Bismack Biyombo: The first two kids I gave scholarships to come to the U.S. have graduated high school. One is going to Arizona State and the other one is going to Washington. The most important thing is to be able to give them an opportunity to be educated. Once they get a good education, even if they don’t make it to the NBA, I truly believe that I’ll build another Bismack Biyombo. I hope they will always go back home and work in a certain organization, or work with my government for the better future for a lot of kids and the better future of our country. I’m also going to build schools in the Congo for the kids that we cannot bring in the U.S., so they can at least catch up with school and play basketball. And they will be the best schools in the country, with basketball courts. I just want to make sure that I can get the best future for those kids out there that are in need.
Bismack Biyombo: The first school is going to be next year in Goma because there are a lot of things that have happened there. A lot of people have died because it’s been a conflict zone for years, and a lot of kids are being dragged into the army and rebellion. Once I finish the school there, then I’ll be able to go back to my hometown, Lubumbashi, and Kinshasa and build them there. We have also been working on the Eastern Congo Initiative with actor Ben Affleck to empower the young males and females in the Goma area—to find a way to give them a better education and pull as many as we can away from the army and the guns. If we can educate as many young guys as possible, it could give us a better chance to lower the risk of having all that rebellion and all that craziness. Ben and I have actually met a few times to talk about a lot of the things back home.
Bismack Biyombo: Also this past summer, I did something special: I invited some kids from Goma to go to the summit of the Nyiragongo volcano in Virunga National Park. It was very unique and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was a first time for me and I can cross it off my list now. It’s a six-and-a-half-hour hike, challenging even for an athlete. I did it because I wanted to bond with the kids and share some of my experiences with them. I wanted to show them that they need to become leaders, whether it’s with their family members, their classmates or with their teammates. That hike in itself was really symbolic of the challenges you go through in life. Many times you think you won’t be able to go to the top, you are tempted to doubt your own abilities or just turn around and give up. It was about perseverance, helping each other, achieving a common goal and lead.
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.”
In the late 1990s, the Mudiays’ homeland was a battleground in a bloody African war. Rwanda, a small country on its eastern border, invaded Zaire in ’97, sparking a conflagration that would involve 10 nations. The country’s rich natural resources—minerals and timber—were looted. Reports of rape, dismemberment and murder were widespread. Over the next nine years an estimated 5.4 million people died in the conflict and its fallout, according to the International Rescue Committee. Kinshasa, Congo’s capital and largest city, was a flashpoint. Stephane and Jean-Michel remember the charred, rotting corpses of people who had been girded by tires and burned alive. They remember the bullet-riddled bodies. They remember the pop of rifles and the rat-a-tat-tat of automatic weapons at night. Once a stray bullet tore through one of their windows, clipping a relative in the shoulder. “I try not to think about it,” says Jean-Michel, his voice trailing off. “Those images are hard to forget.”