Biyombo Answers the Call

NEWARK, N.J. – Hours before Bismack Biyombo busted out of his seat, double-kissed his friends’ cheeks, bounded toward the stage, shook David Stern’s hand, slipped on a Sacramento Kings hat, promptly got traded to Charlotte and took the first steps into a future he still couldn’t believe, he got a phone call.

On the other end was Dikembe Mutombo.

“He said that I just have to enjoy the day,” Biyombo said of Mutombo, the NBA legend from Biyombo’s native Congo. “Because it happens just one time in your life.”

Later on Thursday, Biyombo walked across the stage at the Prudential Center as the No. 7 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, capping a two-month blur that ripped him out of nowhere and splattered him across draft boards everywhere. A day before, he had so impressed the greatest player in NBA history with a workout that Michael Jordan’s Bobcats traded up to get him. Then, just hours before the Draft, the most famous basketball player – and arguably one of the most important people – in the history of Congo called him to wish him luck.

“[The call] meant a lot,” said former NBA player Marc Jackson, a friend of Biyombo’s from his days playing in Spain. “Let’s just think: Two months ago, nobody had heard of this kid. … In a matter of two weeks, he’s blown up, and the world has seen him. This is icing on the cake for him.

“But just getting a phone call from Dikembe – this is a hero,” Jackson continued. “In America we hear so much about Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown. To him – to them – Dikembe was so much more than those athletes were to us Americans.”

Mutombo kept his call short. He just told Biyombo what to expect from Draft night and his first glimpse of the NBA. He said they’d speak again, but Mutombo just wanted to congratulate Biyombo on getting this far. But before they parted ways, Mutombo, the NBA’s second-all-time leader in blocks and current global ambassador for the league, had one piece of advice for the big man from Congo: breathe it all in.

Which wasn’t tough. Biyombo had already stopped blinking an hour before the Draft. Then, when his name got called, his eyes almost ricocheted off the rafters.

“It’s just incredible to be here,” Biyombo said. “You’ve been dreaming about being here. You’ve been working every day, and I think this is the right time I should be here.”

Mutombo’s call was no passing-of-the-torch. Not yet at least. Biyombo acknowledges that he’s got a long way to go on the court before he can even begin to consider his impact off of it. While he could step in and dominate in blocks and boards right away, he’s still far from an offensive threat.

Beyond that, he’s only played half a season against talent anywhere close to what he’ll see in the NBA, having joined Spain’s ACB League in January.

“Right now it’s the beginning of my career, and I’ve got to first get focused on my career,” Biyombo said. “Then I’m gonna try to [reach out] with his help and the help of the others in the NBA.”

But Mutombo recognized – as people in and around the NBA have over the past two months, weeks, days or hours – the potential for good packed inside Biyombo’s 6-foot-10 frame.

Throughout his career and after his retirement, Mutombo has always given back to his home country of Congo, donating millions, building hospitals, organizing athletics leagues and doing everything in his power to aid his embattled homeland.

“I have absolutely no doubt that Bismack will do the same, not only when his career is done, but before that,” said Igor Crespo, Biyombo’s agent, who first met Biyombo when he was 16. “He’s got a passion for life, and he’s got a passion for his family and his city, Lubumbashi. I’m pretty sure he’s going to be very, very generous with his homeland with his family and everyone around him. He’s very aware of the situation [in Congo]. And he’s very aware of what he’s living.”

“Bismack has the willpower and the knowledge,” Jackson said. “He’s a very mature person that wants to give back because he knows what he came from. … Not just to give back to his immediately family, but to give back to the people from Congo.”

Go beyond the specs – like his Draft-best wingspan of seven feet, seven inches – or how he was the first person in the history of the Nike Hoop Summit to record a triple-double (which he did with 10 blocks in April). If you want to read more about that, Scott Howard-Cooper has more.

But what’s made Biyombo so intriguing to Jordan and Mutombo, and what might make you love him, too, is what lives inside his head and his heart. It’s well-documented (if his exact age is not) that the 18-year-old speaks five languages. He works nearly constantly at his game. And he doesn’t seem to ever stop smiling.

“We all know what kind of specimen he is physically,” Jackson said. “But his mind and the way he wants to live life and the way he does live life, the way he cherishes the little things which we all take for granted.”

“A good friend of mine [Jordanian national team coach and Portuguese native Mario Palma] called me out of the blue and said you gotta meet this kid,” Crespo said. “So I went to Yemen and met him. He’s a young man who strikes you from the very beginning. He is very polite. He’s very well-educated. He’s got a great smile. He’s a brilliant young man.”

He’s also the oldest of seven kids, from a family that Jackson described as “hard-working.” His parents have been able to provide for their kids, but never comfortably.

That will change now. So much will change now. For the person who only recently saw the NBA as a possibility, Biyombo will make it in this league, Jackson said, because he’s worked so hard to get here. Because so much is riding on it.

“A few weeks ago, [boxer Bernard Hopkins] said that when people are working hard, striving to become great, they look to dig a hole, they look in their well,” Jackson said. “How deep is your well? How much more can you dig? Can you run that extra mile? Can you lift that extra weight? If you come from a harder background, that enables you to think back. If you have more bad memories, that helps push you more.

“And that’s what he has,” Jackson continued. “He has those memories of how he grew up in Congo, and he knows he doesn’t ever want to go back to that. And he knows not just that, but he has to provide for his brothers and sisters, mother and father. He has a deep well, and he’ll keep on pushing.”

So now, the man who left home three years ago to see just how far he could go in basketball has a chance to find out. Playing abroad won’t faze him, Biyombo said, because he’s lived away from his family for years now. It was tough in the beginning, but then he grew, quickly.

“He took in more than a normal 17- or 18- year-old, because this is what he lived and breathed,” Jackson said. “That was it. He didn’t want to do anything else. He didn’t want to party. He didn’t want to see girls. This is what he wanted to do. This is why he’s matured past his years, because of his background and where he came from.”

And if the past two years, months and weeks tell us anything about the future, it’s that Bismack Biyombo will keep on growing. But for now, he’s still busy figuring out how to answer the call.

“You expect something from yourself,” Biyombo said. “Then when the right time has come, you feel proud of yourself. And that time has come.”