Lots of NBA free agents were signing lucrative contracts last week. None may appreciate each dollar more than Bismack Biyombo. When Biyombo learned to play basketball growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he didn’t have basketball shoes. He walked 45 minutes to attend school. And once he arrived, there were many days when he went without a meal. With a new four-year, $70 million contract with the Orlando Magic, the 23-year-old forward-center plans to continue donating money to build schools and help his homeland in other ways.
Pro basketball teams in Qatar often recruit young African players, and Biyombo was given a contract offer at age 16. The bigger challenge was getting there. Traveling with friends hoping to find basketball jobs, Biyombo’s journey to Qatar came to a quick halt in Tanzania, when he was detained for lacking the proper documentation. “They thought we were running from the Congo because of the struggle there,” Biyombo said. “That was my first time being in a jail. I never wanted to be in a jail. Every time I see police, I was scared because of how I grew up. They arrested us at 3 a.m. and they released me about 6 a.m. The smell was terrible. I wouldn’t say the prison was like a jail. A jail in Africa is nothing close to a jail in the United States. People would be happy to be in a jail [in the U.S.].”
He will hold basketball camps in Lubumbashi, Kinshasa and Goma to teach both the fundamentals of basketball and life skills. He’ll also be awarding scholarships to attend local schools and ultimately abroad. He plans to visit a bilingual school he is building in Goma and celebrate a new outdoor basketball court there. Two more outdoor courts will be built next summer. Biyombo also plans to visit Virunga National Park, where poaching and the long-running civil war have seriously damaged its wildlife population. “He always goes back every year with everything that is going on there,” Denver Nuggets 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. He can’t do for every single child, but the fact that he is doing it for so many is a good thing.”
That led to his first full-time job, with the Denver Nuggets. He switched from Denver to Toronto and back. In 2013, he was NBA executive of the year as the Nuggets general manager. The next year, he was lured back to run the Raptors organization. By now, there are very few important players in the college and pro games that he does not call a friend. He leveraged those relationships to get Giants of Africa started. The first camp took place in Ujiri’s hometown of Zaria, Nigeria, in 2003. The 50 invitees lacked the most basic equipment. Ujiri put a box in the middle of the Nuggets dressing room. Players dropped whatever they had lying around inside.
In Kenya, it’s another 16-year-old South Sudanese, Kon Bior. At 6-foot-6, Bior has the broad build and easy grace that mark the special ones. He is one of those players who seem spotlit on the floor. “He has the eyes of a killer,” Ujiri says. “That kid can be in the NBA.” Bior doesn’t need Ujiri’s help. He’s enrolled in one of Kenya’s best high schools, and already a bit of a local legend. Others have taken notice. Remember the name. He’s on his way somewhere. Ujiri has to wait like everyone else to see exactly where. But watching Bior run the floor, Ujiri still can’t help muttering to himself: “He would look so good in a Raptors jersey.”