The bond between a father and a daughter is unbreakable — even when it’s not one forged at birth. It’s seems like only a minute since NBA forward Serge Ibaka learned he had a daughter. Now, he and 11-year-old Ranie are living in Orlando, Florida, and celebrating their first Father’s Day.
But, Ibaka says, it’s a celebration with a learning curve here in the United States.
On a hot, rainy summer afternoon in his stucco home tucked away in a gated community in Orlando, Ibaka, Ranie and her nanny, Gail Goss, coordinate a day that includes swimming, homework and dinner, where they will discuss their Father’s Day plans.
“I’ve never done Father’s Day before,” Ibaka said. “You know, the funny thing is I never had to spend time on Father’s Day with my daughter, so this is going to be the first time. So, I don’t know what a father does on Father’s Day. When I was young, for me Father’s Day was like one of those days where you wake up in the morning and you say, ‘Hey, Happy Father’s Day!’ to your dad. And then, that’s it. And then he goes to work, and that’s it.
“But here it’s kind of different. You have to be with your kids and then do something. I don’t know what actually I have to do, but I’m just going to learn it. But I’m sure she knows already. She’s going to tell me.”
But Ranie admits to just as much confusion.
“I didn’t know that it was Father’s Day,” Ranie whispered to her dad.
“It’s OK,” Ibaka said. “She didn’t know it was for Father’s Day.”
“I can’t keep on schedule,” Ranie admitted.
Ibaka said raising Ranie has been the best experience and expression of love for which any person can ask.
“It’s a dream to me, to be a father,” he said. “Since I was young I always dreamed of myself traveling, envisioned at least three, four kids, five. And then, I’m living my dream right now and something I always love to do, and it’s fun. It’s really changed my life. It’s changed everything about me. The way I think and the way I live my life. It changed everything.”
Ranie, a 5-foot-5 fourth-grader, has known of her father since she was 5 years old, but she didn’t get fully acquainted with him until recently. Born in Congo, Ibaka left his family and his home to pursue a basketball career in Europe at the age of 17. But before he left, unbeknownst to him, he’d fathered a child. Ranie’s mother informed Ibaka’s father, Desire, of the news, and he decided to keep it a secret. It was Desire’s thought that Ibaka would not have pursued his basketball career if he knew he had a child back home. So Desire took on a paternal role and helped raise Ranie until it was decided that he come clean.
“I was young when I found out,” Ibaka said. “And I was shocked a little bit because it’s something new. And then I didn’t know what to do, what to say or how to react. And I was like, OK, I’m a dad now. But a couple of days I start feeling better, and like I said, it was something I used to dream about always. I want to have kids, and now I want to have more. So, it’s fun.”
Ibaka said what he looks forward to most in raising Ranie is her education and continuing to be there for her.
“I didn’t really have that opportunity when I was young,” he said. “I put her in a better school. I didn’t have the opportunity, so to me I want to make sure everything I didn’t have, I want her to have that. And it’s just like kind of my challenge. I’m trying myself to be there for her. Make sure even if I’m busy, because my dad was so busy when I was young. I really didn’t have a lot of opportunity to spend with my dad. But it is kind of normal for me now, but I don’t want that to happen with my daughter. And I try to be my best I can to be with her and spend time.”
Ibaka said his decision to move Ranie to the U.S. was difficult for her mother.
“I had to explain to her, it’s best for our daughter to come here to the United States, where she can have a better education,” Ibaka explained. “The school system is a little better. And she’s going to be close with me and, like I said before, for a daughter, they need a dad. So it was a little harder, and she did not understand, but now everything’s going smoothly.”
French is Ranie’s first language, but it didn’t take her long to learn English, Ibaka said.
“I put her in American school since she was in Congo because I knew that at some point she had to come here. So, I wanted her to be ready when she’d come here.”
Raising a young daughter at a young age as a man does, however, presents a lot of challenges.
“But it’s kind of a good challenge, especially for a man like me,” Ibaka said. “I’m still young and having a little girl, and they just make you see a lot of things differently. The way you do things because you’ve got a daughter, and they really make you a better man. I love that.”
What he would tell his daughter about guys when it’s time to date?
“Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey. Take it easy,” he said with a shy smile. “It’s too early. When the time comes, I’m sure we’re going to sit down. We’re going to talk. But it’s too early. It makes me nervous now. But I know the time is going to come. Everything has a time. And when the time comes, we’re going to sit down. We’re going to talk.”
Ibaka’s journey includes leaving Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo to become an integral part of the Oklahoma City Thunder after being drafted in the first round by the then-Seattle SuperSonics with the 24th overall pick of the 2008 NBA draft. He went from dazzling with his defensive and offensive skills on the court with the Thunder to a brief stint with the Orlando Magic, and now his most recent stint is with the Toronto Raptors.
Ibaka founded the Serge Ibaka Foundation just after meeting his daughter, with the goal of furthering his humanitarian efforts in Africa. Ibaka desires to inspire children around the world to believe in themselves and in their chances no matter how hard their circumstances are.
With the help of NBA Cares and UNICEF, Ibaka has provided resources and hope for Congo natives in the past few years by bringing basketball, pro athletes, celebrities and charities together through his various philanthropic efforts, to provide support, spread awareness and open a dialogue about the issues and attributes of his homeland. In April, Ibaka was elected to the board of directors of the National Basketball Players Association Foundation.
Ibaka opened up about first setting sight on Ranie in the 2016 documentary Son of the Congo: This is Africa. He said he’s now getting used to being a single father, but it’s not that easy.
“I have to spend time with her and make sure because she needs me. I want to be here for her and make sure we spend time together.”
While Ranie is quickly becoming acclimated to her new life, it wasn’t an easy transition.
“It was a little hard in the beginning for myself,” Ibaka said. “And with basketball at the same time, and then with her, she didn’t understand in the beginning because in the NBA we travel a lot. We’re always on the road. So she really didn’t understand, and she had to get used to and understand my daddy’s busy, and that’s how the things go. So, she’s getting better. She understands, and she’s getting used to now.”
Ibaka is the third youngest in a family of 18.
“The oldest, my sister, is 35,” Ibaka said. “It’s good to have a lot of brothers and sisters, you know? You got family. It’s always good to know you got family. That’s enough, because it’s kind of normal where I come from. It’s kind of normal. I always grow up in a family place, a house. That’s why I love kids.”
Ibaka is known for his fashion-forward style, and Ranie is following his lead. Described as equally stylish and one who takes pride in her wardrobe, the two often debate about who is the best dresser in the household.
“Well, she thinks she’s better than me,” Ibaka explained of Ranie’s wardrobe. “She thinks she’s better than me. So we always try to challenge each other, because she knows. But I’m sure she’s watching me all the time, how I dress, and then she kind of picks it up a little bit. So, she loves to dress too.”
Many teen fathers who are also the primary custodian sometimes have fears. But Ibaka said he’s not afraid.
“I don’t know why, but I’m not really afraid to be a father,” he said. “I try a lot to be a father. And, like I say again, I’m going to try to give her the best education I can. Sometimes we try, we do everything, but it ends up the way we don’t want. But that’s life, you know.
“But at least I know I’m going to try. I’m know I’m going to give my best. I’m going to make sure I’m here for her. Put her in the better position for her to grow up like a sweet little girl. And then everything is not really in my power too. But I just want to make sure, at least I want to tell myself in the next couple of years, you do the best you can.
“Well, yeah, I’m a very strict father,” he said. “But I don’t try to do too much. But I make sure I’m strict. I’m trying to raise my daughter the best way I can, you know? Maybe I didn’t have the opportunity. I didn’t have that chance. But I’m going to give my daughter that.”
Ibaka said he wouldn’t change anything about being a single father.
“So far I think I don’t want to change anything because everything’s going smoothly right now. And then, she’s smart. She’s doing great in school. She’s listening. She respects me. I always tell her, respect people. Thank God everything’s going smoothly.”
Ibaka enlisted the help of Goss, who has experience as a nanny to other Orlando-based NBA players. Goss, a mother of two and minister from Mississippi, has been Ranie’s caregiver for more than one year. She’s known around the league as “Miss Gail.”
Ibaka met Miss Gail when he first moved to Orlando, and she’s been like family ever since.
“I got here, I was looking for a nanny,” he explained. “Someone to take care of my daughter. So, my assistant, he was working on it. And then that’s how we found Miss Gail. And then because I kind of know her story a little bit. She used to work with all those players before, so I was, like, maybe she understands NBA life, how NBA life goes.”
Since Ranie is new to Father’s Day and the culture surrounding the celebration, she’s still figuring out her plans for her famous father.
“I really don’t know,” she said when asked what they were going to do.
On a normal day, they spend time doing various activities.
“We go to the movies. Go to Universal [Studios], swim, play Uno.”
She wants a cellphone, but Ibaka is against it.
“I want to raise her the way I’ve been raised,” he explained. “Like my mom, father, because the new generation is kind of different right now. Everything is going fast. Because I’m kinda person where I never forget where I come from. Even everything I want out of my life, I never want to change the way I think, the way I am. I want to stay the same person. You know, that’s why, and I have the kind of same mentality of raising my daughter too. Because now, everybody having iPhone, everybody having this, everything like that, I have to change the way I think. I would have to change the way I do my thing. You know? I don’t want to that, so that’s how I am.”
Ranie wants to be a doctor and a tennis player but her father said she keeps changing her mind, at first desiring to become a lawyer.
“No, I never wanted to be a lawyer,” Ranie said. “You told me you wanted me to be a lawyer.”
“It’s true love,” Ibaka admitted about fatherhood. “You never go wrong with true love. It’s easy and natural.”