Sometimes fairy tales aren’t as glamorous as we would like them to be. Most of the time, there isn’t a fairy godmother waving a magic wand all the way to a happy ending. Blood, sweat and tears aren’t the makeup of the fairy tales that we’re accustomed to watching. But sometimes—most of the time—the best underdog story is the one that doesn’t need magic.
In September of 1989, Serge Ibaka was born in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo. His parents were both basketball players, so basketball was just a way of living for Serge.
When Serge was eight years old, his country experienced the Second Congo War. The impact was huge, as over 5 million people died. To escape the war, Serge left Brazzaville to live with relatives. It was during that time that Serge’s mom died and his father was taken hostage as a prisoner.
When Serge came back to Brazzaville after three years, basketball became an outlet, not a game. He couldn’t afford new shoes, so he stuffed cardboard in his old, worn-out and undersized shoes—there were no magic glass slippers.
He didn’t let that stop him. He didn’t need new Nikes or Adidas to be dominant, and he didn’t need personal trainers and coaches to make a name for himself as a dominating big man from the Congo.
When he was 16, he was already playing for the club Avenir du Rail in a professional African league.
He quickly made his presence known and earned the attention of European scouts. Finally, in 2007, Ibaka moved to Spain to play basketball in the Euro Leagues. No luck necessary, but just a lifetime of working his butt off.
In 2008, he went on to play with the Oklahoma City Thunder after impressing NBA scouts at an Adidas Nations Camp in New Orleans.
The rest is history; Serge Ibaka (or “Iblocka,” as his teammates call him) is now a premier defensive force for the Thunder, an extremely valuable piece of a championship-level team. He led the NBA in blocks through the 2011-12 season and helped the Spanish national team to a silver medal in the 2012 Olympics.
Far away from the Congo, superstar point guard Derrick Rose was born in 1988. With three older brothers, basketball was a regular fixture in Rose’s life from an early age. He quickly became so good that his mother, Brenda Rose, fearing street agents and neighborhood gangs, was forced to shelter him beginning in elementary school.
That was a smart move. Another highly-touted prospect from the same area, Ronnie Fields, wasn’t so lucky. He failed to keep his distance from these “street agents” and wound up moving around several minor league basketball teams before falling off the radar.
As a single mother, Brenda worked long hours and multiple jobs, all to ensure that her sons would have a future. Englewood, the neighborhood that Derrick Rose was raised in, is widely known as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States. In 2011, 56 people were killed in Englewood.
Derrick went on to win the state championship with his high school team before joining the Memphis Tigers and head coach John Calipari. In his freshman year in Memphis, he made it to the national championship game and was narrowly edged out in an overtime nail-biter versus Kansas. Despite losing, the legend of Derrick Rose was firmly in place.
Rose was chosen as the No. 1 pick of the 2008 draft by the Chicago Bulls. In his third year in the NBA, he was the youngest player in league history to be voted MVP and took the Bulls all the way to the Eastern Conference finals.
Witnessing players that have fought adversity and come out on the other side is part of what makes the NBA so powerful. Jeremy Lin began his rise to “Linsanity” from his brother's couch. Dwyane Wade was born and raised in the same area of Chicago as Derrick Rose. Tim Duncan’s mother tragically died of cancer the day before he turned 14—and yet these players continued to achieve.
That’s the beauty of the underdog story. It’s the ones who don’t have a free ride to success. The ones who work and fight for everything that they achieve—they’re the ones that truly characterize the fairy-tale ending.