These days, most NBA players grow up as big shots on the AAU circuit. That means, among other things, free sneakers. Whole teams rock matching Kobes or KDs fresh out of the box at tournaments like it’s nothing.
Raptors center Bismack Biyombo, meanwhile, grew up in Lubumbashi, a city located at the southeastern end of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Biyombo didn’t play AAU ball, and he never got free kicks. In fact, until he left the Congo as a teenager, he’d never even owned a pair of sneakers that someone else hadn’t worn out already.
“I didn’t get to wear a brand new pair of shoes until I left my country at 16, when I went to Yemen. It was always, you go to the market and somebody had worn the shoes, you can get those shoes. And my dad had to pay for it,” Biyombo says. That first pair of sneakers was a plain jane pair of adidas, which he wore at an international youth tournament that would get him noticed and begin his journey toward the NBA. “I was joking with my dad a year ago, saying it’s funny because you used to pay money every single time I needed shoes, but now I’m actually getting paid to wear the shoes, can you believe that?”
The No. 7 overall draft pick in 2011 is sitting courtside at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto, watching a battle of two high school powerhouses in the Jordan Brand Invitational on the Thursday night of All-Star Weekend. He is now a part of Jordan Brand’s growing roster of players, which means he never has to worry about having the best sneakers on the market.
Biyombo, 23, is averaging career-highs in points (5.4) and rebounds (8.0) this season, his fifth in the NBA and first in Toronto after signing a two-year, $6 million contract last summer. He says his favorite sneakers since joining Jumpman have been the Jordan XX8s and XX9s, but he’s branched out and rocked the Super.Fly 4 and Melo M12s a bunch this year, too.
“It’s been great for me,” Biyombo says of being a Jordan Brand athlete. “When I came into the League, I was with Nike. When I made the transition from Nike to Jordan, I was just amazed by how they treat us as players and people. Obviously, the cool part about it is you get all these cool Jordans before other people get them, and you get all the nice clothes. It’s pretty exciting, and I’m very thankful to be a part of it. It’s something that, as a kid you grow up dreaming about wearing a pair of Jordans. But to have Jordan Brand sponsor you is even beyond…”—he pauses and realizes—”I got my first 20 pairs of Jordans when I got with Jordan.”
As in, he’d never had a pair of J’s in his closet. Ever.
Which is funny since now, on a team that’s earned a reputation as perhaps the League’s most sneaker-savvy thanks to the likes of DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, James Johnson and on down the line, Biz is one of the most respected when it comes to kicks. Even if on occasion he doesn’t even fully grasp just how sought-after some of his Jordans really are.
“My team, we love shoes. Sometimes I’ll wear exclusive shoes that I don’t even know are exclusive,” Biyombo admits, laughing—that’s when DeRozan or JJ will bug him, he says. “I can’t remember what pair I wore a few games ago, but I was on the plane with my feet up, and DeMar goes, ‘Man when did you get those, those don’t come out for months!’ I didn’t even know. DeMar is always the one who is competitive with the shoes. Since I’m the only player with Jordan [on the Raptors], when I walk into the locker room, everybody’s like, ‘So what did you get in your boxes?’ I always joke with DeMar when he asks me to hook him up with Jordans. I go, ‘Just look in those boxes!'”
Abe Schwadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @abe_squad.
Photos via Getty Images.