Bigger Than Basketball: How Bismack Biyombo Is Creating Change in the Congo

It’s a Friday evening in mid-April and Bismack Biyombo is glued to his television. The 26-year-old center has just wrapped up his eighth season in the NBA. He’s far from the bewildered teenager that immigrated to America almost a decade ago, having to quickly adjust to life in the League. He’s a veteran to it all now, a consummate professional and, as of this past February, one of three Vice Presidents of the NBA Players Association.

It’s gone by so fast that subtle reminders of how far he’s come and what he’s been able to accomplish can be emotional. On this particular night, Biyombo feels like a kid again.

He’s watching the 2019 Nike Hoop Summit, a premier high school showcase held in Portland that spotlights the top prospects from around the globe. One of those prospects, West Virginia commit Oscar Tshiebwe, has a special connection to Biyombo.

Tshiebwe is from Bismack’s native country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, nearly 9,000 miles from Oregon. He’s made it here largely because of initiatives that Biyombo spearheaded. 

“When I did my second camp [in the DRC], we took Oscar off the streets, we put him back in school, we gave him a scholarship,” Biyombo explains. “And then he came to the US, played in the McDonald’s All-American Game and then the Hoop Summit.”

Biyombo found himself screaming at the TV, hanging on every move Oscar made. It took him back to 2011, when the Charlotte Hornets big man was on that stage himself. He knows firsthand the nerves of competing in such a crucial, high-profile game as a foreigner.

Very few people knew who Bismack Biyombo was when he played in the Summit. Even fewer people knew the things he had endured to get there.

Biyombo grew up in Lubumbashi, the second largest city in the Congo. Jobs were scarce and his family struggled to make ends meet. Bismack was forced to skip meals, sometimes eating just once a day. He walked 45 minutes to school and had a single pair of shoes for the year. When he picked up hoops at the age of 12, he was often playing barefoot. 

The first time he had real basketball shoes was as a 16-year-old, when he went to Yemen to pursue a professional career. His obstacles throughout childhood provided extra motivation on the floor. 

“For me it was like, I cannot fail,” he tells SLAM. “Because if I fail, I’m going back to that life. My way out and to never go back was to succeed. So that was my mindset all the way up until I made it to the League.”

The game brought him to Yemen, Spain and eventually the United States. Biz took full advantage of his invitation to the Hoop Summit, becoming the first player in event history to log a triple-double: 12 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocks. Anthony Davis and James McAdoo comprised the starting front-court on the opposing team.

Sacramento went on to select him with the No. 7 pick in the ensuing draft (and he was immediately sent to Charlotte as part of a three-team trade). Of course, it was a dream come true for Biyombo—but for reasons that extended far beyond the court. Since the day he entered the League, Bismack’s most important work has had nothing to do with basketball.

“When I first made it to the League, a lot of people were like, You’re still young, you can’t start diving into doing non-profit work,” Biyombo remembers. “For me it was like, I grew up in the Congo, if I don’t do it, who’s going to?”

So Bismack took the steps he could, organizing a clinic in his hometown for the summer of 2012 while trying to adjust to the NBA. He collected as many basketballs and t-shirts as he could to take back with him once the season ended. That first camp had only 25 kids, but seeing the joy it inspired, Biyombo was determined to make it a tradition.

Fast forward seven years and Bismack has established himself as an incredible philanthropist and leader throughout the Congo. After building up his foundation, efforts have expanded to include hosting bigger clinics, building schools and basketball courts, refurbishing hospitals, bringing in investors, providing scholarships and much, much more.

“My first year I had 25 kids and now we have over 10,000 kids across the country that go into our program,” Biyombo explains. 

Oscar Tshiebwe is one of them. Annually, Biyombo helps to bring about 20 DRC students to the U.S. on scholarships to eventually attend college. Tshiebwe has since risen to become a top-50 hooper in his class.

Biyombo has also facilitated the growth of education in the DRC, awarding more than 5,000 scholarships there. Working with his foundation, he co-founded and funded the Kivu International School in the city of Goma, which opened in 2017. The remarkable facility features 21 classrooms, a library with more than 8,000 books, a 135-seat auditorium, a computer lab, a theater, an artificial soccer pitch and the first indoor basketball stadium in the entire country.

“[Bismack] always goes back every year with everything that is going on there,” Knicks guard Emmanuel Mudiay, whose family is from the Congo, told The Undefeated.

“He is building a lot of schools and trying to do good stuff in the communities. He is trying to better education. He wants everybody to have an opportunity.”

While his focus is on improving the nation as a whole—he speaks passionately about figuring out how to create more jobs, as a majority of the population remains unemployed—Biyombo has naturally influenced the spread of basketball across the region. The newly announced NBA Africa League is a reflection of how the game continues to expand on a global scale. 

“Obviously now people [in Africa] view basketball different, and they’re going to continue to view basketball different because every summer we invest our time, every summer we invest our energy into developing infrastructure, into getting the appropriate message into these kid’s hands,” Biyombo says. “For me, playing a role [in the new Africa League] is more-so bringing in the experience that I have and the work that I’ve been doing in Africa and the understanding of the continent, because you can’t work in Africa the same way you work in the U.S. or in Europe. Africa is a different beast.

“Now a lot of kids are going to be able to dream on their own soil. Obviously you want to have great players here in the U.S., but this league can give people a reason to stay home. And it’s always good to be home.”

Biyombo was in attendance at the luncheon when the league was introduced. He journeyed to Africa in the summer of 2018 with Basketball Without Borders, getting the chance amid the trip to meet former President Barack Obama and pick his brain about humanitarianism and leadership.

“One of the best things that I had a chance to learn—as a leader, you never want to make people feel small about themselves. You always want to make everybody feel welcome and special,” Biyombo says. “And when you’re getting a message across a room, you don’t always want to be long in your message. You want your message to be short and clear, instead of extending your message and getting people lost.”

These are tools that he’ll bring to his new three-year role at the NBPA, which was voted on by the players themselves. It’s an honor Biyombo has fully earned, having served as a team rep for the union.

His natural leadership skills have led many—from friends to politicians to you name it—to suggest that he run for President of the Congo down the road. It’s not something on Bismack’s radar at all (“politics are not my thing”), though he won’t completely rule out the possibility that one day he’ll wake up and things will be different. For now, he cherishes being a part of the change in his own way. 

A few days after seeing Oscar in the Hoop Summit, Biyombo picked up a $17 million player option for the 2019-20 season. Much of that money will go towards continuing his endeavors back home, where construction on another school (this one in Lubumbashi) has already started. Biyombo has big plans to keep pushing things forward, always imagining a brighter future for his people.

But those subtle reminders of the past—of where he’s come from and of what he’s managed to achieve to this point are always meaningful. 

“If when I started, somebody would have told me I’d be in a situation to use basketball to actually help other kid’s dreams [come true] and help other kids be in a better situation, I would have never believed it,” he says.

“When you look at your whole journey—it’s not even an option for me to just go out there and play basketball. I’m going out there, playing for myself and for thousands of kids.”

Alex Squadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.

Photos via Getty.