Since high school, whenever Pascal Siakam checks into a game, he uses his right hand to bump his left chest four times. Then, a slight pause, until he does it three more times.
Representing his Raptors jersey No. 43, the routine first signifies the heart that Siakam has for the most important men in his life (four): his father, Tchamo, who passed away in a car accident in Oct. 2014, and three older brothers, Boris, Christian and James. And, it shows the love for the women closest to him (three): his mother, Victoire, and two sisters, Vanessa and Raissa.
Siakam’s grounded mentality also comes through in his social media posts, where he uses the hashtags #HumbleHustle and #DoingItForYou—the latter for Tchamo. Coming from Cameroon, he encountered few educational and sports opportunities, and it was only until he grew to 6’8″ as a 16-year-old that he got noticed in 2011 at one of Luc Mbah a Moute’s basketball camps in Africa. The following year, he was invited to Basketball Without Borders in South Africa, and the rest is history. Tchamo had hoped that one of his sons would make it to the NBA, and Siakam, whose first sport was soccer, later fulfilled his dream.
With that limited exposure growing up, Siakam was inspired to become an athlete ambassador for Right To Play International, which has roots in Africa, to use play to empower youth and enhance education. This past weekend, he put on his first Right To Play event, working with the organization’s Youth To Youth program. At Toronto’s George Syme Community School, he played with more than 70 students in grades 3-5 using the same kinds of games and activities that Right To Play uses around the world, touching the lives of more than a million children every week.
Speaking with the NBPA, Siakam, whose the third current player from Cameroon (the other two are Mbah a Moute and Joel Embiid), discussed his new Right To Play involvement, journey from Africa and rookie season for the playoff-bound Raptors.
NBPA: What does it mean to you to be a Right To Play athlete ambassador?
Pascal Siakam: It means a lot, just being able to help out. Any time you get a chance to give back, it’s always nice. I always looked at playing in games is a good way to learn. If you can learn while playing, I think it’s always the best thing.
NBPA: How was your experience with the kids?
PS: It was awesome, the kids were awesome. It was a lot of fun. We played a lot of games, and I love to play, I love to have fun. I found out today I was the best at octopus. Nobody could beat me, nobody could catch me. It was great just being able to have so many kids. I have a lot of friends here now. I feel like I could see the excitement in their faces and how they act. So it always makes you feel good about what you’re doing.
NBPA: Tell me more about octopus.
PS: People have to catch you. They used to call me Usain Bolt, so I’m pretty fast. They couldn’t really catch me, and I have some soccer skills, too, so I can move.
NBPA: When you think about the words “Right To Play,” how is that an important message for kids?
PS: It means a lot, it means everything. I think a lot of kids don’t get an opportunity to learn about life skills and things like that, so I think Right To Play helps a lot with that, like leadership, so it’s really important. Coming from Africa, we don’t really have a lot of opportunities back home, and I think the fact that I’m here today, the fact that I’m able to help and make people better, make the community better, is always a good thing.
And Right The Play was the right organization to me just being able to learn. And I’m a big kid, I love to play, and I feel like by playing, you learn a lot of things. So that’s why I was really excited to be here and come down today—be able to have a partnership with Right To Play and just help kids.
NBPA: Looking back on your journey from overseas to the NBA, what do you stress to them as they think about being in your shoes one day?
PS: I think for me right now the most important thing was just being determined, having a goal and doing everything that you can to accomplish that goal. And it’s having the people around you that will help you accomplish that goal. I talk about my family a lot. Having my family was really important for me because they helped me, they guided me to just be able to have better things for myself.
NBPA: Growing up in Cameroon, what was the moment when you had a different perspective about your future?
PS: It’s hard to pinpoint on an exact moment, but I think in my basketball career my turning point was when I lost my dad. My dad passed away. And it was the fact that my mindset about basketball really changed and the way I was playing it. Why I was playing it really changed. That really helped me, that really turned around how I saw basketball and my motivation to play the game of basketball.
NBPA: How do you carry his spirit with you today?
PS: Just being the person I am—just being honest, being myself, is a way to represent him, and being in the NBA. He dreamed about it, and the fact that I’m here today is a great thing—not just for me, for him and my whole family.
NBPA: When you think about players from Africa, starting with Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo, to some of the newer faces, like your teammate Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo, what’s the common mentality among your fellow countrymen?
PS: I think it’s just the fact that we know that we don’t have that many opportunities. I think most players from Africa have that mindset where they come here and take advantage of the opportunity, and they don’t want to mess up. And they do everything to make sure that they don’t mess up.
NBPA: What’s been interesting for you to see how the NBA has become so global?
PS: It’s a great thing, just seeing how the game is growing, especially in Africa. More people are playing and there’s a lot of African players. It’s always great.
NBPA: What has your Raptors rookie experience been like, including being a starter for the first 34 games?
PS: It was great, but it was also up and down. And I think it was a great way to just learn and just see every position, from starting to not playing at all or playing five minutes a game. So it just showed me how the league is and the fact that you have to keep working and keep working hard, and that things can change. You have to be able to be tough mentally to be able to handle that and keep moving forward, being the same person you are—even when you think this is how it’s supposed to go, or they’re saying this is the plan and everything is going to work out.
NBPA: Where do you feel you’ve made the biggest impact on defense and offense?
PS: On defense, just being active and using my length and just the abilities that I have being fast. And on offense, just give excitement to fans with dunks.
NBPA: Behind the scenes, how have you looked to improve this season?
PS: Just working on my game; that’s the main thing you can do. We have a lot of coaches at my position, being able to work with them, watching film, learning things that I probably can’t do right and things like that. So just getting better every day, working on my game and just waiting on that next opportunity that I’m going to get.
NBPA: With your first playoffs coming up, what are you expecting for yourself?
PS: I don’t know if I’m going to play or not or what’s going happen, but I just keep working on my game and trying to stay ready. Whenever my name is called, I can go out there and perform. Watching the playoffs on TV was a big thing for me, so it would be great to do that for the first time and experience that. So I think it would be fun.