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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter


TORONTO – Over the past six weeks, Serge Ibaka has had to tell some hard truths that he never expected to be telling.

Just minutes into the inaugural episode of How Talented Are You? – his Instagram Live talent show that launched in early April – the Toronto Raptors’ big man broke the bad news to a disappointed contestant. It was the first of many cuts he would have to make as the host and de facto judge of the competition.

For her audition, the young woman sang and played the viola. New to the gig, Ibaka weighed in on the performance before deciding her fate. He still hadn’t picked up the art of finessing his criticism. He was blunt.

The instrumentals weren’t bad, he told her, but singing isn’t for you. “We have to move on.”

Before you anoint Ibaka the IG Simon Cowell, don’t forget this isn’t his day job. The 11-year NBA veteran is used to blocking shots on the court, not rejecting aspiring performers over social media. That’s not something that comes natural to the Congolese centre.

“That’s the hardest part,” Ibaka told TSN in a phone interview on Wednesday afternoon. “I love music so much, but knowing the quality of the artists, the talent, that’s not really my thing. To me, if somebody sings [well] it’s like, okay, they’ve got a beautiful voice and I’m like oh wow, they’re good. But sometimes the notes aren’t good. Sometimes they’re singing [well] but they’re not really hitting the notes right. All those little details I don’t really know. So, that was the hard part because I had to make some tough decisions. You don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings, but I just [told myself] you can’t please everybody.”

Ibaka’s compassion has come through in the many auditions he’s presided over since. His compassion was the reason why the show came to be in the first place.

Shortly after basketball was put on pause in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, Ibaka began looking for things to keep busy.

With the Raptors serving a team-mandated precautionary two-week quarantine, Ibaka recorded himself emptying the dishwasher or taking out the trash, posted the videos on social media, and called it How Bored Are You? He somehow made mundane household chores seem entertaining.

After years of honing his skills in front of a camera and becoming one of the league’s premiere content creators with his cooking and fashion shows, it was a seamless transition. He’s got the personality, he’s got the following, and suddenly he had the time.

However, there was a prerequisite for his next project. He wanted to find a way to incorporate support for the pandemic relief efforts. His brand manager and close confidant, Jordi Vilà Sánchez, suggested the idea of hosting a talent show on Instagram and donating the prize money to charity.

“I always say you [can] turn tough moments into a positive or you [can] stay there and just complain,” Ibaka said. “I decided, you know what? I’m home alone, no basketball, put a positive spin [on it] and [do something that] I can enjoy too. That’s where the idea came from. That’s how it started.”

Within the first few weeks they received more than 300 audition requests. Forty-eight of those applicants made it to the live show – men and women of different ages (they had to be at least 18) with a wide range of skills. There were singers, musicians, poets, artists and magicians.

Now, with the help of fan voting and celebrity guest judges including Raptors coach Nick Nurse as well as former players DeMar DeRozan and Danny Green, they’ve cut the field down to the final six contestants, who will compete for the crown later this week.

More than $50,000 will go to COVID-19 relief in the winner’s city – with Ibaka’s foundation donating $20,000, DeRozan generously offering to match, and Toronto jeweller and Raptors fan Nuno Rocha contributing $10,000 (they’ve also received donations from viewers). The winner will also get a signed Ibaka jersey.

While Ibaka may have been conflicted about the idea of turning people away, which is why he deferred to fan voting and the guest judges in later rounds, he’s fully embraced his role as host and the personally that drives the show.

“He was great,” said Zach Farber, a Toronto magician who made it to the third round. “Every round it felt like I got to [build a rapport] with him. It’s nice seeing [professional athletes] as real, regular guys. He was on there having a good time and joking around. So in that sense it was nice to see behind the curtain a little bit.”

Throughout the competition Ibaka had to contend with occasional connection issues, contestants showing up late or using profanity, and one woman who called an audible during what was supposed to be her audition to have her dog try out instead (neither dog nor owner made it through). All the while he’s kept his cool and continued to steer the ship, as any good host would.

His recent on-camera experience has helped, but this is his first time captaining a live show and, as he learned quickly, that is a different beast.

Remember, he still has work to do, even if the season is on hold. Most days, he’ll get up and then train in his home gym for three and a half hours – he’s known for being meticulous with his workout routine. Then, two or three times a week he’s got to muster up the energy to go live for an hour and a half, knowing that there are no retakes, there are no do-overs. He’s got to be on his toes from the moment that camera goes on until he signs off 90 minutes (or so) later.

“Sometimes you’re tired, your energy is down and then you have to [find a way] to bring the joy, to bring a good vibe and you’re doing it live,” Ibaka said. “That’s the challenge but it’s a great challenge because it’s making me get more comfortable [on camera].”

Ibaka didn’t anticipate having this much fun, especially considering how difficult it’s turned out to be, but the contestants have blown him away. It’s not just their talent, but also their drive that’s impressed the 30-year-old.

“To me, the [best part] is seeing how excited the talent [gets],” said Ibaka. “For me, as a basketball player, it’s like game time. You know how excited I am for the playoffs, or for the first game of the season, or for a Christmas game. And what I’ve seen is that that’s how excited they are for this show. That’s where they really surprised me.

“I’m not really talented like those guys, I’m not a singer or don’t do those kinda things they do. So, I was like, wow, they really get serious. And they’re so thankful. They’re so happy and they tell me each time they’re on how happy they are for the opportunity and they thank me for what I’m doing. For them it’s big. For me it’s just a show – I try to have fun, try to give back – but for them it’s big, it’s a big deal. So, for me that’s [rewarding].”

Ibaka plans to do something similar for his next project – another talent show but pre-taped and for kids. Several parents have reached out to ask if their children can compete. Ibaka wants to give younger people a chance to show their talent as well.

The Ibaka foundation has also been busy contributing to COVID-19 relief programs locally in Toronto and in Serge’s hometown of Brazzaville, Congo. Both places are near and dear to his heart.

“[Toronto] is my home now,” he said. “This is where I live, so I had to do it. Also, I couldn’t forget where I come from too.”

What he’s doing is commendable. Any athlete can write a cheque. That makes a difference, especially during times like these, but it’s easy. Ibaka is going the extra mile. He’s not just donating his money, but he’s also donating his time – creating a platform for people to display their talent, while providing thousands of others with some much-needed entertainment. He says giving back is what brings him peace of mind.

“I don’t get joy from buying a nice car, but I get joy from doing [something like this],” Ibaka said. “The only time I feel like I have money is when I do [good] with it. You may see me wear all the nice clothes, going to fashion week and all those things, but that’s not really what defines me. Personally, when I define myself it’s with these kinds of things. When I do these kinds of things, that’s where [it feels] like I’ve made it in my life. What really makes me realize I made it is when I give back.”​