TORONTO • Pascal Siakam never dreamt of being an National Basketball Association (NBA) hero growing up in Cameroon, but the lanky forward who was discovered in a youth basketball camp delivered a stellar performance on his NBA Finals debut on Thursday night.
Siakam, who once studied to be a priest, answered Canadian prayers by scoring a play-off career-best 32 points to power the Toronto Raptors over defending champions Golden State Warriors 118-109 in the opening game of the best-of-seven Finals series.
The first player from Cameroon in the Finals, he sank 14 of 17 shots from the floor with moves few expected when he was discovered in a Basketball Without Borders (BWB) camp.
"At that time, I didn't even know if I really dreamt of being at this level," Siakam, 25, said after the first Finals game played outside of the United States.
"I couldn't even think about this moment because it wasn't reachable for me. But I think once I got to the point where I felt like I had a chance, I put everything forward and I just worked really hard."
It paid off for him and showed what talent Africa might yet produce for the NBA.
"It's amazing. It just shows the growth of the continent," he added. "Being at this stage and representing the continent is amazing. I just want the game to continue to grow in Africa and for kids to see this and hopefully it inspires them."
Siakam was a skinny kid from a Cameroon seminary studying to become a Catholic priest when he caught the eye of former Milwaukee Bucks forward Luc Mbah a Moute and was chosen to attend the BWB event in 2012.
His improbable journey continued with a basketball scholarship to New Mexico State University and then selection by the Raptors in the first round of the 2016 draft as the 27th pick.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse remains stunned by the journey of Siakam, who also had eight rebounds and five assists at the Scotiabank Arena on Thursday.
"It's pretty incredible," Nurse said. "Two years ago when we got bounced out of the play-offs, he literally went into the gym the next day and he said, 'Listen, I need to learn how to shoot. I see in play-off basketball you better be able to shoot'.
"He took it and absolutely ran with it. He was super committed to finding a place in this league and improving his game.
"He believes in himself and he went to work at it. I think that's a powerful statement."
Siakam and the Raptors had a country on the edge of their seats as they took on a Golden State juggernaut playing in their fifth consecutive Finals and chasing a third straight title. But there were few hints of nerves.
"We're vulnerable like everybody else," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said before the game, words that proved prophetic.
For the first time since Kevin Durant was lost to injury in the second round of the play-offs, the Warriors, who were led by Stephen Curry's 34 points, looked like an incomplete team.
"Their defence was great and it wasn't our best night, but we just got outplayed, so simple as that," admitted Kerr. "Move on to the next one."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST