moute’s basketball camp in Cameroon in 2011 and 2012, but it wasn’t until he attended the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders camp in Johannesburg in 2012 that he started to learn the game. He received tutoring from the likes of Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo and NBA players Luol Deng, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha. Camp counselors, including then-first year Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, were impressed with Siakam’s athleticism, energy, length and desire.

Siakam moved to the United States at the age of 16 and eventually landed a scholarship to play for God’s Academy in Lewisville, Texas. In 2014, he landed a full basketball scholarship to play at New Mexico State.

“He was this kid that was 6-9 with a motor for days with a pogo stick,” said agent Todd Ramasar, who first learned of Siakam after getting a tip from then-University of Texas El Paso head coach Bob Cantu. “As the game went on, he got more energy. He was nonstop.”

Although Siakam didn’t go into the ministry, his father was very proud of his ability to land a college basketball scholarship in America. And in 2016, Siakam fulfilled his father’s dream of having one of his sons make it to the NBA. With the 27th overall pick in the 2016 draft, Pascal Siakam was selected by Toronto and Ujiri, who is now president of the Raptors and perhaps the biggest ambassador for growing basketball in Africa.

The African connection made going to Canada comfortable for Siakam.

“He’s amazing. He is the leader for Africa [basketball] in general,” Siakam said of Ujiri. “Just having someone like that I can reach out to and talk to, he can definitely bring knowledge. Things I want to do he can help me out with. It’s definitely an advantage to have him.”

Siakam started 38 games as a rookie, but more notably he led the Raptors 905 to a 2017 G League championship and earned Finals MVP honors in the process. He played in 81 games during his second season with the Raptors, averaging 7.3 points and 4.5 rebounds, and made the leap this season, averaging 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game as a starter.

For his efforts, Siakam learned last week that he is a top-three finalist for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. The winner will be announced during the NBA Awards show in Los Angeles on June 24.

“Winning the award would be great, man,” Siakam said. “But I’m not really focused on that. We have a bigger purpose and things we are trying to accomplish as a team. That is what is important right now.”

Siakam also believes he has a purpose to give back to Africa, starting back home in Cameroon.

Siakam’s only trip to Africa since departing from Cameroon was to play in the 2018 NBA Africa Game and take part as a counselor with Basketball Without Borders Africa. He hopes to return to Cameroon and begin a long-term commitment to help the youth in his hometown of Douala.

Siakam has decided to partner with SOS Children’s Villages, the largest independent nongovernmental, nonprofit international development organization that offers alternative families to children without adequate parental care. If his offseason trip takes place, he is expected to spend a day at the SOS Children’s Village in Douala and also host a basketball clinic called the Pascal Siakam Skills Académie that focuses on life and basketball skills.

Siakam wants to do his part by not only being a role model for kids in Cameroon but also by building basketball courts and offering programs not afforded to him during his youth.

“There are so many talented kids out there that just don’t have the opportunity,” Siakam said. “They don’t know better. They don’t have the structure to develop. I started playing basketball at 17, 18. We don’t learn. The more things that the NBA is doing with NBA Academy, that just brings more awareness. The more kids that are interested, the better.”

He also supports the 12-team Basketball Africa League that the NBA will launch in 2020.

“He has a mindset and attitude that centers around being the best and winning,” Ujiri said. “He has the spirit our game needs. He represents the continent of Africa with pride.”

Siakam is expected to be joined by his mother, three brothers and two sisters during his return to Cameroon. As a family, they plan on visiting his father’s grave. Siakam also plans to visit his old seminary school in Bafia.

Siakam, who played a key role (25 points, 11 rebounds and 3 steals in 51 minutes) in keeping the Raptors’ hopes of making the Finals alive during a 118-112 double-overtime victory in Game 3 to trim the Milwaukee Bucks’ series lead to 2-1, hopes he is inspiring young kids who are watching him play for the Raptors.

“I want to set an example for all kids,” Siakam said. “I was a guy who came known only for defense and running, and then you kind of developed and added things to your game. I want to show kids in Africa that we can do more. We can be more. That’s my goal.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.

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