Charlotte Hornets

Hornets’ Bismack Biyombo reminded Friday how grit and spirit count for something, too

Bismack Biyombo was determined not to be “that guy.”

That disenfranchised NBA veteran who simply checks out. Who is bitter about not playing, surly when asked about it and doesn’t do a thing beyond the minimum to collect a massive paycheck.

“My parents didn’t raise that kind of kid,” Charlotte Hornets center Biyombo said after making two huge fourth-quarter blocks Friday to help seal a 100-92 home victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.

This hasn’t been an easy season for Biyombo, in his second stint in Charlotte, but he has handled it with grace. When he didn’t play - he wasn’t even included on the active roster for 12 games this season - he cheerfully agreed to show up two hours before the team’s regularly-scheduled practices for extra two-on-two or three-on-three games, run by an assistant coach and populated mostly by rookies.

Biyombo is in his eighth NBA season. He makes the second-highest salary on this team at $17 million. If he wanted to be a royal pain, what could the Hornets do about it? We’ve seen this before in Charlotte, whether it be Derrick Coleman’s ugly side, or Boris Diaw’s moodiness or Spencer Hawes’ disinterest.

“He has never pouted,” Hornets coach James Borrego said post-game.

I had a long talk with Biyombo Friday night after every other Hornet had vacated the locker room. I’d sum up his perspective this way: If there’s nothing he could do about his circumstance, then he could certainly control his attitude and his effort. So he came to the gym hours before other veterans and returned to Spectrum Center at night for one-on-one drills.

He kept showing he cared, whether or not anyone among the coaches or front office noticed. Turns out they did. When starting center Cody Zeller broke his right hand on New Year’s Eve, Biyombo moved up to backup center behind Willy Hernangomez. When Hernangomez struggled, Biyombo got a start.

Now, he’s started 14 in a row.

Knows his limitations

Biyombo’s liabilities are obvious: In a sport that worships shooters and scorers, he is neither. But he’s a rim-protector on a team with no one else even approximating that ability.

“I think he scored one point, but he really impacted that game on the defensive end,” Borrego said. “Just his energy, his spirit.

“Even when he was out of the game, he was pushing (teammates in) the huddles and timeouts. He deserves a lot of credit for this win.”

The Hornets acquired Biyombo from the Orlando Magic in July, swapping off center Timofey Mozgov, who came to Charlotte in the deal to rid the Hornets of Dwight Howard. Mozgov’s immobility meant he likely never would have played the way Borrego wanted. Biyombo at least had a chance to contribute.

I asked Biyombo what he was told by Hornets management when they reacquired a guy who started out in Charlotte as a rookie in 2011.

“The expectation was for me to come and play. They wanted an identity” reflecting defense, Biyombo said. “Then, when you get in the situation, it’s different.”

For much of the first half of the season, Biyombo was the fourth among four centers, also playing behind Frank Kaminsky. Borrego, known to be improvisational with his rotations, would throw Biyombo in as a counter-measure in special situations, such as guarding Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid. But then he’d disappear back to the end of the bench.

Teammate Marvin Williams said Biyombo’s circumstance - once being a major contributor in Toronto and Orlando, then having no role at all - is as hard as anything an NBA veteran has to process. But Biyombo kept reminding himself of personality types he never wanted to mimic.

“I’ve seen so many guys do it the wrong way. I’ve always told myself, ‘If I’m going to go down, I’m not going to go down that way.’ I’m going to go down being me,” Biyombo recalled.

“I care about my teammates, whether or not I’m playing. I never want guys to see me complaining in this league. When you do work - work hard - you get rewarded for it.”

Reward deferred

It took a teammate’s fractured hand for Biyombo’s reward to come. I should think he’s made a positive enough impression that when Zeller is back playing, Biyombo will still be in the plan. But even if that’s not so, he knows he’s earned his team’s respect and admiration.

Friday’s victory over the Grizzlies was about as ugly as NBA basketball gets. The Hornets survived that because they showed some grit late. Biyombo grit.

“We didn’t win because we were more talented than them,” Biyombo summarized.. “We won because we started playing hard.”

For whatever else Biyombo lacks, playing hard is never in doubt.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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