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Sudanese big men bring a new look to Mount Michael - Jan 22, 2010

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Duany Duany
By Dirk Chatelain

Mading sits on a wooden bleacher, adjusting a black brace that covers his right knee.

On the floor in front of him, 10 boys all smaller than he start a big game without him.

About 500 fill the seats and 50 more line the walls at the old Mount Michael gym, partly to watch a spirited rivalry, partly to see the home varsity debuts of two very conspicuous transfer students, Mading Thok and Deng Gol.

3-0, Omaha Roncalli.

It's one of Nebraska's crown jewels, this place. But school officials and parents talk about building a new gymnasium, because rivals won't come here anymore.

Too small. Too many students with black and red face paint standing (literally) on the sideline.

The bottom bleacher is six inches from the thick red line. And at this moment, that's a nuisance not only for Roncalli, but for Mading, who is sitting the bench and can't extend that right leg.

9-5, Roncalli.

Two months ago, on the second day of basketball practice, Mading dunked. Mading loves to dunk. His eyes light up. He feels powerful.

But on the way back to the ground, his right knee collided head-on with a teammate's knee. Monday, he squeezed into a car and finally visited a doctor, who called it a deep bruise.

It's killing me, said Mading, a 17-year-old sophomore.

10-9, Mount Michael.

Because he can't run and jump like usual. Because he came to this all-male boarding school tucked among deer crossings in order to impress college coaches and earn a scholarship, his ticket to a western education.

Because a boy who grows tall in refugee camps doesn't turn his back on Mama to travel halfway across the world and sit the bench on Friday night.

I was almost to the bright light of my life, Mading said last week. But now I'm shut down a little bit.

15-15 after one quarter.

Finally, Coach orders Mading to the scorer's table. He shows them the 55 on his chest, takes the floor, limping slightly. He immediately swats a Roncalli shot out of bounds. He holds up a long, black index finger and wags it four times.

No, no.

Then he scores on a reverse layup. For the first time in months, he feels adrenaline. He wants more.

He sets a pick, rolls to the basket, corrals a pass, dribbles once on the right baseline, plants his size-17 feet, rises from a heap of Roncalli arms, reaches his right hand to the left side of the rim and ...

Students in costume leap off the front bleacher onto the court. Old women engage in high fives. Roncalli never recovers. The rout is on.

Long ago, on these bluffs overlooking the Elkhorn River, Benedictine monks started a seminary, where in quiet seclusion they could free their minds and inspect the word of God.

Fifty-four years later, a 6-foot-11 African boy dunked a basketball and the building darned near shook.

Hoop dreams

A piece of welded steel in southern Sudan. That's where the story begins.

About three years ago, Mading was sitting in a restaurant when a man pulled him aside. Do you play basketball, he said.

Mading had grown up with soccer balls, volleyballs. No basketballs.

The stranger was a coach. He gave Mading a ball and persuaded him to work on his game. Mading found a backboard on a pole downtown, but no rim. How does a boy learn basketball without a hoop?

So he took about $50 in savings and $50 from his sister.

He bought a piece of red steel. He paid a welder to form it into a ring and attach it to the board. Only one problem: the hoop was too high about 14 feet off the dirt.

I couldn't dunk, Mading said.

But he shot jumper after jumper, never hearing the swish of a net he didn't have one.

If you want to play in real games, the coach told him, go to Juba.

Mading went once, then every weekend, competing at an outdoor court.

He was playing a pick-up game in Juba in 2007 when another stranger asked if he wanted to go on a journey.

Duany Duany (196-F/G-76, college: Wisconsin) had once lived in Juba, then moved to America, where he earned a scholarship to Wisconsin. He played in a Final Four. His three brothers played Division I basketball, too.

Duany worked for a foundation called A-Hope.

Its mission: provide African student-athletes an opportunity to acquire a student visa to America and, eventually, a basketball scholarship and a college education.

For A-Hope, finding basketball talent wasn't the problem. Some of the tallest people in the world call Southern Sudan home. But players must be able to take on the rigors of American schools. They must be able to adapt to American culture.

Mading qualified. But did he want to go?

Civil war in Sudan had raged for 21 years. Some 2 million people had been killed, mostly people like Mading: southern Sudanese and Christian.

In 1991, his parents were uprooted from their hometown, Bor.

Mading was born one year later and spent much of the next 12 years in a refugee camp near the Congo border, hearing the guns in the distance, fearing the government militia would attack his camp.

Electricity was scarce. So were schools.

In 2005, after a tenuous peace agreement, he moved to Yei, where rusted tanks lined the roads and bullet holes dotted building walls.

Two years later, he met Duany.

Friends didn't want him to go to America. Mama didn't want him to go. What if nobody took care of him? What if something happened?

His father encouraged him.

You don't want to live the way we're living now, he told Mading.

In Sudan, educated people have jobs. Educated people can buy food, they don't have to grow it. Educated people don't get malaria and typhoid.

Mading wanted an education. He left.

Landed in Detroit in January 2008. (Not exactly paradise.)

From there, he went where Duany, his new legal guardian, told him to go. To Fort Wayne, Ind.

To Charlotte, where he lived with a host family and got a scholarship to United Faith Christian Academy.

His prep team Muggsy Bogues was an assistant coach defeated John Wall in the state championship game.

To Cincinnati, where Mading played AAU ball for Duany's old coach. That's where he met Deng Gol.

They were looking for a school last summer when Duany called a friend at an Indiana boarding school.

Do you have room for them?

Sorry, said Alan Huss.

But I know a place that might.

The connection

A decade ago, when Creighton basketball was starting to make waves in Omaha, Dana Altman had a reserve post player from Kansas City.

His name was Alan Huss.

Huss had college friends who graduated from a boarding school northwest of Elkhorn. He remembered Mount Michael had a fine academic reputation, and Omaha had a booming Sudanese population one of America's largest.

When Huss was a Bluejay, Mount Michael didn't have international students. In 2002, that changed. Now 32 international kids from seven countries sleep and study at the old seminary.

But Sudanese students? Mading and Deng were Mount Michael's first.

Forget basketball, Huss said. I thought the school would be good for the kids.

First week of classes, their appearance on campus caught everyone by surprise, including basketball coach John Roshone.

Senior point guard Tim Carlson saw Mading and Deng and thought: This is unbelievable. Our basketball is going to go through the roof.

Reality hasn't quite matched the hype.

NSAA rules dictated that Mading and Deng sit out the first 90 days of the school calendar.

So Deng and a hobbled Mading waited until Tuesday to play their first varsity game, at West Point. They each had nine points. Mading missed a dunk.

Against Roncalli, they each finished with six points.

A lot of kids expect them to dunk the ball every time they touch it, Carlson said.

Instead, they often turn the ball over. They miss easy shots. They lack muscle on their lanky frames.

Mading possesses considerable offensive skill. Friday night he curled off a pick and smoothly buried a 10-foot jumper. He has the tools to be a Division I player, Huss said.

Deng, a 6-10 junior, can play at the college level, too. But right now, he's mostly a rebounder.

Huss downplayed their meager statistics.

Their productivity in Class B Nebraska basketball doesn't necessarily dictate what level they'll be recruited at, Huss said. It comes down more to what they can be.

Playing against a 6-foot-3 kid isn't really easy for those guys. Their center of gravity is a little high and those (opponents) get up underneath them. When they touch the ball, they're going to get guarded by four people.

In college, they'll play away from the ball, get tip-ins, keep balls alive, defend, rebound, block shots.

The biggest thing, Huss said, can they keep up with the pace of a college game. Can they defend a guy their size? Can they change the game defensively? That's what college coaches will look at.

A-Hope, which Huss considers a highly reputable organization, has taken 22 students from Africa since 2003. And all who have graduated high school played college basketball. (Duany is in Sudan and didn't respond to an e-mail.)

They're looking for kids who are going to be able to get their college paid for, Huss said. If not, they have a problem.

Several Division I schools, including Nebraska and Creighton, have inquired about the Mount Michael giants. But no offers have come.

They have time to improve, but a palpable sense of urgency accompanies them.

Last week, Deng's village was hit with violence. Friends were killed.

Mading last spoke to his mother two months ago. He tried to contact her on Christmas but missed her she was at church. He has three brothers, four sisters and not enough pictures.

I can't even imagine how they're looking now, Mading said. It's a little bit of misery.

Friday night after the game, he accepted congratulations for the highlight It was a pretty weak dunk, he said then limped down the hallway from the gym, up two flights of stairs to his dorm room.

On the shelves, books, peanut butter and protein.

On the wall, a picture of his head pasted on Dwight Howard's body.

On another wall, pencil marks charting his roommate's growth 5-foot-3 at last measurement.

The roomie has no trouble sleeping. But Mading's legs hang off the bottom bunk.

No time to lounge, though. He has a job to do, he says.

On Saturday, Mading was off to the Qwest Center with his host family. He got free tickets and sat behind the Creighton bench, unofficial guests of Coach Altman.

He watched educated men dash across a meticulously painted, spotless, wood floor, shooting jumpers at perfectly circular, machine-crafted, shiny, orange rims. Their height:
Exactly 10 feet.

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