By the time I was 19 years old, I had lived in five different cities in four different countries and three different continents. Now, at 28 years old, Toronto is the ninth city I've lived in. It is also my new home.
I was born in Brazzaville, the Republic of Congo, in 1989. When I was 16 I took the first opportunity I had to play basketball in a different country. I flew to Europe for the first time and found myself in the small town of Mâcon, in France. That was the first time I lived far away from my people, from my culture. I was young and had to adapt quickly. I spoke French, and I also spoke the language of basketball. That kept me focused, but it wasn't easy. Soon after, my dad decided that Spain presented a better opportunity to develop as a player. He was right.
At 17, I moved to L'Hospitalet, an adjacent city to Barcelona, to play for their junior level team. New city, new people, new culture. This time, I didn't know the language, but I still had basketball. Things progressed quickly and I signed my first pro contract in nearby Manresa. That was my third new city in three years. I learned to adapt to new situations and to stay focused while doing it. I had a goal—to play in the NBA—and I knew more changes would come my way.
Those changes came fast, as one year later I moved to Oklahoma City to start my NBA career with the Thunder. OKC soon became a very special place for me. I arrived as a rookie and left, seven seasons later, as a league veteran with a lot of great memories and friendships. In between I had also lived in Barcelona and Madrid, and my next chapter, a small one, was in Orlando. That was until I was traded to the Toronto Raptors on February 14th, 2017.
When you are a young player in the NBA, sometimes you don't pay much attention to some of the cities you visit, especially in cold places like Toronto. But when you spend more time in the league you learn more about the cities you play in, and learn how to appreciate them more. This was the case with Toronto in my first years in the league.
"I believe we have the best fans in the league."
I gradually realized how interesting the city was. So when I was traded to Toronto to finish last season with the Raptors, I knew I was going to a good place. But what I discovered was how much Torontonians love and support their teams. I felt welcomed since my first press conference and game a couple days later. I felt it in the streets. Raptors fans are very passionate and loyal, and as a player that's golden. After the season, I went into the summer as a free agent and was not sure what options I would have. What I did know is that I wanted to stay in Toronto. And, of course, I did just that.
When I landed in Toronto on July 7th to sign my three-year contract with the Raptors, it felt like coming back home. I had only been in Toronto for a few months the previous season, but it felt like I had been there longer. There is something about this city that makes you feel comfortable—except for the cold, of course. I still can't get used to it!
It's a big city, but I feel like everything is in reach (except if you try to drive downtown in rush hour… you really need to have a lot of patience for that). It's a very international city, with people from many different nationalities. Torontonians are fun and outgoing, and they embrace you and welcome you in as a part of their community. That is a positive for me, because like I explained before, I have lived in different countries and experienced different cultures, and I can experience a lot of them here in Toronto. From shopping to restaurants, this city has so much to offer. I love going to high-end restaurants but also to casual spots in Chinatown or other parts of the city.
I've lived in many cities but there's nothing like Toronto. Having had the journey I've had, I have no doubt that off the court Toronto is one of the best cities in the league for a player. And on the court? Well, there's really an advantage playing here in front of our home crowd. I believe we have the best fans in the league. We had the best home record in the regular season and that's mostly because of them. I really believe they can make a difference in the playoffs.
We are very excited about this postseason, but also very focused. We had the best record in franchise history, and our team has incredible chemistry. There is a special bond with this group, as well as with the fans, that can be very important for us. Just as important as the bond I have with the city I love—my home, Toronto.