Serge Ibaka: Superhero, Sham, or None of the Above?

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder

Prior to the start of the Western Conference Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder announced that Serge Ibaka had been lost for the playoffs to a left calf injury. It was a huge loss for the Thunder, who responded by losing the first two games of the series by a record 52 points without their power forward.

Between Games 2 & 3, the team got a few days off and rumors began to make the rounds that Ibaka may be coming back much sooner than expected. Like, starting in Game 3 the next night soon. And start Game 3 Ibaka did, igniting the Thunder in a must-win game, that energy carrying over into a Game 4 victory that knotted the series up at two games apiece.

Then the articles started coming.

First Adrian Wojnarowski put out an article about Ibaka’s quick recovery. The focus of the piece centered around the forwards unwillingness to accept his fate after such a serious injury, and how that was a nod to his perseverance throughout a difficult life.

All his life, Ibaka has seen the possibilities where everyone else saw peril. He comes out of the war-torn Congo, one of 18 children raised amid poverty and warring factions. His mother died, his father tried to help the family flee from the country’s civil war – only to become taken as a political prisoner.

Through it all, in good times and heartache, Ibaka was raised to be there for his family. When times were desperate, Ibaka was counted upon. This never left Ibaka, and this was his essence on Sunday night upon resurrecting the Thunder’s season in the West finals.

A bit far-fetched, no? Now nobody is saying that Ibaka didn’t overcome a serious injury to return when his team needed him, but the idea that growing up in a war-torn country filled with civil war and murder is the reason that Ibaka was able to come back so quickly is a bit of a reach.

Of course along with the over-praise come the skeptics at the other end of the spectrum.

Earlier today, SB Nation’s Pound the Rock blogger Mark Olsen posted an in-depth piece on the Ibaka recovery, digging through all the potential scenarios that could have played out in helping Ibaka return sooner than expected.

The piece is actually incredibly well-written. There was some very good, very interesting information in the article. Even offering a medical breakdown of Ibaka’s initial injury prognosis.

Grade 2:

There is partial tearing of muscle fibres. Full recovery takes approximately 4 to 8 weeks with good rehabilitation.

The problem lies in the direction all the information in the article is headed. The piece quickly begins to paint a picture of possible medical short-cuts being taken by Ibaka, without providing very much evidence to back the point.


Olsen points out that the Thunder organization likely had nothing to do with any illegal drugs that Ibaka may or may not have taken. Instead, Olsen dives into Ibaka’s background in the exact opposite way that Woj did. is probable that Serge simply suffered a much more minor injury than the other recent NBA calf injuries. On the other hand, perhaps it is time to ask some questions.

Normally, individuals who cheat habitually cheat. They almost never get caught the first time, and there are warning signals that may or may not be heeded. If Serge fits into this profile, checking into his background is easier than checking into his medical profile due to HIPAA.

Who was the team doctor in Spain while he played there? Did he see anything usual? Is he unusual? Have the Thunder has specific conversations with Serge about unsavory doctors or supplements? Every team gives generic warnings to all of their players. Was there a specific one to Serge? Has Serge had any unusual liver enzyme findings? Are there any concerns about the people around Serge? Is Serge clean?

That escalated quickly. Did I mention that Pound the Rock is a Spurs affiliated blog?

Regardless of where it comes from, it seems that no explanation for Ibaka’s recovery can be normal. Either he is a triumphing hero, overcoming the odds to help propel his team towards their ultimate goal. Or he is a low-down, habitually lying & cheating drug-user looking for short cuts.

Sports, like life, is rarely this black and white.

By taking out the glamorous and gritty details that help create controversy, we can take a better look at the details of the situation. This helps to create a bit clearer, and yes, less dramatic, version of the story.


The most important method of recovery when dealing with an injury that doesn’t require surgery is rest and ice. Lots and lots of ice. Ibaka himself said so, citing Keri Hilson, God and ice as the reasons he was able to get back on the court so quickly.

Now I am not naive, I understand that this is sports and athletes are always looking to do whatever it takes to play. And in a league that does not test for HGH, there are probably a few cases of players taking advantage.

But what does it say about us as a society that our first thought when a player like Ibaka comes back in such fashion that we go straight to HGH or steroids? Taking the moral high-road is nice and all, but it is pretty frightening that we are so quick to insinuate such a serious offense when a player does something incredible.

These are athletes, they are there to do unbelievable things every time they step out on the field or court. Why is the idea of them doing so in the trainer’s room so hard for us as a society to believe?

On the flip side of that, just like saying Ibaka is using for recovery is ridiculous, so is turning him into a super hero who overcame the odds because of a war-torn childhood.

The reality of the situation is that Ibaka was able to get some rest, and get around the clock treatment from Thunder medical personnel. He also had some luck, as pointed out in Woj’s article:

Once the Thunder arrived back into Oklahoma City early Thursday, something surprising had happened: The swelling had subsided some 50 percent. The blood was gone, and suddenly the MRI gave a clearer indication this wasn’t a four-to-six-week calf sprain, but a milder prognosis.

Some people just heal more quickly than others. Ibaka just might be one of those people. Once swelling went down on the injury, doctors were able to make a more accurate prognosis on Serge and saw that there was a chance he could play. The around the clock work and rest did its job.

Ibaka isn’t even completely out of the woods, still receiving treatment on the injury and one wrong move away from aggravating the pull and being out for another prolonged stretch of time.

Rather than focusing on how incredibly great or shady the recovery was, let’s just enjoy the fact that Ibaka’s return has turned what looked like a sweep into a potentially great series.