Bismack Biyombo has had a different path to the NBA than anybody you know. His journey from poor upbringing in Congo to the best basketball league in the world is nothing less than astounding. At Quai54 we had the chance to talk to Bismack about his tumultous past, the exciting present and the bright future of African basketball.
Me: Bismack, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. Let’s start right at the beginning. In researching for this interview I quickly realized that I have never talked to a professional basketball player before that has a comparable story. How did you get to play basketball?
Bismack: I started playing basketball when I was 11 years old. My father made a hoop from a small trash bin for me. The only shoes I owned were dress shoes which never really fit me. In those shoes I walked 45 minutes to an hour to school every morning. But I did not want to ruin them playing basketball, so I only played in my bare feet.
Me: Did you want to become a professional basketball player right away?
Bismack: Yes, but I knew I had to leave the Congo in order to become a pro. I was 16 when I left my family.
For African players Qatar on the Arabian peninsula is often the starting point to a career in basketball. Rich Qatari pro basketball teams often recruit talent from Africa. But in order to go to Qatar you had to own a visa which Biyombo did not have. His only hope was traveling to neighboring Yemen first and trying to get the right papers there.
Bismack: I worked out for a Yemeni team and they liked what they saw and took me to Jordan (the country not the man/brand) for a youth tournament. There I was discoverd by a Portuegese coach who helped me land a contract with a Spanish team.
Me: And that’s where you appeared on the NBA scouts’ radar?
Bismack: Yes. I got invited to the Nike Hoop Summit when I was 19.
The Hoop Summit pits top high school seniors from the United States against the top international teens. NBA general managers and scouts come to watch the game and the week’s practices. Biyombo became the first player in Hoop Summit history to record a triple-double. He was drafted by Sacramento two months later.
Me: That’s quite a different journey from what we usually hear. Very slowly and tough in the beginning and then super quick all of a sudden. Must have been quite a shock.
Bismack: I really did not expect to enter the draft right after the Hoop Summit, but that Triple Double changed everything. Teams were already interested in signing me so waiting for a year or two really did not make sense.
Me: Did the way things happened change the way you look at things?
Bismack: Very much so. For the better definitely! I’m very thankful that it happened this way. It was hard and tough and I learned the value of the life I’m living right now. The value of the things I have now. It did not only make me a better player but more importantly a better person. If I didn’t go through that, who knows if I ever would have made it to the NBA.
Me: How does this translate to your game?
Bismack: Work most of all. I know the value of hard work and the little things that all add up to getting you closer to your goal. I try to be the first one in the gym and the last one out. But it also has a lot to do with how you conduct yourself. Little things like saying “thank you” or “please” go a long way.
Me: One of the pitfalls of playing in the NBA or any profession where you make a lot of money is that you “unlearn” these things over time…
Bismack: Exactly. That’s the sad truth. You are making so much money and there’s constantly people around you who only say yes yes yes to everything. If you are not careful you start getting used to people doing things for you, which leads to expecting people to do things for you. But that’s not me. I will never be like that because of the things I had to go through to be where I am today.
Me: You bring up a good point because where we are today is the Quai54 tournament in Paris and you’re not just a token NBA player. You actually play.
Bismack: Yeah, because I love the game. For me today it’s not about winning or losing. I just appreciate this moment with all these basketball fans and friends I have known for a long time. Today we celebrate the game of basketball. That’s what it’s all about.
Me: You do quite a lot for the game of basketball but also for the people of Africa which a lot of people probably don’t know. Let’s talk about that.
Bismack: Yes, thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about this because it’s very important to me. We just finished building the first school in Goma in the Eastern part of Congo and we are about to start construction on the second school. After that I want to build a third school and eventually a college. So they can go from the high school I built to that college and then be employed at the company I want to start. It’s a long way off but you got to start somewhere. You know, you always hear people talking about Africa being the future, but if you don’t actually start developing projects and investing into that future there is no point in talking about it. So I feel these steps may just be babysteps, but they are in the right direction.
Me: The team you put together here at the Quai54 tournament carries the name “Child of Africa”. Probably not a coincidence.
Bismack: Not at all. Me building schools is only a small part of it. Most importantly we as Africans have to come together and be united in working on our future. Child of Africa is a way of different players from all over Africa coming together playing as a unit and promote the idea of helping the children. Because even as we are standing here there’s a lot of kids working in mines, there’s millions of kids who are not going to school. That’s where we have to start and hopefully ten years from now we can have a different conversation, because those children that were inspired by Child of Africa have grown up to be better citizens and make better decisions not only for themselves but for their community and the continent of Africa.
Me: Do you go back to Africa every summer?
Bismack: Yes, every summer after the season. Going back, seeing my Congolese country men and especially the kids inspires me and helps me re-energize.
Me: Last question, and now that we have spoken so much about Africa, I gotta ask. What’s with African players always being outstanding defensive players? Hakeem Olajuwon, Manute Bol, Dikembe Mutombo, yourself… I mean the list goes on and on.
Bismack: Oh that’s easy. You want to know why?
Bismack: Because defense wins championships! (laughs)
Me: Thank you very much for the interview and best of luck to you.
Child of Africa – 2018 QUAI54 Champions