Bismack Biyombo grew up modestly in a family with seven kids in Lubumbashi, a city in southern Democratic Republic of the Congo. It wasn't until he was 16 and going to play internationally in Yemen that he got his first pair of sneakers that weren't second-hand.
Today, the 6-foot-9, 245-pound centre for the Toronto Raptors not only gets the latest Jordan Brand shoes for free, but he's paid to wear them. It's a luxury that isn't lost on Biyombo, even now in his fifth NBA season. He still marvels at the perks of a pro player's life, like having staff on hand to rebound his shots in practice. It often seems so lavish.
The player who grew up in such a needy part of the world has brought valuable talents to this Raptors team. The energetic, rebound-grabbing, rim-protecting big man has filled some of the team's biggest needs, and the club considers him one of the NBA's elite defenders. Recently, while starting in place of the injured Jonas Valanciunas, Biyombo has capitalized on every opportunity he's been given. And he appreciates what basketball has done for him.
"I think at this level, we lose a little [sense of the] value of things because we have a lot of money and hundreds of pairs of shoes," said Biyombo. "So I take all of my shoes to Africa in the summers, and Jordan Brand helps give lots of shoes to kids there too. I know what a blessing I have, so I've learned to give things a lot of value."
The 23-year-old has had a unique journey to the NBA. As a soccer-loving kid, he used to watch his uncle play basketball, and then he fell in love it himself around age 12. He had a big growth spurt that had him feeling too tall and awkward for soccer among the smaller, speedier kids. He found he had a gift for hoops.
By 16, he left school and lived alone while playing pro in Yemen. He then moved up the ranks within the Spanish pro leagues. NBA scouts discovered him in an international Nike Hoops Summit game in 2011, where he stood out as part of a world team facing U.S. teens. Sacramento drafted Biyombo seventh overall in 2011 but then traded his rights to Charlotte, where he played until last season.
While he had solid seasons in Charlotte, the team opted not to extend him after last season. So Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri signed him, and that is now regarded as one of the most fruitful free-agent signings by any team last summer.
He's played mostly as a reserve this season, bringing tone-setting energy off the bench. But he has also started 22 games – already more than he did the entire season in Charlotte last year. Biyombo is averaging 5.6 points and 8.3 rebounds a game on the season, both career highs. Over his past four games – all starts – he's averaged 10.3 defensive rebounds; last week, he set a franchise single-game record with 25 rebounds versus Indiana.
Toronto coach Dwane Casey explains the success of Biyombo and another key newcomer, Cory Joseph, by saying they have excelled by accepting their roles. He's said it's rare to find players who can play alongside all-stars like DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and remain focused on their own tasks while accepting that most shots are going to come from the backcourt standouts.
"He's had a career year rebounding, and has contributed to us winning by screening, spacing, running the floor, being in at the end of games and being able to switch onto point guards – which is very difficult to do, but he has the athletic ability and defensive smarts to do it," Casey said. "He's added so much to our team, I can't even put a number on it."
Biyombo speaks five languages – English and Spanish along with French, Swahili and Lingala, the national languages back home. Casey says the guy with the "big baritone Barry White voice" has a talkative presence in games that's "contagious" and has made other Raptors better communicators.
Known to his teammates as "Biz," he is also known for his big laugh and electric energy. He'll flex and leap with excitement after a block or dunk in a game, but his biggest passion is rebounding. He says he used to spend hours watching video of great rebounders such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace, watching not only how they nabbed the rebounds but also studying what they could have done better in the times they failed.
He cherishes his role with Toronto, the second-place team in the Eastern Conference with a burning desire to avoid another first-round playoff exit.
"With this team, it's not like we need more scorers," Biyombo said. "They needed guys who can do other things that will help us win. If I can be great at those things, I can help take us to another level."