Like in many African countries, soccer is easily the most popular sport in Cameroon but basketball may soon have a larger audience thanks to Pascal Siakam, the 6′ 9″ forward who’s in the contention to become the first Cameroonian to win an NBA Championship.
Siakam, 25, has played a starring role as the Toronto Raptors, have reached the NBA Finals for the first time ever but his rise to NBA stardom has been unorthodox. Despite three older brothers who all bagged US college scholarships thanks to basketball, Siakam initially had little interest in the sport and attended a seminary to become a priest.
But that changed when, in 2011, he attended a local basketball camp set up by Luc Mbah a Moute, a Cameroonian NBA veteran of six teams. After impressing at the camp two years in a row, Siakam was selected for the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders coaching clinic in 2012 and, as it turned out, Masai Ujiri, then general manager at Denver Nuggets now boss at Toronto Raptors, was in attendance. Four year later, after garnering more skill and experience playing college basketball in the US thanks to scholarships, Siakam was a first-round NBA draft pick for the Toronto Raptors led by the influential Nigerian executive Ujiri.
Siakam dedicated his win to his father Tchamo, who died in a car accident in 2014, saying he was playing for something bigger than himself. As a child in Douala, Cameroon, his father had long dreamt his sons would play professionally in the NBA.
Siakam’s first two seasons in the NBA were spent learning the ropes with the Raptors team in the development league and then later coming off the bench for the senior side. But Siakam has thrived in his third season, dramatically improving his playing statistics across board while starting more games than in his two first years combined. It’s why he’s become the leading favorite to win the NBA’s award for the Most Improved Player.
While Siakam is not the first NBA player from Cameroon (that was Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje who played 44 games from 2001 to 2004 for Portland Trailblazers), becoming one of the league’s biggest stars by playing a defining role in a championship-winning season is the sort of thing that can trigger wider local interest. That was the case in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Nigeria when legendary Hakeem Olajuwon thrived with the Houston Rockets and won back-to-back championships.
As it turns out, Siakam’s run to the Finals has also come at the expense of another Cameroonian as the Raptors defeated Joel Embiid—who was also first discovered at one of Mbah a Moute’s camps—and his Philadelphia Sixers in a thrilling seven-game series.
To win the championship, Siakam and the Raptors will have to defeat Golden State Warriors, the heavy favorites and winners of three of the last four championships, in a high-pressure seven-game series. So far however, Siakam has shown no nerves in the biggest series of his career scoring a playoff career-high 32 points in Game 1 against the Warriors on Thursday (May 30) to give the Raptors a crucial lead in the race for the championship.
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