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This NBA millionaire won’t forget growing up poor in Africa

Bismack Biyombo uses his wealth to help his homeland of Congo

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.

“Yes, it was tough. I am really happy that it was tough,” Biyombo told The Undefeated. “Without it being tough, without me leaving my family at 16 and going to Yemen and going to Spain before I was able to accomplish my dream, I never would have learned the lesson of life. I never would have learned the lesson of giving back and how to reach out to the community.

“It has made me thankful. I could sit here and think of all the worst things that I went through. But they weren’t the worst just to be the worst, they were the worst to teach me a lesson.”

Bismack Biyombo Sumba was born in Lubumbashi, a copper mining city of about 1.5 million people. It is also where Biyombo’s parents struggled to find work, he said.

The bare necessities were barely there for Biyombo as a child.

“I never wore a pair of shoes that really fit me,” he said. “I wore dress shoes because I didn’t have basketball shoes. I played basketball with no shoes. I would walk 45 minutes to an hour every morning to school.

“When kids had their meal at school, I wouldn’t have a meal because I couldn’t afford it. Sometimes I would eat just once a day because my parents couldn’t afford food.”

Biyombo’s dream for a better life came true through basketball, but the road was at times nightmarish.

Bismack Biyombo #8 of the Toronto Raptors shakes kids hands during the Boys & Girls Club of Protea Glen court dedication as part the Basketball Without Boarders program on July 30, 2015 at the Protea Glen Clubhouse in Soweto, South Africa.

Bismack Biyombo, No. 8 of the Toronto Raptors, greets kids during the Boys & Girls Club of Protea Glen court dedication as part of the Basketball Without Boarders program on July 30, 2015, at the Protea Glen Clubhouse in Soweto, South Africa.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

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.].”

Biyombo and his friends next went to Yemen. While still struggling to get the right papers, Biyombo worked out for a local basketball team. He was eating sparingly and sleeping odd hours to try to keep his energy up. Remember, this is at age 16.

“We didn’t have any money,” Biyombo said. “We would stay up all night, go to sleep at 6 o’clock [a.m.] and wake at 3 o’clock [p.m.]. I would eat yogurt so we could have energy to practice for the team.

“We did that for a couple weeks until the team in Qatar was taking too long and the team in Yemen was getting interested in me and a few of my friends I flew there with. They told me they would pay me $600.”

Biyombo played for the Yemeni team in a youth tournament in Jordan, where he impressed renowned international coach Mario Palma. Palma asked Biyombo during a game how old he was –he was still 16 – met with him afterward and eventually helped him land a job in Spain with Fuenlabrada-Getafe during the 2009-10 season. Biyombo played for two other clubs in Spain, CB Illescas from 2009-11 and Baloncesto Fuenlabrada in 2011. He began attracting attention from NBA scouts when he played well against Spanish national team member Felipe Reyes.

Biyombo’s big break came when he was invited to play in the 2011 Hoop Summit in Portland, Oregon. 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 with 12 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocks, playing against the likes of now-New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis.

“It gave me a chance to introduce myself to the NBA world and see if I could be drafted in the next year or two,” Biyombo said.

Bismack Biyombo #0 of the Charlotte Bobcats goes to the basket during the game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Charlotte Bobcats on November 14, 2012 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Bismack Biyombo, No. 0 of the Charlotte Bobcats, goes to the basket during the game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Charlotte Bobcats on Nov. 14, 2012, at Target Center in Minneapolis.

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Then-Charlotte Bobcats president of basketball operations Rod Higgins recalled the raw basketball player Biyombo was at that time.

“He had athleticism and a great body,” Higgins told The Undefeated. “He looked like a guy who can get up and down the court. [But] he was a project.”

Biyombo’s draft wait was pretty short, though. The Sacramento Kings selected him with the seventh pick of the 2011 draft before trading his rights to the Bobcats. Shoes weren’t a problem anymore, as he made $2.7 million in his first NBA season.

“I didn’t expect the draft to really happen the same year I played in the Hoop Summit. But after … having the triple-double, then everything changed. I could be drafted. My agent told me I’d be stupid to wait for a year or two, why not just put my name in the draft?” Biyombo said.

Higgins recalled that Biyombo missed the first preseason game of his rookie year while financial terms were worked out to free him of the final two years of his contract in Spain. The Bobcats paid $525,000, the most allowed under the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement. Biyombo had to come up with an additional $1.5 million.

“Thank God it’s over,” Biyombo said on his Twitter account afterward.

During his four seasons with Charlotte, Biyombo never lived up to the high expectations that come with being a lottery pick. The team declined to exercise an option for the 2015-16 season, making him a free agent. Biyombo was nervous about his prospects, but his current agent B.J. Armstrong calmed him by saying that lots of NBA teams were interested.

“In Charlotte, first you get the opportunity. But you have all this pressure. I didn’t have the opportunity to do what I needed to,” Biyombo said.

He wound up with a two-year, $6 million contract with a player option in the second season with the Toronto Raptors. Biyombo said Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri and head coach Dwane Casey told him to just be himself on the floor. The 6-foot-9, 245-pounder became a rebounding and shot-blocking force, shining best during the playoffs with averages of 6.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.4 rebounds.

Higgins said Biyombo has succeeded in Toronto because he was more mature and had a more realistic sense of what type of game suits him.

“Early on, he was trying to be Hakeem Olajuwon,” Higgins said. “He was trying to score on the block and shoot an elbow jumper. He grew up when he left Charlotte. I didn’t like what he used to do in a team setting. If he didn’t play much in Charlotte, he would complain to the general manager after the game.

“He is a nice kid who worked his tail off. But he learned how to work efficiently. He’s a gifted athlete.”

While his time with the Raptors was short-lived, Biyombo said, he loved Toronto and the experience of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.

“I really hope what the fans took from me is that every game I played with the excitement that the fans put into the game, my teammates put in the game. I fight for the name in front of the jersey. I don’t fight for the number on the jersey,” Biyombo said.

Biyombo said he was impressed with the Magic’s general manager Rob Hennigan, vice president of basketball operations Scott Perry and new coach Frank Vogel.

“They want to give themselves every opportunity to win, and that’s a big thing for me,” Biyombo said. “They discussed how they can win games as an organization, on the floor and off the floor. I also like my teammates and the character of the team with the mixtures of young guys and veterans.

“What I am going to bring is leadership. I want to anchor in as a different presence and bring toughness to win. I hope to bring a culture to where we compete every night.”

This off-season, he will be back home in the Congo, working with his charitable foundation, which is run by his parents.

DeMarre Carroll #5 and Bismack Biyombo #8 of the Toronto Raptors get ready before Game Six of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Air Canada Centre on May 27, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

DeMarre Carroll, (L) No. 5, and Bismack Biyombo, No. 8 of the Toronto Raptors, get ready before Game Six of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Air Canada Centre on May 27 in Toronto.

Dave Sandford/NBAE via Getty Images

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.”

Said Higgins: “Once the basketball season ends, he was always in the Congo. He has a lot of what he calls Congolese pride.”

Biyombo laughed when he acknowledged that he often gets asked if he will run for president of the Congo one day. For now, his focus is on becoming a better NBA player and continuing to make life in his home country much better than it was for him.

“Here in America, you are just a basketball player, a star,” Biyombo said. “Home, you are more than a basketball player. They see us as people that are going to help them change their situation and use their platform for something. That is why we sacrifice our time in the summertime and visit places that people don’t want to go to, to know what’s going on and how I can help. The Congo is always in my heart no matter where I go.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.