SHEFFIELD (Julio Chitunda's African Message) - If you ever wondered, in coming years, whether or not the Democratic Republic of Congo would be able to compete on basketball's big stage, Bismack Biyombo has the answer.
The DR Congo last competed at AfroBasket - Africa's flagship event - in the 2007 tournament held in neighbouring Angola. They finished 15th in the 16-team competition thanks to two wins over Liberia.
Since then, not much has happened and I am often tempted to believe that the DR Congo has one - if not the most - neglected basketball programmes on the African continent. When I look around and watch Christian Eyenga making waves with Dinamo Sassari in Italy's topflight, or watch Denver Nuggets rookie Emmanuel Mudiay building his name in the NBA, I raise more questions than I find answers.
And, as the Toronto Raptors played the Orlando Magic, in London a couple of weeks ago, as part of the NBA Global Games, I sat down with Biyombo - a native of Lubumbashi which is situated in the southern part of the DR Congo - and asked him to share his views on the current state of basketball in his country.
The Raptors big man, who began his NBA journey in Yemen, before being selected with the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft by the Sacramento Kings, confirmed what is common knowledge - there is talent aplenty, but they need to work together.
Below is what Biyombo had to say.
"We have to start building those [basketball] camps as well as basketball programmes. Coaches have to teach kids basketball fundamentals the right way. That's what is going to help us to get to the next level.
"Each and every year, I try to figure a way - with our federation - to continue to work on the growth of the game in my country. I haven't played for any of our national teams and obviously I am hoping to play for my country. We are working on it and trying to find the best way to put our best team together, so we can play to win something."
I want to play [for the national team] to win something. I just don’t want to go there and put on a jersey. I want to go there, represent my country and compete. I want to go there put on my energy in it, and help my national team be successful. I know we are going to get there because we have a couple of young guys, capable of competing - Biyombo
This season, his first with the Raptors, the 23-year-old centre is not only averaging career-highs of 5.4 points and 8.3 rebounds per game but also making a difference for the Canadian franchise.
And, there is a reason behind Biyombo's improved game this season.
"I would probably say it is because I am able to play more minutes, I have matured a lot more, and I am having fun with the game," he said. "I think that's what has made a difference for me. I have told myself in the beginning, 'look if I am going to do this the right way I might as well do it on my own terms. Get out there and do what I know best'. At the end of the day, it is working very well for me and my team."
So many aspiring NBA players would do anything to live Biyombo's dream. But he was fortunate to meet the right people in the right moment of his life.
Mario Palma, who helped Angola win four consecutive African continental titles and knows African basketball better than most, is one of them.
"Coach Mario Palma is the guy who started everything, helping me make the transition from Yemen to Spain, and obviously, from Spain to the NBA. He was always part of it," Biyombo said. "I can only thank him. There is only great things that I can say about coach Palma. He has been part of my life. He has guided me in the right direction, and I am still in touch with him."
If Biyombo and his peers are able to put real basketball programmes together, surely the game will never the same in Africa’s second largest country.