QUEBEC CITY – For the second straight training camp, Toronto Raptors coaches are awarding select players with one of two WWE championship belts following each practice session.
The idea was born in Vancouver last fall, when assistant coach Nate Bjorkgren picked a couple belts up from Toys “R” Us and used them as a tool to help keep camp – which can get monotonous – light and maybe even kind of fun.
“We actually like to have a little fun once and while, believe it or not,” head coach Nick Nurse joked earlier this week.
They’ve upgraded a bit since winning the title. Over the summer, the WWE sent them their own replica, complete with a Raptors logo on the side that reads “2019 NBA Champions.”
Generally, the belts are used to recognize the winner of a drill or a player that impressed throughout the course of a practice. Norman Powell got one on the first day of camp after shining in a one-on-one drill. Fred VanVleet got one for his work in a deflections exercise.
Serge Ibaka walked out of the gym proudly wearing the belt on his shoulder Monday afternoon. How’d he win it? He set a new team record, according to Nurse.
The drill is called “playoff shooting” – it’s a contest where players try to knock down three-pointers while a defender flies out looking to disrupt the shot. Ibaka made all eight of his jumpers. That had never happened before.
The name of the drill, playoff shooting, is fitting given some of his memorable performances in crucial moments last postseason. In Game 7 against Philly, before Kawhi Leonard ended things with his iconic buzzer-beater, Ibaka hit three three-pointers and scored 17 points off the bench. He also scored 17 in Game 4 against Milwaukee to help them even the series. In the last three games of the Finals, he totalled 50 points on a remarkable 21-for-32 shooting.
An early standout in camp, Ibaka has picked up where he left off.
“First of all, he’s in great shape,” Nurse said following his team’s Wednesday afternoon practice session at Laval University in Quebec City. “He had a good summer conditioning-wise so he’s in great shape, he’s putting in a lot of long sessions here, lot of minutes, a lot of runs. He’s really doing a good job and his conditioning is letting him do that.”
Ibaka took about a month off after the championship parade in mid-June – a well-deserved and much-needed break coming off a long and emotionally exhausting season. It wasn’t hard for him to reset and get back to work in July, though.
It took him 10 NBA seasons to get the championship that, at one point, he thought he’d have after three or four. Ibaka went to the Finals with Oklahoma City in 2012, losing to the Miami Heat – LeBron’s first title. With a core that included Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Ibaka figured it was only a matter of time before that Thunder team won the trophy.
What followed turned out to be a valuable lesson for the Congolese big man: professional sports, like life, can be fickle. Don’t take anything for granted.
He’s an NBA champion now, but he wants more. He’s tasted what it’s like to win and he’s hungrier than ever.
“Man, it took me so long,” Ibaka told TSN last week. “I tell my family, I tell my friends, this is one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life, to win a championship. When I think about it, it’s not only the last 10 years, it’s since I was in Congo, all the hard work I put in when I was back home, to move to Spain, get drafted, got here. It’s everything. It’s not just the 10 years I’ve been in the league. It took me many years of hard work, of sacrifice to be here. So I’m so thankful.”
“But I’m the kind of person that always wants more. I always want more. Because I know anything is possible.”
One thing Nurse has noticed is how comfortable Ibaka’s looked going into his third full season with Toronto – “like light years more comfortable,” according to the head coach.
The 30-year-old really came out of his shell last year and Raptors fans got to know him better through social media and his cooking show, “How Hungry Are You?” He also developed close bonds with many of his teammates, most notably Leonard, who uncharacteristically guested on his web series.
It wasn’t an easy season, though. Ibaka’s role fluctuated throughout the campaign. For the first time in his career he had to get used to coming off the bench and playing predominately at centre. It required personal sacrifice and a level of buy-in that he probably wouldn’t have accepted as a younger player.
"The time is not guaranteed [when you're coming off the bench," Ibaka said. "To me, it's challenging. It's hard. But it's challenging me to be the best player I can [be]. It's a good challenge. Nothing comes easy in life. I'm embracing this challenge and keep pushing."
"You have to adjust. Making that sacrifice, it already makes you a better teammate because it's not easy."
This season brings even more uncertainty. His role is still up in the air. He’ll back up Marc Gasol more often than not, but Nurse could also platoon his two centres, as he did through stretches last season. Nurse indicated he could use Ibaka at power forward more this year, with Pascal Siakam occasionally shifting to the three in order to soak up some of the vacant Leonard minutes.
He’ll also be an unrestricted free agent next summer, meaning he could conceivably be on the move mid-season if Masai Ujiri decides to shop his big expiring contracts (Ibaka, Kyle Lowry, Gasol, VanVleet) at the trade deadline.
Still, having turned 30 last month, Ibaka isn’t worried about the future and seems at peace with the present. As cliché as it sounds, he’s taking it one day at time. However, the difference between this Ibaka and the younger version is he’s taking the time to enjoy, appreciate and make the most of each day.
“Last year was tough,” he admitted. “This year, I don't really know, I don't really care, what direction, what you want me to do. I'm just ready. I'm just ready, my mind is ready, I'm just ready. Whatever it takes to help the team to get wins, I'm gonna do it.”