Bismack Biyombo trying to ‘impact life on a daily basis,’ so much more in native Congo

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Bismack Biyombo understands firsthand the need for change.

His experiences, his growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have him fully committed to significant, deep-seated, lasting change in his native land.

However, when the Charlotte Hornets center (and LaMelo Ball mentor) talks about that change, he doesn’t talk about massive spending programs or political change. He talks about change on the ground level, about first steps — changing youth’s lives, giving them opportunities. It’s about planting a seed in young minds then watching them grow.

“We want to be able to impact life on a daily basis, but also it’s far beyond that,” Biyombo told NBC Sports. “I’ve seen a country that I lived in for years, every year it’s taken advantage of. Kids are not educated. The country is worth over $24 trillion [in natural resources] but is one of the poorest countries. Every day is a fight for these kids, you know… You wear somebody else’s clothes; people make donations and that’s how a lot of us used to receive those clothes.”

It’s why the first major investment of the Bismack Biyombo Foundation was to build the Kivu International School, located in the city of Goma (near the Rwandan border). In a nation where one-third of children drop out of school before sixth grade, this was an opportunity to change the lives of 500 students — give them the chance to learn French and English, along with a full national and international curriculum, in modern classrooms with Wi-Fi and a library. Not to mention the nation’s first covered basketball court.

“The goal is we want to give these kids opportunities I didn’t have,” Biyombo said. “Most of the kids want a way out; I want to give them a reason to stay. All the kids want a way out of the Congo; to me it’s about poverty, it’s hard, all this. I want to give them a reason to stay.

“That’s exposing them to the right information, putting in the right infrastructure so that they feel comfortable enough to be home, dreaming at home, living their dreams while their mother, father, family are there with them.”

It’s hard to take those first steps with a worldwide pandemic causing a nation to stumble.

Those stumbles helped Biyombo focus on another basic need in his native land: healthcare.

The DRC is considered a coronavirus hotspot, with new cases having surged since December. While the World Health Organization officially counts more than 25,000 cases and just shy of 700 deaths from the disease, those numbers are considered undercounted because of a lack of tests.

Then there is Ebola — the DRC just had its 10th outbreak of that deadly virus. On top of that, malaria remains one of the top killers in the nation (particularly of children).

Infrastructure upkeep has declined in the DRC in recent decades, and hospitals in the impoverished nation were not ready for this.

“To be honest, a lot of the hospitals were not up to the standard, perhaps you could say, of the normal hospitals,” Biyombo said. “What we started doing was refurbishing, as many of those as we can, and clinics, as many as we can. So far I think we are around six.”

That includes upgrading hospitals in the capital city of Kinshasa as well as his hometown of Lubumbashi.

“The hospitals are coming along, thousands of people are using it,” Biyombo said. “Obviously it’s a blessing to see everybody using it, but I think there is more that we want to do and we’re going to do, and the goal is to refurbish as many hospitals and clinics as we can and see where that is going to take us.”

Biyombo isn’t the only former NBA player from the Congo working on improving hospitals. Dikembe Mutombo built a hospital named for his late mother and has worked on the healthcare issue for years. But the demand is still great.

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the problem — PPE supplies were in short supply, as were the other tools needed to fight the disease.

“We donated a lot of gloves and the basic tools that could be needed because at the time we got hit with the pandemic, we only had 50 respirators in the country at the time. We’re talking about 50 for 80 million people,” Biyombo said. “We had resources from a lot of people [help out] and now the country is in a much better spot.”

Still, just like all over the globe, the key to slowing the pandemic’s spread is simple steps of people just following common-sense rules like wearing a mask and social distancing.

“I think the goal for a country like us is having everybody do their little part, to play a small role, to bring the country up to the standard,” Biyombo said.

That is where the nation’s poverty creates another challenge.

While the DRC has an estimated $24 trillion in natural resources, those are untouched or squandered. Only an estimated 10% of the farmable land in the nation is used to grow food. While the nation is rich in minerals and precious metals — gold, uranium, oil, and much more — those are primarily mined illegally by armed groups. The nation’s corrupt and unstable political situation only exacerbates the problem.

The United Nations World Food Program estimates that 90% of the people living in the DRC are food unstable on some level, with 3.4 million children facing malnutrition. Getting enough food just to survive is the daily goal, and it’s something Biyombo faced firsthand growing up.

Biyombo asks, how can you tell someone to stay home or stay socially distanced when they have to find a job that can put food on their family’s table that night?

“It’s more surviving day-to-day,” Biyombo said for families there. “It’s difficult to tell those people to stay home. So, every day it’s more survival for them, and we just want to make sure we can help them throughout this transition and see how we hopefully can create jobs, and coming up with ideas to start creating jobs, in the close future.”

For Biyombo, education and the opportunities it can provide are the way out. He is close to opening a second school, this in his hometown of Lubumbashi, a poor copper mining city.

“Obviously, the second school was slowed down by COVID and the pandemic, but that second school will be done this year and then kids will be able to attend school 2021-22, so we look forward to that.”

The school is new, the goals are the same.

“So, to impact daily lives… but we want to give these kids the best opportunity. We were bringing kids from the Congo to [to the United States], I think we have done a little over 60 kids, that we are giving scholarships. But we can’t keep taking the kids out, so even like the school we are building, those schools are like private schools here, so the kids can have a chance to go to a nice school…

“But again, the goal is to impact daily life but implement new ideas in these kids’ minds so that hopefully, in the near future, whenever I’m not doing this anymore, they are doing bigger and better than me.”

Biyombo continues to run basketball camps back in the DRC, but the nation’s issues are ever present.
“First (basketball) camp that I did, I had 25 kids, I give one of the kids shoes because his shoes were pretty messed up, and he was playing with running shoes, so we give them basketball shoes,” Biyombo recounted. “And I remember he took the shoes and goes hide them in his backpack. So I looked at him and asked him, ‘where’s the shoes we just give you?’ He said, ‘I will use those shoes to go to school with.’ I had no comment.”

Biyombo understands that boy’s plight. He has stories similar to it. He hopes his story can be part of that important, lasting change for his country.

“I’ve learned so much, now I can use that to go back home and motivate a lot of kids, use that to put new ideas in them,” Biyombo said. “Hopefully, now that we’ve started the work, they have a different understanding of life. They want to be somebody in life.

“If I didn’t go through that I wouldn’t be able to explain anything to them.”

Highlights from Clippers preseason win fueled by Luke Kennard

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No Kawhi Leonard. Or Paul George. Or John Wall, Norman Powell, Reggie Jackson and Nic Batum. The Clippers decided to rest six key rotation players in their preseason opener in Seattle against Maccabi Ra’anana, a game played in Seattle.

All those guys are expected to suit up Monday when the Clippers play the Portland Trail Blazers in a preseason game also in Seattle, the first NBA exhibition game played in the city since 2018.

Against Maccabi, it was the Luke Kennard show as he had 16 points.

The Clippers also got 14 points and 13 boards from Moses Brown. As a team, the Clippers cruised and put up a few highlights.

The Clippers have great depth, which should allow them to survive a season where both Leonard and George are expected to get their share of load management nights off. Leonard missed all of last season coming off a torn ACL, and George played in just 31 games due to a few injuries, including a shoulder issue. Still, the Clippers finished eighth in the West with a 42-40 record and had a top 10 defense in the league.

Adding Leonard and George to that mix is why the Clippers are considered title contenders out West. Monday night against the Blazers we should get our first look at the real Clippers team for this season. But Los Angeles is 1-0 this preseason.

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.