In a now-infamous – and deeply funny – episode of his fashion-oriented YouTube series Avec Classe, Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka jaws back and forth with his younger teammate OG Anunoby about the finer points of style.
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Ibaka is something close to a fashion icon, at least by NBA standards. He made Vanity Fair’s 2019 Best Dressed list. He caught Vogue’s attention at Paris Fashion Week, wearing a grey pleated kilt and matching blazer to Thom Brown’s show at École des Beaux-Arts.
“I don’t dress,” Ibaka likes to say. “I do art.”
Anunoby’s fashion philosophy, repeated twice during the Avec Classe episode, apparently boils down to: “I don’t care.”
He arrives for filming in a black hoodie and “fat pants” – Anunoby’s term, not ours. Anunoby is given the chance to pick any outfit he wants from a Holt Renfrew boutique. But he selects a gaudy ensemble that is either selected at random or intentionally ridiculous.
Ibaka is visibly disturbed by the orange Moncler puffer jacket pulled over a pink “summer shirt.” Anunoby had in turn pulled that over a sweater. And then there were the ill-fitting navy slacks and bubble gum-coloured Nike sneakers.
“What the F is this, OG?”
“What the F is this, OG?” asks Ibaka. “I asked you to put the best outfit together, to dress up, and this is what you put together?”
“I didn’t try,” Anunoby deadpans. “It just happened.”
This is Ibaka at his best, in his element as a good-natured teammate and as a fashion auteur. He’s equally comfortable discussing $500 Louis Vuitton scarves as he is talking playoff game plans or the intricacies of the Raptors offence.
“When it’s time to dress, I have to think,” Ibaka told GQ. “I have to envision myself in a certain outfit.
“The night before, when I go to bed, I close my eyes and start thinking about the outfit I’m going to wear tomorrow: all the colours, the fabrics, how it’s going to look. It’s about putting the whole thing together. It’s about the way you walk. The way you talk. Your confidence. It’s art.”
Ibaka’s Instagram feed is a mix of runway-quality fashion photography, promos for his media ventures and ads for major brands like Old Spice and Nobis, a premium Canadian outerwear company for whom he is a global ambassador.
When the Raptors were in the midst of a 15-game winning streak earlier this year, the veteran rim protector, who joined the team in a 2017 trade with the Orlando Magic, said he bought Nobis storm camo woven scarves for his teammates as a bonding exercise.
“I wanted to show my thankfulness for that moment,” he told GQ. “You know who looked the best in it? [Raptors head coach] Nick Nurse.
“Nick loves music, he plays guitar, he’s into art. And that was art.”
If Ibaka looks at home in Toronto, it may be because he’s come so far to get here.
Born in the capital city of Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo, he lost his mother at age seven and lived temporarily on the street, sometimes begging for leftovers at local restaurants.
As the Congo endured a civil war, Ibaka turned to basketball as an outlet and as a means of escape. He was big, eventually growing to six-foot-10, and exceptionally disciplined.
His work ethic and consistent training left him with an NBA-ready body by age 18, when the Seattle Supersonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder) selected him 24th overall.
In Toronto, Ibaka’s fashion game hits new heights
He played one professional season in Spain before joining the Thunder. That team had heady young talent at the time including future superstars – and fellow style icons – Russell Westbrook and James Harden. They also had all-time NBA great Kevin Durant.
It was in Oklahoma City that Ibaka, the first Congolese player in NBA history, began to adjust his fashion palette. He had been reportedly urged by Thunder executive Troy Weaver.
But in Toronto Ibaka’s fashion game, as well as his basketball achievements, has been climbing to remarkable new heights. As the Raptors laid the groundwork for the first NBA championship ever by a Canadian team in 2019, Ibaka has been gradually building a mini-empire of his own.
Avec Classe, produced by Uninterrupted Canada – an offshoot of LeBron James’s media company, with rap superstar Drake as part-owner – is an excuse for Ibaka to heighten the fashion acumen of Toronto Raptors teammates like Anunoby and Fred Van Vleet.
They amiably gibe at one another with jock talk as Ibaka puts them through their paces, often collecting memorabilia in the process that Ibaka auctions off for his charitable foundation.
“Coats don’t look good on short guys”
“I usually don’t wear a lot of coats and jackets,” Van Vleet confides as he browses the racks at Holt Renfrew in one episode. “I don’t know why.”
“You know why?” Ibaka counters, pouncing on the opportunity to make a quip about his teammate’s relatively small, six-foot frame. “I’m gonna tell you: because coats don’t look good on short guys.”
On Instagram, there are PG-13 quips about the Toronto Raptors’ “Big Scarf Energy” – Ibaka reportedly has about 60 high-end face coverings in his collection. Then on How Hungry Are You, a second signature YouTube series, he invites A-list celebrities like Tiffany Haddish and Kawhi Leonard for extraordinarily gross meals.
Leonard, then a Raptors teammate, famously sampled “beef penis” pizza on the show. Haddish was offered shots of “cricket tea” and salad topped with mealworms.
Whatever the world lost when MTV cancelled its Fear Factor reboot, Ibaka has retrieved. He wins over guests with the same playful, earnest charm that makes him a Raptors fan favourite.
“It took me like two, three hours to cook this food for you,” he tells Haddish.
Fear Factor replacement
“How’d it take you two hours to make some damn mealworms?” she asks later, grinning widely after he reveals the dish.
They’re both good sports. So when Haddish asks Ibaka why he and the musician and actor Keri Hilson broke up years ago, he downs a shot of cricket tea and doesn’t answer.
This is Ibaka living his best life, with an influential but low-key global brand that fits the citizen-of-the-world persona he has embraced as a star for the Toronto Raptors in Canada’s only NBA city.
He does not flaunt his wealth, or his under-the-radar celebrity, but he clearly enjoys both. He lists Valentino and Balmain as favourite designers and told Vanity Fair he despises big logos, because they exist, “just to show you wear expensive clothes.”
Home is Toronto
Ibaka’s style is much more subtle than that, and infinitely more refined. His big personality is matched with a remarkable fashion sense that is not garish, lazy or overly conservative – NBA wardrobes run the gamut.
He’s playing on another level, winning championships and winning at life. This is more than a game, this is art. We all get to watch as Ibaka paints his masterpiece.
TOP IMAGE: @SERGEIBAKA INSTAGRAM
(The Toronto Raptors open the re-started NBA season tonight against Lebron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, at 8:30 p.m. They are defending NBA champions.)