Taking a Chance on the Unknown

Dec 20 2016
Photo by
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
Photo by
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
Pascal Siakam
Toronto Raptors
Dec 20 2016

“Pascal, your father is on the phone,” my mother said.

I was 11 years old and I had just finished elementary school in Douala, Cameroon. I had a strong feeling that I knew what my father was going to say.

My dad was a strict man who really valued education, and he believed the seminary provided both great academics and the foundation for being a good man. He had sent all of my brothers — Boris, the oldest; Christian, the second oldest; James, the third oldest — to one when they were young. I knew my turn was coming.

I walked into the kitchen, took the phone from my mom and pressed it to my ear.

“Pascal, it’s time,” my father said. “You’re going to the seminary.”

No, no, no, no, no, I thought.

My brothers had all told me terrible stories about the seminary. The food was awful. The classes were hard. You had to wake up at 5:30 every morning. You were all alone, far away from your family and home. Even though the seminary I was going to was different from the one my brothers went to, I still didn’t want to go! So, as bravely as possible, I tried to stand up to my father.

“I’m not going!”

In Cameroon, it’s unheard of for kids to talk back to their parents. I was terrified. But that’s how much I didn’t want to go.

“Yes, you are.”

That was all he said.

I knew better than to press him any more. My father wasn’t one to argue.

I had one final trick up my sleeve, though, something I always tried when my father told me to do something that I didn’t want to do: I went to my mom.

I begged. I pleaded. I told her I’d do anything she wanted as long as she didn’t make me go to the seminary.

It was all for nothing.

“Sorry, Pascal,” she said. “You need to trust us. This is going to be for the best.”

I cried every day during my first week there. Remember, I was only 11 years old. I missed my family. I missed playing soccer with my friends. I missed home. I called my older sister almost every night, telling her I couldn’t take it. But she told me to be strong. So I tried. Over time, I cried less and less. The seminary just became a part of my life. The teachers told me when to wake up, when to go to class and when to go to sleep. Every minute of the day was planned out.

I adjusted. Soon I was an 11-year-old who did his own chores, made his own bed and finished his own homework. But that didn’t mean it was fun. I still couldn’t understand why my parents had sent me here.

untitled-2Pascal Siakam

In Cameroon, soccer is as big as basketball or American football in the states. Every kid dreams of playing professionally.

My three older brothers were different. They played soccer, too, but each of them eventually switched to basketball when they became teenagers. They were as obsessed with it as I was with soccer. My father had a little bit to do with that, since it was his greatest dream for one of his sons to play in the NBA.

So there was some pressure for me to take up the sport. The only problem was, I didn’t like basketball.

Well, that’s not completely true.

I played it every now and then. I had some natural talent, but, like a lot of younger siblings, I thought it was unoriginal to do the same thing as my brothers. I wanted to be my own person. I had dreams of playing soccer professionally, or maybe going to business school and working in the government for my dad, who was the mayor of my hometown.

That changed in 2012, when I graduated from the seminary. The summer before I had played in the Luc Mbah a Moute Basketball Camp, just for fun. Apparently I had caught someone’s eye, because the next year I got invited to the Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa.

At first, I was going to turn the invitation down. But my sister Vanessa lived in South Africa, and I hadn’t seen her in a few years. I thought, A free trip to South Africa to hang out with my sister and all I gotta do is play a little basketball? Why not!

On the first day of camp, I saw a lot of kids swarming around a few adults on one side of the gym. I knew that the adults were counselors because of the shirts they were wearing, but I didn’t know why everyone was so excited to see them. I tapped one of the campers standing next to me on the shoulder.

“Who are those guys?” I asked. “Why is everyone so excited?”

“Come on, man, that’s Serge Ibaka and Luol Deng!” he said.


He just stared at me like I was crazy and then ran towards the swarm.

How was I supposed to know who they were? I barely watched the NBA. The more I learned about them, though, the more I began to look up to them. They had both overcome incredible odds to make it to the NBA from Africa. In them, for the first time, I saw what was possible if I worked hard enough.

The whisper in the back of my head that had started at the Mbah a Moute camp soon became a shout. Suddenly, basketball wasn’t just a sport I was playing for fun — it was my passion, and the NBA was my dream.

I played well enough at the camp to catch the eye of a few coaches of American prep schools. One of the coaches was from a school called God’s Academy. He talked about a place called Lewisville, Texas, which sounded like another world. It was exciting to be recruited for anything, but since I barely spoke any English and had never left Africa before, I had a lot of questions. My dad was more than happy to help. He learned as much as possible about God’s Academy, and even though it was far away from home, he encouraged me to go play basketball there and pursue a new adventure.

At this point, all three of my older brothers were playing — or had already played — basketball in the states. Boris, who is eight years older than me, played at Western Kentucky. Christian, six years older than me, was finishing up his last year at Indiana University–Purdue University at Indianapolis. James, who is only two years older than me, was still playing at Vanderbilt.

I remember calling James after the camp.

“A coach wants me to come to America to play basketball.”

He just started laughing.

“Come on, man, stop playing,” he said. “You don’t even like basketball!”

“Yo, I’m serious! It’s a prep school in Texas. They are recruiting me!”

He wasn’t laughing at me. I think he was just surprised. When James had left for the States, I was still the little brother who didn’t care about basketball.

It took a while, but eventually James believed me. He had me send him everything on God’s Academy, just so he could make sure everything checked out.

But I don’t think James, or any of my brothers, could have prepared me for life in the U.S.

Everything was different. Everything.

The language, the landscape, the food … they all sent my head spinning.

But more than anything, the cultural differences were really fascinating. In Lewisville, I lived in a house with a host family and a few other students. I remember — it might have been my first or second week there — when I heard one of the kids yell at their parents.

My eyes went wide and I just thought, What is going on here? If you had said that in my house, you were gonna get hurt!

In Cameroon, the most important thing was respecting your elders. The worst thing you could do as a kid was to raise your voice to a superior, whether it was to your parents, a teacher or just someone older than you. You never talked back.

But apparently that wasn’t always the case in the States. I think that — more than the food or the actual language — was the strangest thing for me. Every time I heard someone arguing with their elders, it reminded me of just how far away I was from Douala.

I was a little homesick, but I never once thought about giving up and going home. If I could survive going to the seminary when I was 11, I could definitely adapt to life in the U.S. as an adult.

untitled-1Pascal Siakam

My toughest adjustment was actually on the basketball court. In Cameroon, I had gotten by on natural talent and athleticism. Now, at prep school, I had to really learn the game.

I felt completely lost, like I had no clue what I was doing. My teammates were talking smack to me nonstop. That was new to me, too.

“Give it up, man, you’ve got no handles.”

“Hands of stone.”


Every day, that seems like all I heard from them — telling me I couldn’t shoot, couldn’t dribble, couldn’t do anything right. After two months, I’d had enough. My entire mindset changed. Of course I wanted to get better at basketball, but maybe more than that, I wanted to shut those guys up. Everything they said I couldn’t do, I was determined to learn how to do — better than they could. So I would go to the gym by myself, visualizing myself dunking on one of the guys or swatting one of their shots into the fifth row.

Soon, I was taking my frustrations out on my opponents. I felt myself improving with every game and every practice. Eventually, I started getting some attention from colleges. It’s not like Kansas and Duke were banging on my door, but I got a few letters.

The only school that showed true interest in me, though, was New Mexico State. Coach Marvin had recruited a lot of players from Africa and had a really diverse team, but it wasn’t the basketball that sold me on the Aggies. It was the family mentality.

When he was recruiting me, Coach Marvin never really talked about New Mexico State like a team. He said it was a family, and I believed him. Talking to him was always easy. I never had to think about it. It didn’t feel like I was being recruited. It just felt like I was being welcomed home. When it came time to sign a letter of intent, it was an easy decision. I was off to play college basketball, just like my brothers.

“Do you want a burrito?”

Preston Laird, the Aggies’ Director of Basketball Operations, had picked me up from the Las Cruces airport and was taking me to campus. My flight had arrived at night and I hadn’t eaten yet, so we were going to grab some dinner first. That’s why Preston suggested a burrito.

Just one problem.

“What’s a burrito?” I asked.

And that was how I was introduced to Chipotle.

I’d never heard of the place before, but man I’m glad Preston took me there. Burritos are really good!

My introduction to college basketball wasn’t as smooth. I had to redshirt my freshman year because of academic issues. And when I was finally able to practice with the team, I got my ass kicked on the court every single day.

Those ass-kickings came courtesy of a man named Tshilidzi Nephawe.

And when I say he kicked my ass, I’m not playing.

gettyimages-467044648Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Nephawe was a 6′ 10″, 270-pound senior with a wingspan of more than seven feet. I was a 6′ 9″, barely 200-pound freshman.

He would go right at me. He would post me up, so I would try to body him. Then he would back me down like I was made of cardboard and score easily. When I would try to do the same to him on offense, he wouldn’t budge.

My freshman year, this happened again and again. It got to the point where I was like, Enough is enough! I was so tired of getting my ass kicked every day. I thought back to prep school, and how my teammates had talked smack, and how badly I wanted to beat them. I needed that mindset again.

So I went to the gym night and day, for the whole year. When workouts started the next summer, I was matched up with Nephawe (who was a fifth-year senior) again. That time, I held my ground.

I knew I was ready. I couldn’t wait for the season to start.

Then my whole world came crashing down.

In October of 2014, just before our first game, I got a call from my oldest sister, Raissa, back home in Cameroon.

My father had passed away from injuries he sustained in a car accident two weeks prior.

I broke down crying. I’d never felt further away from home. Nothing mattered at that moment — not basketball, not school. Only my family. I wanted to go home to be with them and say goodbye to my father.

But my mom wouldn’t let me. She told me that my father would want me to keep playing. I was distraught, but after I thought about it, I realized that she was right.

Inside of me, a new fire was burning. I wasn’t worried about proving people wrong anymore, or working to get back at the guys who had beaten on me. I was playing for my dad now. I was playing for his dream of having a son in the NBA. I wanted to make him proud and give him this gift.

From that day forward, I felt like no one could stop me.

ap_959749549979Ronda Churchill/AP Images

I wasn’t supposed to play much as a redshirt freshman, but that changed when Nephawe went down with an injury. Next thing I knew, I was starter. I never looked back. That year, I was named WAC Freshman of the Year.

But I didn’t want to talk about the NBA. I barely wanted to even think about it. That was too much pressure for me at the time, and I didn’t want to jinx myself. It was better to just keep working on my game and let everything sort itself out.

Still … in the back of my mind, no matter how much I tried to ignore it, I knew that the NBA was now a possibility.

After my sophomore year, thoughts of the pros were impossible to ignore. I averaged 20 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks that year, and was named WAC Player of the Year. Last January, the NCAA passed a rule saying that prospects could withdraw their names from the draft 10 days after the scouting combine. In other words, I could test the waters, and if I didn’t think I’d be drafted I could go back to New Mexico State.

Once again, I took a chance on the unknown.

I had so many workouts with so many NBA teams that they all blend together. Except the one with the Raptors.

Toronto was holding a workout in Buffalo. When I walked into the gym, I saw Skal Labissière and Jakob Poeltl, who were both ranked really highly on most draft boards. I was psyched. I had heard they were nice guys, but I had to find a reason to make them villains. So I pretended that they were my old teammates — the same ones who used to talk trash to me. I was going to dunk on Skal. I was going to block Poetl. I was going to dominate this workout and show the Raptors that I was just as good as those big names.

I walked onto the court, pumped up, when a coach stopped me.

“Oh, sorry,” he said, “Jakob and Skal are doing solo workouts. You’ll be working out with another group.”

Well, now I was pissed. That was my chance to show them what I could do against the best! I took that frustration and anger and used it in my workout against the other group (which was full of guys I didn’t know). I’m telling you, I’ve never had energy like that before. It was through the roof. That was my best workout of the summer. But since I didn’t get to work out with the other “top” guys, I didn’t think the Raptors would be very interested.

usatsi_8458033Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

I had thought that the combine and the team workouts were supposed to give me a good idea of where I’d be drafted. But by the end of the process, I was more confused than ever. No one could give me a straight answer.

I heard all sorts of predictions.

“We think you might be picked somewhere in 20s.”

“Late second round.”

“How do you feel about going to Europe for a year?”

“You know, I’ll be honest, you might want to go back to school. Try again in a year or two.”

It was a risk. On the one hand, I could go undrafted and waste my college eligibility. On the other, New Mexico State had just promoted assistant coach Paul Weir to head coach. I really got along with Paul, and wanted to see what I could do in his new system.

When the deadline to withdraw my name passed, my confidence in my skill and my decision were strong — my name would stay in the draft.

My last workout was in Orlando. Afterwards I decided to stay there and watch the draft on TV. My brothers, my agent and a few friends all came to watch with me.

I had so much nervous energy, I could barely sit still. As the first round went on, into the early 20s, I started to get more anxious, even worried. Maybe entering the draft had been a huge mistake. Then, when the 27th pick was announced, and I heard Adam Silver call my name, everyone around me lost it. I was going to Toronto. I guess my workout really was as good as I’d thought.

My brothers were crying and screaming, my friends were crying and screaming, I was crying and screaming … it was just too many emotions.

At that moment, more than anything, I wished I could’ve seen my dad’s reaction.

My brothers and I huddled together, smiling through our tears. We couldn’t speak, but we didn’t have to. We knew we were all thinking the same thing: We did it.

Today I’m 22 years old. I definitely still feel young, but it also seems like a long time ago that I was an 11-year-old boy leaving home for seminary. The last decade has taken me all around the world. There were any number of times I could have given up on this journey — when I was adjusting to an entirely new culture in Texas, or was getting my ass kicked repeatedly as a freshman in New Mexico, or even when people were telling me I wouldn’t get drafted. But I fought through every one of those challenges.

usatsi_9619181Raj Mehta/USA TODAY Sports

I still think about my seminary days. It wasn’t your average middle school experience. I think I know why my dad made me go. He was giving me all the tools I’d need to succeed. Just as important as his dream for his son to play in the NBA was his desire for me to become my own man.

Now I’m a rookie in the NBA. Just to get the chance to put on Raptors jersey — seeing the number 43 on the front and my name on the back — feels surreal. So I’ve started my own little tradition. Every time I enter the game, I touch the number 4 on my jersey four times for my dad and three brothers, then I touch the the number 3 three times for my mom and two sisters, then I cross myself for God and point up to the sky. I know my dad is watching.

Pascal Siakam
Toronto Raptors