December 24, 2009

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Ater Majok's incredible journey from Sudan to the courts of college basketball included the scars of war and hatred, harsh memories of an Egyptian refugee camp, relocation to Australia with the help of the United Nations, and a lengthy NCAA review of his academic records.

Just hours before his debut in a University of Connecticut uniform, it seemed only natural to ask the 22-year-old freshman whether his basketball baptism should be viewed as an end place or the beginning of a new journey.

"It's the end of one and start of a new one," Majok said. "We finish one chapter and we start a new chapter in a book. We finished all the drama and we get into the action part."

More than 13,000 UConn fans shoveled their way out of last weekend's big snowstorm to grab a piece of that action when the No. 11 Huskies played Central Florida on Sunday in Hartford. The question of the day was whether the 6-foot-11 forward with the 7-7 wingspan would live up to almost two years' worth of hype in the local and national media.

UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who expects greatness from Majok but warned against expectations of immediate stardom, was the most involved observer. After nearly a year of watching Majok in practice, Sunday's game brought the unique test of a competitive challenge. And Calhoun's team, trying to replace Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien from last season's Final Four squad, had been searching for frontcourt production through the first eight games of the season.

"There are things he does exceptionally well, a lot of things he doesn't do as well -- fouling, being too aggressive, traveling," Calhoun said before the game. "If he eliminates those and does the good things he does, he'll be a very good addition to the team, long-term wise. Obviously for me, the shorter the term, the better."

After Sunday, it's obvious patience will be a virtue. Majok started but missed both of his field goal attempts, made one free throw, pulled down three rebounds, committed a turnover, and finished with two personal fouls in 16 minutes as the Huskies struggled to a 60-51 victory. From the opening tip, which Majok lost, to his exit with two minutes, 10 seconds remaining, this debut was not even close to the way Majok had dreamed it.

"I had a different thought process," said Majok, who didn't start playing organized basketball until he was 16. "When I went to bed, I saw the game differently in my thoughts. But I'm glad it happened this way. It's for the best.

"I tried to relax and I realize I can't play relaxed. That's not me. I'm an energy person. It's a step forward from here; it's a step on the ladder. I'm not disappointed, but I'm not happy. Everybody has bad games. The best thing to do is not think about it, get in the gym, work on your mistakes, and get back here and try to get a win."

Majok fled civil war in Sudan with his family when he was a child. He has a scar on his left ear, left there from the knife of a Muslim gang member, which serves as a reminder of his time in Egypt. He speaks four languages and his English flows with only the slightest hint of an accent.

But on Sunday, he was left to face a barrage of questions from reporters who wanted to know how he would handle the way he was removed from his first game. Calhoun called timeout with 2:10 left and, in the rare and awkward silence of the XL Center, it was easy to hear the profanity Calhoun used as he ordered Majok to the bench.

"I couldn't hear [point guard] Kemba [Walker] call out a play," Majok said. "I thought it was a different play. And I guess [Calhoun] thought I didn't know the play. ... I learned a different side of coach Calhoun that I haven't seen. I mean, I've seen it, but not towards me. I know how to react towards that now."

Majok got through the day with plenty of support from his teammates, including senior forward Gavin Edwards.

"That's just how coach is," Edwards said. "He's not going to change no matter how many years he coaches. [The quiet building] definitely added to the effect a little bit. And it's definitely hard to live up to the hype [Majok] has had, especially your first game ever when everybody is talking about you. But he'll learn from it and he'll be better because of it."

Majok appeared more comfortable in his second outing, again starting in a 71-54 UConn victory over Maine on Tuesday night. He had five points, four rebounds, and two blocks to go with two goaltending calls and four fouls. Calhoun said he didn't mind the foul trouble because Majok played a more aggressive game and created a presence inside.

Majok experienced numerous frustrations getting to this point. His complicated academic journey led to an NCAA ruling Jan. 21 that he was a partial qualifier. He could practice with UConn, but couldn't play until the completion of exams from the fall semester. He explored early entry into the NBA draft, but decided to stick it out at UConn. Majok's recruitment was even questioned as part of the ongoing NCAA investigation into former UConn manager-turned-agent Josh Nochimson. No improper connection was uncovered.

As recently as last Friday, Calhoun joked that Majok fouls going after every ball, and that he takes three steps with the ball and doesn't think twice. Calhoun said he encouraged Majok to "apply the rules and regulations that James Naismith wrote down" when he invented the game.

For those reasons and more, the results from the first game were almost predictable. Majok, after all, remains a work in progress.

"He didn't look like he was ready to play and was very hesitant about everything he did," Calhoun said Sunday. "He's a shot blocker who didn't block shots. He's a rebounder who didn't rebound. When you play with a lot of aggression, you have to play hard, and that's one thing Ater's always done. Full credit to him, he's always had a great engine. That engine was shut off today."

Majok is learning. He said he underestimated the degree of difficulty that goes with joining a team midway through the year. He also said he would have been disappointed if Calhoun had been silent and ignored him through that first game.

"I cannot get embarrassed by him calling me out for my mistake," Majok said. "No, if I get embarrassed by that, I might as well pack up my bag and go home. I take that as a motivation. The more he cuss me out on the court, the more he yells at me, the more I know that he loves me. He wants me to be the best I can be."

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