At the Nike Hoops Summit in Portland, Ore., this past April, NBA scouts packed the Rose Garden to watch homegrown American phenoms such as Austin Rivers, Anthony Davis, and Michael Gilchrist. But that night, it was 6-foot-9 Congolese forward Bismack Biyombo who stole the show, recording the first triple-double in Hoops Summit history with 12 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 astounding blocks. With his freakish 7-7 wingspan, relentless motor, and innate poise, charm, and charisma, Biyombo soon catapulted from being a virtual unknown to a projected lottery pick in this June’s NBA draft.
Biyombo was born in August 1992 in Lubumbashi, a city of 1.5 million at the Congo’s southeastern tip, across the Kafue River from Zambia. At 16, he played his first professional basketball for one season in Yemen, then moved to Europe, where he quickly became a force in Spain’s ACB League, playing for Team Fuenlabrada. Last week, Biyombo spoke to Grantland’s Davy Rothbart from his agent’s office in Vitoria, Spain about his NBA dream, his favorite books and movies, and the kind of woman he hopes to find when he comes to America.
Grantland: What were your hopes when you headed to Portland for the Nike Hoops Summit?
Bismack Biyombo: I just wanted to play ball and enjoy the week. What I said to myself is: “This is my first visit to the United States. People need to know, who is Bismack?” So I step off the plane and [World team] Coach [Roy Rana] says, “Are you tired? You better get some rest and practice with us tomorrow.” And I said, “There is no way — I’m here to play ball.” When I first stepped on the floor my first day there, I let people know who I was. Every minute of every game, all I want to do is leave my name on the floor.
After that first practice, Coach came and talked to me and said, “The way you practice, all-out, made everyone want to practice that way. When you stepped on the floor, things changed on the court.” So I just practiced that way all week. And when it was time for the game, I was just like, “I’m gonna put everything on the floor and play my game.”
Grantland: Did you have a sense during the game that something really special was happening?
Biyombo: I just wanted to try to help my team win the game, and to be the leader of the team. At the end of the day, I think the coach had a lot of faith me. We lost, but I felt like I had played my game and put everything on the floor, so I felt good. But I had no idea that something bigger had started. Not at first.
Grantland: When did you realize that your life had changed based on just this one game?
Biyombo: [Laughs] After the game, as soon as I got in the locker room. Someone told me I had the first triple-double in [Hoops Summit] history, and I was like, “Wow.” They said, “Kevin Garnett had 10 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 blocks, so you’re the first to do that.” I just couldn’t believe it. I said, “OK, I had an amazing game, I know that, but you’re telling me that’s the first time ever?” I talked to my agent, Igor [Crespo], and he said, “That’s true. You’re the first one to make it.” I had wanted to put it all on the floor, and at the end of the day something really special happened. That was a pretty good time, right after the game, and all that week. After I get back home and talk to Igor, he says that a lot of things have changed. Suddenly a lot of people want to know something about me. I go back home and sit down with my parents, and Igor calls me and gives to me some news. He says people are talking about me and NBA teams are interested in me for the draft. I was like, “WOW! That’s really tight!” Yeah, I was really surprised. And it’s been fun. All of these guys I’ve been looking up to, I’ll be playing against them now.
Grantland: Who are your favorite players?
Biyombo: Hakeem Olajuwon, this is my favorite player. But there are two others I idolize in the way they play the game. Kevin Garnett — I like the way he wants to win every game. Every time he’s on the floor, he plays intense and plays hard. When he’s not on the floor, you can see the team missing him. On the other hand is Kevin Love. Some of the time people say, “You’re crazy man. Why you’re taking about Kevin Love? The reason why I say Kevin Love is that I love him, I love the way he plays the game. He’s smart; he knows where to be to get the rebound. He’s the best guy at grabbing the rebound over anyone. Watching him, that makes me learn something. At the end of the day, I’m never gonna be Kevin Love, I’m never gonna be Kevin Garnett, and also I’m never gonna be Hakeem Olajuwon. At the end of the day, I’m just gonna be me. Which means, I’m just gonna take some things from each of them, and that’s gonna make me a little better.
Grantland: Let’s talk about some of your interests off the court. What do you like to do when you’re not playing basketball?
Biyombo: It takes me time to learn a language, so I take all my free time now to work on Spanish. I watch Spanish movies, I read Spanish books, and I do language exercises. During the season, if I’m not practicing basketball, I’m practicing Spanish.
Grantland: How many languages do you speak?
Biyombo: I speak five languages: English, Spanish, French, and two languages from the Congo, Lingala and Swahili. Lingala is what people speak in Kinshasa, the capitol, and Swahili is what we speak at home in Lubumbashi, which is 2,000 kilometers south.
Grantland: Did you grow up speaking English?
Biyombo: I learned English in school. And after school, three times a week, my dad took me and my brother to some extra school. At the beginning, I didn’t want to learn it, but my dad said it’s an obligation for me to learn English. He said it’s sure gonna help me in the future. At first it was frustrating. But my parents kept telling me how important it was and that it would get easier. Two months later I was speaking English. I was kind of surprised. When I came here [to Spain] I was like, “How can I learn this new language?” Well, I worked at it, and six months later I was speaking Spanish.
Grantland: Is it hard to be so far away from home and your family?
Biyombo: For sure. It’s hard. But what I’m doing right now, it’s something that I like. And in my opinion, if I’m doing something that I like, it should also take something away from me. You’re not always gonna be in a situation with everything around you just the way you’d like, a lot of times you’re gonna be missing something, too. I miss my family — a lot sometimes — but what I’m doing right now is for my life and for my future, so for me there’s no problem about it. I just keep practicing and doing my thing.
Grantland: Your dad played basketball in the Congo. Did he inspire you to pick up the sport?
Biyombo: [Laughing] No! He played ball but he wasn’t that serious. My uncle played ball, too, but he also wasn’t that serious. But my uncle said I could be good, so when I was 14 I started practicing like crazy and getting good numbers in my city league. I talked to my dad and said I wanted to start a professional career, and he told me straight: “No!” [Laughs.] And I say, “Why?” And he says, “You got to finish school.” I didn’t give up. I tell him I’m ready for basketball full-time and he says, “Nope. We already talked about this.” So I go to my mom. I think, I’ll try her instead. But she says no, too. So I spend another couple of years in school, and then when I’m 16, my mom and my dad say the time is right and they let me go off and start my career.
Grantland: Because of your size, your maturity, and your leadership abilities, there’s been some argument about your actual age. Some people have suggested that you might be as old as 23 to 26, which could potentially have an effect on where you’d be picked in the draft. How old are you?
Biyombo: This is a question I have faced from when I first came to Spain. Nobody knows about me, so people are quickly like, “Who is Bismack? Who is this guy? Where did he come from?” Now, some people ask me if I can look them in the eye and say I’m really 18. I can look anyone in the eye and tell them that. If they want to believe me, they can believe me, and if they don’t want to believe me, they don’t have to. I’m not President Obama, I’m not gonna hold up my birth certificate in public to show to the world. But we show it to the teams who are looking at me, and we show them X-rays and passports and other documents that prove to them my age.
Grantland: What kind of music do you listen to? What’s your favorite?
Biyombo: Let me tell you the truth: I don’t have one favorite. On my iPod is music from around the world. I have 5,000 songs, and it’s really all over the map — Spanish music, American music, Arabic music. I don’t really speak Arabic, only a little bit, but sometimes I just get the urge to listen to Arabic music, so I put it on. I like pop music, I like R&B. Growing up, I had three little brothers and three little sisters. I did a lot of babysitting. And sometimes I put on Congolese music and we’d dance in the living room. But the problem is, most of the Congolese music that my dad likes is corny. It’s so old, it’s from like 20 years ago. The only [Congolese] singer I really like is Madilu System. You can find his music on YouTube.
Grantland: What kind of movies do you get into?
Biyombo: I love going to the cine! Every weekend I go. Last weekend I saw the new X-Men. I liked it. My favorite character is Wolverine because he’s so fearless. But I’m not a fan of a lot of action movies. When there’s too much action, I think it’s actually kind of boring. It’s the same story every time. I’m more into a quiet movie where I can pick up something deeper. I like character and story. I just watched a movie called The Innocent. That’s the kind I really like.
Grantland: What about books? Got any favorites?
Biyombo: Yeah, I do. My favorite is a Spanish book that my agent gave to me, La Buena Suerte by Alex Rovira. The book says that you can be born with a little luck, but you also have to work hard to create your own luck. You can’t just wake up and expect to have money in the house. You can’t just wake up and expect that when you’re 18, people are gonna say, “Hey, we’re gonna draft you into the NBA.” You have to work for it. You have to create your own opportunities.
Two years ago, when I first stepped in Spain, nobody knows who is Bismack. I worked like crazy all season. In the summer, [my agent] Igor says, “Are you gonna go home?” And I say, “No, I’m gonna stay here and work out and improve my game and do my best to get better.” It was tough — I was away from my friends and family for two years. I was homesick. All my teammates had gone home. But I knew I had to stay and work hard. You can be lucky, but if you don’t work hard, you don’t get that opportunity to be in a better situation. If I hadn’t worked hard, I wouldn’t have played that good at the Nike Hoops Summit, and if I hadn’t played good at the Hoops Summit, I’m not so sure we’d be talking right now. Every time I step on the floor, I try to remember the things I learned from that book and really go for it.
I also have a favorite Congolese book — Sur les ailes du Temps. The guy who wrote it, Bernard Tchibambelela, he was away from his hometown when he was writing this book. A lot of the book is about the feeling of being homesick. It’s something I can relate to.
Grantland: Do you have a girlfriend?
Biyombo: Yeah, for sure! I met her at a house party, hanging out with some friends. She lives in Madrid. But now is the NBA draft, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I came back from [the Hoops Summit in] Portland so excited, but also sad because I know that moving to the U.S. means maybe leaving my girlfriend. We’ve been together 6 or 7 months. We say “I love you” to each other. And I invited her to move to America with me. But she’s young — she’s 18, same as me — and she might want to stay in Spain with her family. If she doesn’t want to move, I told her I understand, that’s no problem, but the United States is like another world, and being there for the first time is gonna be difficult. I need someone next to me. If she’s not gonna come, I told her I’m gonna have to catch up with someone over there. It was hard to tell her that, but I’m not gonna lie to her and say, “I love you,” and keep things going and then she finds out I’m doing something wrong. I like to talk to people face-to-face and be honest. Sometimes that means people want to punch me out, but at least, hey, they know the truth. I don’t want people to say, “Oh, this guy lied to me.” I want them to say, “I have respect for him.” So I talk straight to people. That’s just the way I am.
Grantland: Well, then, let me ask this on behalf of America’s women, in case you wind up single: What are the most important qualities you look for in a girlfriend?
Biyombo: Personality. I don’t want a girlfriend that if you say yes, she says yes, and if you say no, she says no. I like a girl who has her own mind about things and has a lot of respect for herself, and the people around her, and the people around you. Personality, humor, confidence, that’s what I look for. After that, if she’s beautiful, that’s OK, too.
Grantland: The first thing you need when you enter the NBA is the perfect nickname. Do you already have any in mind? Or do you need the hookup?
Biyombo: [Laughing.] I have a lot of nicknames. Growing up my friends, my brothers, and my cousins always called me “Master.” They were being sarcastic, I think, because I am always bossing them around. So, when I first step in the League in Congo, my teammates hear my brothers call me that, and they start to call me “Young Master.” Then I keep growing, and they take the “Young” away, so I’m just “Master” again. Now when I go home and show up at the court, they still call me Master.
In Spain, one day when I was walking to the gym, [former teammate Esteban] Batista called me
“‘La Pantera” — “The Black Panther.” He just made it up that second but the name stuck. At my agent’s office, I walk down the hallway and everyone says, “La Pantera, La Pantera.” I like it — “The Black Panther” — that’s my favorite.
Then in Portland at the Hoops Summit, my teammates were calling me all kinds of nicknames! They called me “Big Mac” and I was like, “What? What is this, Big Mac?” Then one guy was like, “We want to call you ‘Big Smack.’” So I said, “OK, you can call me ‘Big Smack.’ I can roll with that.” They had all kinds of nicknames for me, a different one every day. Kevin Pangos, the Canadian, one time he said during practice, “Dude, you’re the fuckin’ ‘Business,’ man. That’s your new name.” I asked why. He said, “Dude, when you’re on the floor, you’re all business. We’re gonna call you ‘The Business.’” Soon everyone was calling me “The Business.” It’s amazing how fast you can get a nickname. When I’m in the League, I think I’ll have no choice. People will call me something, and I’ll just have to go with it.
Grantland: A lot of teams are giving you serious consideration in the draft. There’s easily 10 or 12 cities where you could wind up. Let’s play a game: I’ll say the name of a city and you say the first word that comes to mind. Any word you want — just the first word that pops into your head. Cool?
Grantland: OK, here we go. Washington, D.C.
Grantland: OK. Detroit.
Biyombo: Detroit? Yes.
Grantland: Wait. Hold on. Do you know anything about these cities? Or are you just randomly saying “Yes” and “No”?
Biyombo: When the teams come over here to work me out, I learn about every city so I’m prepared to meet with them. I take a lot of time to learn everything I can about the city and the team, so I know what’s going on. I do a lot of online research.
Grantland: How will it feel at the draft to be on stage with David Stern, shaking his hand?
Biyombo: That’s very, very big to me. I am always watching a lot of the old Drafts and thinking, one day that’s gonna be me. And now that day is coming! Step by step, we’re moving toward that day. It’s gonna be a very big honor. I’m so excited — I can’t wait ’til that time.
Look, I had good parents who cared for me, and were always there for me and trying to help me. They made sure I got a good education. But I look around Congo at all of the young guys who didn’t have what I had. I’m sure a lot of people know stories about Africa and how things go. But soon, I’ll have the chance to be in a good situation, and one day I’d like to help a lot of young guys have the same chances I had with education and basketball. I’ll keep growing as a player and as a person, and then one day I can help kids in Congo by building more schools so the kids from where I’m from will have a better chance in life.
Davy Rothbart is the creator of Found Magazine, editor of the Found books, author of the story collection The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, and a frequent contributor to public radio’s “This American Life.” He’s also the founder of an annual hiking trip for inner-city kids called Washington II Washington.