When I want to read the best stories about sports and pop culture, I turn to Grantland. If I want to hear the best stories about sports and pop culture, I turn to Grantland. And if I want to see the best stories about sports and pop culture, yup you guessed it, I turn to Grantland. So when I found out a month ago that Grantland would be premiering their feature film Son of the Congo at SXSW I knew I had to be there. The film is a documentary on Serge Ibaka and how he went from the streets of the Congo into the NBA. There was one problem in achieving entry into the premiere, I had no film badge and badge holders were first priority.
In the 30 days leading up to SXSW, I’m sure my friends got sick of me hearing “I’m getting into this movie.” I knew the film was going to be great, but I also knew that Serge Ibaka, Bill Simmons, David Jacoby and a majority of the Grantland staff would be at the premiere. The opportunity to meet a great NBA player, my favorite writers and producers a mile from my house had me possessed. I know a few people in Austin who are indeed the “plug”. They’ll get you on a list and make sure you don’t pay for tickets. Great friends to have and ones I contacted with the hope they had some sort of in someway, somehow at the premiere. One friend in particular tried her absolute best at getting me tickets up to the day of and her efforts kept me motivated. When she gave me the word that she was unsuccessful, I still had a feeling it would all work out.
The events leading up to the premiere were typical of any Saturday of SXSW. The team and I went to the first free event at noon, waited in line for 45 minutes, just to find out half of us didn’t RSVP (I did). After a couple of successful free events we caught a ride on the Tito’s bus. We were all enjoying ourselves quite a bit but I kept my eye on the clock and twitter, as the premiere was my main objective. At 4:45 PM I walked out of an art expo and headed towards Vimeo theatre at the Convention Center. The next two hours would unfold in a way that I could never have imagined.
I walked into the convention center and found the entrance to the theatre. Two volunteers who suspected I might try to slip in unnoticed guarded the door. Before I let that be plan A I asked someone if they would sell tickets to the public. If the seats didn’t fill up with badge holders then the public would be allowed to purchase a ticket. I made myself comfortable by the ticket window ensuring that I would be the first “regular” person to be able to secure a ticket. As time passed it became clear that my chances of getting in were looking good. Then, thirty minutes prior to the doors opening, everything changed.
I spotted David Jacoby Senior Producer of Grantland and host of acclaimed podcast Jalen and Jacoby, as he walked up towards the entrance. I knew that was my moment, and spontaneously blurted out “David, huge fan, I’m stoked you guys are at SXSW.” The next couple minutes would begin a surreal experience. David Jacoby is one of the coolest people on Earth and was genuinely excited at how pumped I was about the premiere. He joked he was scared no one would show, I told him I would try and get into their live podcast taping the following day. Jacoby shook my hand and even called me “his guy” I was floored at how well that went. The guys next to me who I had befriended were in disbelief at the exchange. A few minutes later I hear “Mario!” I turn around and Jacoby shakes my hand, slips me a $20 and states “your tickets on me bud.” What just happened? Did he really just remember my name and buy my ticket, did I just peak at 23? As I came out of shock, I realized tickets were available. I got the ticket and walked into the event, I did what I intended, I got in. Little did I know the triumphant nature of that night was only about to get better.
I walk in and see Bill Simmons, Serge Ibaka, David Jacoby, Juliet Litman and much of the Grantland staff on the red carpet getting photos taken. In my head all I kept thinking was play it cool, DO NOT be on some fan boy nonsense. So of course I was on a fan boy tip and introduced myself to Bill Simmons. As I sit here writing this it still seems surreal. Bill was extremely polite and thanked me for making it out. As everyone made their way into the theatre, I walked right behind Serge Ibaka and yes the guy is a giant and like 3x my height. I found a seat near the front and let the previous events play back in my head. The director came out and introduced the film, and I settled in for what I knew was going to be an epic documentary.
The film started rolling and Serge Ibaka’s story was displayed to the audience. Son of the Congo was masterfully directed and Ibaka gave himself to the film wholeheartedly. A childhood of extreme hardship shaped Ibaka and in his present success he does everything he can to help his nation. What I loved about the film is the honesty of it. Ibaka disclosed everything about his life. His daughter was a major part of the film and it told the nature of their relationship. Ibaka was not told about her until she was three. The documentary followed Ibaka during the offseason when he goes to the Congo. Crowds gather the moment Ibaka pulls into town and everyone humorously calls him Yao Ming because of his immense size. Portions of the film that were not on camera are the huge amounts of cash Ibaka hands out to the countless number of people who are living in impoverished conditions. It seemed exhausting and at one point you see Ibaka upset that someone had been reckless with the money he gave. A lot of people he encounters do see him as an atm since his contract information is public knowledge. Ibaka handles it all exceptionally and his genuine care really moved me. My favorite part of the film is when you see Ibaka installing hearing devices to hundreds of his fellow countrymen. I have always been a fan of Serge as a player, but the film showed me what a great person he really is.
I sat frozen in my seat as the Q&A began and I really wanted to ask a question but I just couldn’t seem to get up. By the time I got myself up to get in line, the questions ended. People made their way to greet everyone involved with the film. At that moment I respected Ibaka too much to bother him for a picture. The man had just put his whole life on display, all I could do was nod and smile from a distance, I think he noticed. I almost hesitated to ask Bill Simmons for a picture but then I saw how he obliged to every request. My gram needed this picture or no one would believe how insane that whole night was. Bill Simmons once again showed he was a class act and we spoke about basketball for approximately 67 seconds. In the short exchange we both agreed the Washington Wizard’s coach has to go, sorry Randy. After the picture I walked over to Jacoby, shook his hand and thanked him for the ticket. He said “no problem, Mario.” First name basis solidified, I left the theatre and enjoyed the rest of that evening. My Grantland experience was not quite finished, I would see Jacoby again and he would be the ultimate homie a second time but I’ll save that story for another day.