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Serge Ibaka wants you to know it wasn’t an act.
“Yes, I was angry,” the Toronto Raptors forward tells me, when I ask how real his emotions were during the priceless viral scarf squabble that broke out between him and teammate OG Anunoby during a recent episode of Ibaka’s YouTube fashion show Avec Classe. To this point in our conversation, Ibaka has been upbeat and jovial, but the tone shifts ever so slightly when I bring up his younger colleague’s insinuation that he taught Ibaka about neck warmers. Maybe, just maybe, Ibaka isn’t totally over it just yet. “When I started wearing scarves,” he declares, voice rising, “OG was still in high school watching me play on TV.”
Still miffed or not, Ibaka knows how to capitalize on a moment. A couple of days after the Anunoby clip hit the web, he strolled into Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena wearing a custom-made muffler roughly the size and length of the anaconda from Anaconda. Twitter, naturally, exploded. That bled into another viral video after the game, when Ibaka repeated his longtime mantra to ESPN’s Jorge Sedano: “I don’t do drip, or money, or fashion. I do art.”
That combination of razor sharp wit and incredible fits has turned Ibaka, a fearsome and intense presence on the court, into one of the league’s most delightful and widely beloved personalities off of it. In addition to Avec Classe, he hosts a cooking show called How Hungry Are You?, in which he peppers NBA superstars and celebrities with revealing questions while also force-feeding them Fear Factor-y dishes of bull penis and alligator claws. He’s a disarming figure in the locker room, unlocking moments of unguarded glee from the normally hyper-reserved likes of Anunoby and former teammate Kawhi Leonard. (It was Ibaka’s Snapchat, you may recall, that first blessed the world with “What it do baybeeeee?”)
“When I’m on the court, I don’t smile, I don’t joke, I’m not friends with anybody,” Ibaka reflects. “But the way you see me in front of the camera, that’s the way I really am. I didn’t know people were going to love my personality like that, because I don’t try. I just be me.”
It’s his silky smooth sense of style, though, that really elevates Ibaka to the upper echelon of outside-the-lines excellence. He’s not always as flashy as his former OKC running mates James Harden and Russell Westbrook, or as trend-happy as some of the Gen Zers around the league, but he brings a gutsy, sophisticated, and, yes, artful eye to his wardrobe choices that feels completely singular in the NBA. It’s an instinct that’s led him to channel his inner Mountie on his way to a game, and turn heads at Paris Fashion Week in a crispy Thom Browne skirt suit. (The latter, Ibaka says, prompted a text from Kawhi: “He was like, ‘Bro, what the hell are you wearing?’ And I said, ‘This is art, bro.’ He said, “Get the F outta here with your art!’”)
Ibaka credits Thunder exec Troy Weaver with stressing the importance of dressing well to him and Westbrook early in their careers: “He told us, ‘The way you dress going to the game, that’s the way you’re going to play.’ When you’re 19 or 20, that sticks in your mind.” But, mostly, Ibaka chalks up his inherent flair to his homeland of Congo. “Ask anybody from Africa which country is the best in terms of dressing, and they’ll tell you Congo,” he says, proudly texting me this video later on as proof. “Where I come from, dressing is a culture. When I go back home, I cannot dress bad. I cannot miss, or people will be like, ‘What’s going on with you, Serge? Did you lose your mind, or what?’ That’s the culture.”
“It’s more than dressing up,” Ibaka tells me, when I ask him to define art. “It’s about having a free mind. You have to create. You have to inspire. When it’s time to dress, I have to think. I have to envision myself in a certain outfit. The night before, when I go to bed, I close my eyes and start thinking about the outfit I’m going to wear tomorrow: all the colors, the fabrics, how it’s going to look. It’s about putting the whole thing together. It’s about the way you walk. The way you talk. Your confidence. It’s art.”
At the present moment, though, in spite of his incredible range as a dresser, Ibaka’s being celebrated online first and foremost for his scarves. So we asked him about them. Here are five of his favorites from his collection—which, he estimates, clocks in at well over 60.
$830.00, Louis Vuitton
“I’ve got about four scarves from Louis Vuitton. I just like the way they feel. When I put it around my neck, it just feels smooth. This one is cashmere, so I can wear it with everything—suits, sweaters, anything. Some scarves can be too hardy to wear with a suit, but this one can dress up or down.”
“This one I like to wear when I want to put some flavor. It’s kind of short, so when I put it around my neck, it hangs down [just right]. It’s like 50 colors—green, blue, orange, yellow—so you can really wear it with any combination.”
“Nobis is a Toronto brand. That’s the one I wear every day when I go to practice, because it’s very warm and hardy. It’s also the one I bought for my teammates, which I wanted to do as a bonding moment. We were doing so good [during a franchise-record 15-game win streak], so I wanted to show my thankfulness for that moment. You know who looked the best in it? Nick Nurse. Nick loves music, he plays guitar, he’s into art. And that was art.”
“To me, it’s not always about brands. Art is not always about how much the clothes cost, or what brand it is—it’s about the way things fit. The number one thing I look for is the length, the size, because I’m tall. And I love this Burberry scarf because it’s long. With a long one like this, I like two turns around my neck, and then I just let it fall down.”
“It’s smooth, like butter. When I say my clothes are like butter, nobody can understand that. People think I’m crazy. But it’s the way I feel about clothes. It’s lighter, and a little shiny, which I love too.”
Originally Appeared on GQ