Earlier this week, after years of basketball skeptics questioning his listed age, Serge Ibaka fired back at the critics.
On Saturday, he released this statement via Twitter:
“I am proud of where I come from and of my heritage. I am also very proud of the hard work I put (in) to arrive where I am right now as a basketball player.
I am very disappointed with the small part of society that spreads rumors and creates news based on stereotypes and without any proof. I’m sad that to this day there are still prejudices based on your origin and, as Africans, sometimes we need to take a stand.
I was born in in the capital of the Republic of Congo, Brazzaville. A city with a population bigger than 1 million. A city with hospitals, a civil registry and an administration. I was born in a caring, loving and united family. I was not born in the jungle.
I know we live in a fast news world, where rumors and scoops rule, but I think media should take their responsibility seriously when talking about important matters than can hurt people. I know who I am and where I come from, and so do the people that really know me.
I’m sad that many people will have read a rumor and will have made a false assumption that can last forever, while they maybe will not read what I’m writing now. What’s sure is that, no matter what, nobody can take away from me the pride for my origins and the love that I have for basketball.”
Of course, Ibaka’s not the first player to face these kinds of accusations. Dikembe Mutombo faced similar rumors; and, 16 years into his NBA career, he was still having trouble shaking them.
During a 2007 interview, Mutumbo told ESPN that “it really doesn’t disturb me, but it hurts when your wife starts feeling uncomfortable about it. Even my daughter [Carrie] says, ‘Daddy, why are they talking about your age?’ She’s nine years old and she knows about it. When people think your father is a liar, it makes you look bad in front of your children.”
“He used to say that he was 35 years old, but I used to be on the bench looking at all the circles and scars around his head, and I asked him one day, ‘Manute, what are those scars on your head?’ And he says, ‘Well, the white man lost my birth certificate in the jungle, so every five years I take a rock and I slice one across my head.’ I was like, ‘All right,’ and then I started looking at it the next game and I said, ‘Holy s—, Manute Bol is 55 years old.’”
Then there’s the Milwaukee Bucks 2016 draft pick Thon Maker, who was born in Sudan, one country over from Ibaka’s hometown the Republic of Congo. A lot of people thought the age-related rumors hurt his draft stock. According to Micah Peters of The Ringer:
“Maker’s labyrinthine past — he was born in Sudan and lived in Uganda before immigrating to Australia as a refugee, later playing for high schools in the U.S. and Canada — was probably always going to invite prying eyes…
One Reddit user dredged up a yearbook photo from Maker’s time in Perth, Australia, offering a story about how Maker graduated from Aranmore Catholic College… The response to the story was general skepticism, until another photo of the yearbook surfaced, placing Maker’s face right next to “The Graduating Class of 2010” page.”
Despite the amateur investigators, Maker continues to deny the allegations and nothing was ever verified. Maker later told CBS: “it it didn’t get to me personally because if it were true, I’d probably be like sideways about it, but it’s not true, so I’m comfortable. I’m not angry or anything”.
But Ibaka’s reaction is completely reasonable; not only could these rumors hurt an athlete’s career, but they also have a distinctly racist and xenophobic feel to them. But, unfortunately, this type of scandal has become quite common. According to The Guardian:
“Fifa banned Nigeria from all international fixtures for two years after finding that the birth dates of three of their players in the 1988 Olympics were different from ones used by the same players in previous tournaments.”
A similar narrative unfolded when the Minnesota Timberwolves discovered that their 19 year old draft prospect Targuy Ngombo was actually a 26 year old named Tanguy Ngombo. Then, more recently, there was the story Jonathan Nicola. Nicola was a talented high school basketball player from South Sudan who, according to NBC, turned out to be “a 29-year-old man masquerading as a 17-year-old”.
But it’s important to note: this is not just a problem among African nationals. Long Beach born Shabazz Muhammad was found to have lied about his age while playing for UCLA, and Ersan Ilyasova has faced his own “birther conspiracy” (which you can learn more about at the Philly sports blog CrossingBroad.com).
Understandably, these types of stories breed doubt among fans, but it still leaves a bad taste in your mouth when you see someone on reddit writing things like “African athletes have a history of lying about their age“. It feels like thinly coded racism, and I probably wouldn’t count that out as a factor.