Pascal Siakam’s ‘Poetic’ Rise Is Guided By His Family
At first glance, you can’t see it. The resemblance between brothers. They are both tall, both broad-shouldered, but then, being Toronto in mid-February, any closer familial tells in their frames are swallowed up by large winter jackets. There could be something in the eyes but they’re both also wearing ball caps bent in close arcs at the brow.
The dead giveaway comes when the postgame arena, quiet for some time with players returned to respective locker rooms, most media in tow, suddenly erupts with a single name being chanted, at volume, over the arena PA.
“DARIO! DARIO! DARIO!”
The chanting is for Phoenix Suns player, Dario Saric, the occasion is Croatian Heritage Night. But the smiles that have suddenly burst on the faces of the two brothers in front of me are signature Siakam, familiar to anyone who has watched their little brother explode into the NBA’s universe these last three and a half seasons, a comet streaking across the court with a Cheshire smirk.
Moving up an arena tunnel far enough from the court that we can hear each other again over the patriotism and joy of Saric supporters, Christian and James Siakam continue to tell the story they had started about their mom. When she nearly rushed the court during this year’s All-Star Game.
“She usually doesn’t watch games [in person] like that.” Christian said, “So for her to actually watch the game was—”
“She won’t even get on the court!”James interrupted, laughing.
Christian nodded, “It’s true, she usually doesn’t want to get on the court, to take pictures, to do all that. She just gets a lot of anxiety because it’s so much, right? She’s nervous about the game. The score was like four to two, we were losing. It was the very beginning of the game and she was like, “Oh my god, we’re losing.”
James grinned, easily picking up the scene his brother had been painting, “She never really understood the game like that, so watching her son being pushed around and fouled hard, it’s like, “Oh! What’s going on? Do we get on the court right now?” He motioned rushing forward and simultaneously holding someone back before straightening up and smiling, “But she’s starting to understand the game, she enjoys it more than she did before.”
“I think it’s all fun,” Christian added, “I think she loves it, she really gets excited.”
This year’s 69th All-Star Weekend in Chicago was the first that Pascal Siakam had participated in, or even gone to. “He always said he will go when he’s actually invited to something,” Christian said. There was no doubt of that this year. Siakam was chosen as a starter in the All-Star Game by overwhelming fan vote, his final count second only to the East’s leader and eventual Team Captain, Giannis Antetokounmpo. He was also invited to participate in the Skills Challenge, though P Skills would slip to second place against Bam Adebayo, whose family was seated in the row behind the Siakams and, once the nerves of the semi-final round settled, celebrated Adebayo’s win with them.
The weekend was filled with moments like that for the Siakam family. Celebration, some networking and “putting names to faces” as James recalled, as well as taking some downtime for family dinners to commemorate the occasion. It was the first time the family had been together in the same place since a much more somber moment this past summer, when Siakam returned to Cameroon for the first time since he left at 18, to visit his father’s grave.
It’s an absence that is keenly felt by the family. Siakam struggled through tears, a mixture of joy and grief tangled on his face when his All-Star spot was announced, and admitted it’s impossible for him to celebrate big moments without acknowledging the bigger presence missing.
“It was a really incredible moment,” James remembered of the family’s time in Chicago, being able to be at his brother’s side to support him on such a symbolic stage, “Having our whole family there was amazing. My sisters and mom were able to be there, we didn’t have the complete family. We did what we could with what we had.”
“Proud,” James continued, loading the word with weight, “Super, super, super proud of him. People back home, the whole continent to be honest, are really excited for the opportunity of having two Cameroonian players [at this level],” referring also to Joel Embiid, Siakam’s All-Star teammate, “That was amazing for all of us.”
In talking about the latest lift of their little brother’s meteoric track, his being named an All-Star and their being able to watch from right alongside, Christian and James are loose, almost playful with their affection for him. The pride that they both felt over that weekend fresh, the protective tenderness for Siakam on full display in the way of older siblings or the ones who take on the role of sentry in a relationship — a watchful love that’s always a little ahead of its target, its point of care. But when we start to talk about Siakam’s career, the growth of his game on court and everything he has achieved in such a short and unprecedented amount of time, his brothers’ devotion shifts. A very slight, necessary distance sets in, the kind that makes it possible to talk about something or someone you are dazzled by.
All of Siakam’s brothers played basketball in college; Boris at Western Kentucky, Christian at IUPUI and James at Vanderbilt. They understand the traditional road a player can take from college to the pros, they’ve seen former teammates as well as those their younger brother played with, like Fred VanVleet, snag roster spots via the G League and unyielding determination. They were close observers of the league, one where untold stories and triumph can go hand in hand, likely before Siakam even picked up a basketball. They know about the sport. So when I asked if anything about their brother’s career, watching from where they are as informed figures inside the industry as well as in the closeness of being someone’s family and seeing firsthand the steps they’ve taken, surprised them, I expected them to share a glimpse into a reality where the astonishing had become natural, even fated. But it turns out their reality was the same as the rest of us, being charmed and checked in equal parts by a player who has absconded from his.
“To be honest, it is surprising,” Christian said. "Not necessarily because we don’t believe. It’s because you can see some players take years, many years, fifteen, ten years,” he stressed, “to win a Championship, to be a part of just that. You know what I mean?” He asked in that awestruck way we all do when looking for assurance that something wild to impossible has happened, and more than us just seeing it right, we lived through it. We weren’t dreaming.
The reason why Pascal Siakam’s story, his trajectory, is so hard to clock is that it’s happening in real-time. We don’t do well with understanding scope when it’s right up in front of us, we aren’t built that way. With hindsight it becomes easier. The mile markers all there, stretched out in the rearview of a year or two gone by or, if it’s even further behind, mapped in history. Siakam is bounding over milestones, barely giving pause on the plateaus that stretch between one season to the next. Watching him makes you feel like you need to rewrite the way your eyes send signals to your brain — Siakam cutting through the paint, about to meet an immovable big but with enough space to pull up for a quick jumper and instead he’s spun before you can track him, around a dizzied defender, and dunks — how you mark and measure time — G League Finals MVP to NBA MIP in a season — what you understand of something, what was true — first-time starters don’t cinch playoff games — so that you’ll know how to navigate the new reality you’ve been thrust into, real-time.
Siakam is doing something newly dimensional in basketball. Revolving through the space between what’s future and what’s history, pulling the lines between them taut like somebody would a slingshot and then rocketing away with them. The weirder thing is how quickly we have become used to it. Either a result of having nothing comparable in gameplay or outright career-wise to reconcile his performance with, so that our challenged brains gamely settle on each of his singular successes as par for the course (even though there is actually no course), or because, as Raptors or basketball fans more widely, Siakam has spoiled us by making familiar what was impossible only three years ago.
It’s been just shy of a decade since Siakam picked up a basketball, tagging along with friends to fellow Cameroonian Luc Mbah a Moute’s camp for something to do. It’s been one year less than that since Masai Ujiri first laid eyes on Siakam at a Basketball Without Borders camp, an uncoordinated mess of energy that showed enough potential to be drafted by the Raptors in 2016. It is possible you can easily scroll back to photos you took in that year on your phone, the date is still so near. Nearer still was the first NBA game Siakam ever saw in person, which happened to be the same as his NBA debut. And so close they are practically breathing down your neck are the accolades of his G League Championship and Finals MVP, founding role in the Raptors inaugural “Bench Mob”, NBA Most Improved Player Award and of course, any closer and you’d be sitting on top of the Larry OB, his NBA Championship title. All of this is enough to cause severe whiplash, but look at the season still stretching out in front of us, Siakam’s permanence as a starter in the Raptors regular season and in the gilt and glitz of All-Star, and try, best as you can, to keep up.
This bending of time doesn’t back off during Siakam’s in-game efforts, either. What equates for him as a quiet night would have, last season, been a career-best. There has not been a game yet this season where he didn’t put up double-digit scoring or ample rebounding off the glass at either end. In February alone Siakam racked up just over 200 points and a dangerous chunk of those has come from his improved 3-point game. Increasing just as stealthily have been his minutes, past the 35-minute mark most games and showing no sign of flagging energy. Observationally, it’s the problem of acclimation, with the Raptors and the league more largely. But Siakam’s contributions are now part of a very well-working team with whirring, near-silent mechanics. Where Siakam used to explode down the floor, blazing for a handful of minutes that were impossible to ignore, he has found a better outlet for a more continual current, a role that will, eventually, have him as Toronto’s nuclear core.
“It’s unbelievable, to go from watching him in prep school, to now?” Christian affirmed of his brother’s time-warping trajectory, “But at the same time, you can’t be so surprised because you see the work that he’s put in. You actually witnessed it. He’s working at it, he’s doing what he’s supposed to do.”
“It’s absolutely true, like a [real time] realization of your goals.” James added.
“Watching the process, I think a lot of people get lost into, “Oh he’s an All-Star, he’s playing here, he’s playing there. He got 30 points!” But once you start from the beginning — where he came from, the high school experience, prep school experience, going to college, redshirting the first year, and then starting to play and getting some recognition,” he pauses, almost as if to catch up with himself, his brother, “To watch him do that, and then get into the league, and then go back to the G League,” the pace of James’s voice has been on a steady increase as he runs through Pascal’s short past in an even more condensed few seconds, “and then making the run for the Finals!” He stopped to take a breath around a big, disbelieving smile, “It’s just like, how?! Like we are surprised in that sense, but we see the work.”
When it comes to the work, Christian has a very close perspective. As his brother’s manager, he accompanies him everywhere, including to the gym, often at all hours.
“I remember last year, I think he went on vacation during the [All-Star] Break. And when we got home, maybe 1am?” His eyes widen, “Oh, he went to the gym that same night for like, maybe three hours? Because we got home [from the gym] at four or five o’clock in the morning. I’m like, “Come on bro, you need to go [home] man, we need to go." And he was like,” Christian imitates Pascal, waving him off, “Just a few more shots.”
James, who looked tired thinking about it, agreed, “That’s just a glimpse of how dedicated he is to the game and getting better. And I think that’s the mentality he has, that 1% every day, I don’t care what it takes, I get better every single day. And that’s what, to me, seeing the results,” he put his hands up in front of him, miming a marquee, “All. Star. Selection. The Championship. All that stuff. If you work hard, you can get these things. That’s just possible.”
When talking to Siakam about the sense that his career has accelerated, echoing what his brothers had mentioned about him bucking the idea of a 5-10 year path, he stressed that the tangibility of work is his anchor, “That’s what it’s about — day to day. I don’t worry about the future. I worry about now.”
“My dad’s always going to be my motivation,” Siakam said when asked where he placed his trust when it came to his career, “But at the same time, being at the centre of the game and working hard, getting better, and just understanding what it takes. Once you work hard, you’re confident. You know what it takes. And you know the hours that you put in to have the results that you have.”
Another thing made possible in a career not particularly concerned with the linear traditions of time is that it is able to come full circle, in some ways, long before its natural conclusion. Siakam got his start because of basketball camps, two in the rapid succession of consecutive summers. He would learn to play as much as learn what was possible, establishing connections with other hopefuls and absorbing insight from NBA players who came to coach them.
Part of Siakam’s first All-Star experience was coaching in a Basketball Without Borders Global camp that ran over the same weekend. At ease in a gigantic gymnasium just outside of downtown Chicago, he would watch, encourage and help 64 campers from 34 countries, his claps and cheers swallowed up by the rhythmic, familiar sound of feet hitting the hardwood.
Asked what they thought it meant to their brother, and what it meant to them to see him go full circle, Christian and James were secondarily stunned.
“That’s actually crazy,” Christian said, smiling softly.
“It’s poetic,” James agreed.
“If you think about it, it’s like, [he] was just there.” Christian said, landing again on Siakam’s velocity, “A kid running, trying to block shots, trying to play defence, trying to do all that. Now [he’s] here coaching. It’s something that,” he paused and shook his head, “you cannot write it.”
“It’s something you can’t really put into words.” James added, while Christian quietly repeated, “You can’t imagine.”
Both are so taken with the idea, that Siakam’s progress, even as we struggle with how to properly account for it, can contribute directly to the experience and development of another generation. It builds on their brother’s story by creating a narrative for others.
“For me, it just speaks volumes to his story and what he’s telling everybody else,” James said, “It’s an inspiration for the kids. Knowing that they’re at this basketball camp, people say it’s good, but to have somebody who says “I was in your shoes ten years ago”. To go from that point on to now it’s like, I’m not just talking to you, I’m not just preaching to you, I am telling you something that has happened to me. I am the living proof of what you’re going through right now. I think that is an inspiration that goes beyond basketball, it transcends all of the cultural difference, the struggle that people go through.”
Siakam, perhaps reluctant to mark the camp as one full revolution of a career he is taking day by day, admitted it was cool “to have kids looking up to you” and to relate to them, knowing what they were going through, “Seeing the same atmosphere, and knowing what those kids felt like, thinking about being in their shoes and going through the same process. It was definitely a special moment.”
His brothers recalled another full-circle moment: Serge Ibaka was there during Siakam’s first BWB camp and that he still has the photo, somewhere, of the two of them (Siakam confirmed this, smiling, “It’s somewhere. It was cool because I didn’t really know who he was at the time, I knew he was an NBA player but I didn’t really know much about the NBA. But just thinking about it, and being on the same team now, it’s pretty cool”).
Maybe that’s the best way to approach a career like Siakam’s. A series of individual revolutions, each accomplishment its own orbit, that challenge our expectations and prove what’s possible without relying too much on what’s come before. And throughout, keeping fixed but resilient anchors — love, family — to spin from toward the future.