The Toronto Raptors are National Basketball Association world champions. For the first time since the league’s founding in 1946, ‘O Canada’ was played before the start of every game in the NBA Finals. Even more importantly, the Larry O’Brien Trophy found its way north of the 49th parallel for the summer of 2019, following the Raptors’ four-games-to-two NBA championship victory over the highly-favoured Golden State Warriors.

Led by one of the league’s very best in Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors found success across the board in the 2019 postseason, relying on the sharp-shooting of Fred VanVleet and Danny Green, the persistence and leadership of Kyle Lowry, and the incredible emergence of third-year power forward Pascal Siakam.

Siakam — a 25-year-old product of Douala, Cameroon — had himself a 2018- 19 season to remember, and a postseason for the ages. The 6-foot-9, 230-pound forward not only earned an NBA championship trophy and ring this past June, but was also presented with the league’s Most Improved Player Award at the annual awards show just weeks after the The Finals.

This may sound like any other story of a simple rise to fame at the perfect time, but for Siakam, the story is different — very different.

Born in 1994 to Tchamo and Victorie Siakam as the youngest of four boys, Siakam’s sport of choice was always soccer. Incredibly, the versatile dribbler only began playing organized basketball at the age of 16. Despite being incredibly gifted on the court, Siakam always preferred kicking soccer balls into nets than throwing basketballs with his hands.

As a child, Siakam’s father — who once served as Mayor of the town of Makenene, Cameroon — enrolled his youngest son into St. Andrew’s Seminary at the tender age of 11. The Catholic academy in Bafia, Cameroon, served as Siakam’s home for four years, the first step in a journey towards becoming a Catholic Priest.

At the time, all three of Siakam’s elder brothers were given scholarship opportunities to play Division I basketball in the United States, whereas Pascal was ‘hand-picked to embody his family’s Catholicism’ (The Players’ Tribune). Despite his best efforts at the seminary, the youngest of the Siakam brothers decided to follow another call.

“My dad always tried to have one of his sons in the NBA; that was his dream,” Siakam said in a 2019 interview with ESPN. “He’s not here now, but I know he is watching over me and he is so happy. I feel really good about it… The fight I’m doing for him gives me more fire. Every time I just think about him, it’s like I just have to go harder and can’t relax.”

Siakam attended Cameroon NBA star Luc Mbah a Moute’s summer development camp (located two miles from his town) in both 2011 and 2012. In his second year, Siakam — a naturally gifted athlete — was chosen to attend Basketball Without Borders in South Africa later that summer, giving him the chance to play in front of coaches and scouts, in hopes of landing a scholarship to play in North America. Very similarly to the story of fellow NBA star Joel Embiid, Siakam did just that.

With Moute as his mentor, Siakam moved to the United States as a teenager, barely able to speak English. At 16, Siakam’s father helped him secure a prep school position at God’s Academy in Louisville, Texas, with which he was recruited to New Mexico State (Division I) on an athletic scholarship.

Tragically, Siakam’s father passed as a result of injuries suffered in an automobile accident just before Pascal’s first college game. With a student Visa and a scholarship hanging in the balance, Siakam was unable to fly home to attend his father’s funeral but vowed to play every single basketball game for both his father and God.

He did just that, earning WAC Freshman of the Year in 2014-15, before being drafted 27th overall by the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft. In late April of 2017, Siakam helped ‘Raptors 905’ to a D-League championship, while earning Finals MVP in averaging 23 points and nine rebounds per game.

The first NBA game that Siakam ever attended was the Toronto Raptors’ season opener in 2016 — his first game in the show. The forward steadily improved his game over the past three seasons, ultimately leading to the Eastern Conference Player of the Week in November of 2018, a personal-best 19 assists this past January, a career-high 44-point performance against Washington, and another 32 against Golden State in Game One of The Finals.

With his father and biggest basketball influence looking on from above, ‘Spicy P’ won the 2019 NBA Finals and was later named the league’s Most Improved Player. Going from the sixth or seventh-best player on the Raptors to the number-two pivot, Siakam will be counted on to lead the charge in 2019- 20 following the departure of Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Siakam’s Twitter bio reads: ‘God First #RIPDad #DoingItForYou’,

while his motto is ‘Humble Hustle and Heart will set you apart. — Stay humble, have a heart and hustle. Talent will only carry you so far’.

The current NBA champion has also recently developed a personal pre-game ritual.

“Every time I enter the game, I touch the No. 4 on my jersey four times for my dad and three brothers,” Siakam wrote in his piece in The Players’ Tribune. “Then I touch the No. 3 three times for my mom and two sisters. Then I cross myself for God and point to the sky. I know my dad is watching, and it’s definitely tough without him. But knowing I am doing exactly what he wanted gives me the strength.”

Siakam continues to embody his Christian teachings picked up in seminary and has been recognized for his work within the community. He has earned the NBA’s Community Assist Award, which is presented to recognize efforts to empower and inspire youth in local and global communities. Siakam currently serves as an ambassador of Right to Play Canada, while arranging local elementary/middle school visits and speaking on the power of play.

Siakam is also actively involved in the Dunk for Diabetes program, alongside teammate Fred VanVleet. He played in the 2018 NBA Africa Game, while also participating in the 16th running of Basketball Without Borders in Africa. ‘Spicy P’ hopes to create and host an annual basketball camp in Cameroon — much like the one that jump-started his career.

Carter Brooks is a news writer and sports columnist situated in Winnipeg, Manitoba. On top of reading and writing, coaching hockey is his favourite pastime. Carter can be reached at [email protected]

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