He may have made it to the NBA a decade ago, but Bismack Biyombo’s heart never left home. Biyombo hails from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation rich in natural resources like cobalt and copper, but still plagued by extreme poverty. More than 70% of the Congolese population, or around 60 million people, live on less than $1.90 a day.
“I’ve seen so much suffering from our people,” says Biyombo, a 6 ft. 8 in. center who has played in Charlotte, Toronto and Orlando, and was a free agent going into the 2021–2022 season. “Every day, you go home, you go back in your room, you’re by yourself, crying. You’re trying to find an explanation to certain things you don’t understand. Why? Why? Why? Then it gets to the point where, instead of the why, why, why, it’s time to take the action.”
Mary Beth Koeth for TIME
Biyombo, 29, is doing just that. He has donated his own money and raised funds through the Bismack Biyombo Foundation to build schools and sports facilities, provide scholarships and improve health care in Congo. The foundation delivered around $1 million worth of medical supplies at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, including 10,000 face masks and 780 hazmat suits.
The oldest of seven brothers and sisters, Biyombo grew up in Lubumbashi, a mining city in the south. While playing in Yemen at 16, he told his teammates he’d be in the NBA in five years. “They looked at me and said, ‘You’re a damn fool, man,’” Biyombo says.
In fact, it took him only two years—becoming a rebounding and shot-blocking specialist who in 2016 signed a $72 million contract with the Orlando Magic.
One post-NBA option he’s often asked about: running for office in Congo. He doubts that’s in his future. “I can make changes while being on the side,” Biyombo says.
A second school in Congo is currently under construction, and he plans to build a third. Biyombo says he and his foundation have given scholarships to more than 5,000 Congolese students. “This has become my lifetime mission,” he says. “I’ll be willing to keep pushing until I have nothing left in the tank for my people.”