On a bright summer day in 1993, two Dinka tribesmen, unable to
live safely in their native Sudan, met on a windswept court in
Alexandria, Egypt, for a game of one-on-one. Ajou Deng, now a
freshman forward at Connecticut, remembers every detail of the
encounter precisely: the brisk Mediterranean breeze, the
piercing sun and the intimidating sight of Manute Bol, the 7'7"
NBA center, looming before him, arms raised, fingertips inches
below the rim. When Bol dunked, which was often that day, he
looked like one of those flexible drinking straws that are used
in ice-cream sodas. Deng was a gawky 13-year-old, already 6'5",
who had taken up basketball only two years before. The game, as
one might expect, wasn't close. Deng attempted to shoot a layup.
Swat. He tried to launch long-range jumpers. Swat. When it was
over, he smiled and hoped he'd someday grow tall enough to swipe
basketballs from the air and make crowds gasp with wonder, just
as his idol did.
Six years later, at last March's Final Four in Tampa, Deng got
his chance. Limited to practicing with the Huskies last season
because he was only a partial academic qualifier, Deng, now 6'11"
and 205 pounds, showed off his pterodactyl-sized 7'4" wingspan
during an open-to-the-public practice before the semifinals. Up
went teammate Ricky Moore's jump shot. Swat. Up went Jake
Voskuhl's layup. Swat. "He blocks five or six shots--spectacular
blocks--and everyone is oohing and aahing," says UConn coach Jim
Calhoun. "I'll remember that forever." In a matter of 10 minutes
Deng nearly became the first player to make the All-Final Four
team without seeing a minute of time in the tournament.
Not everyone at Tropicana Field was caught by surprise that
afternoon. Only days earlier a reporter had asked Huskies guard
Khalid El-Amin how Deng was playing in practice. "Oh, he's the
best player on the team," El-Amin replied.
You mean besides you and Richard Hamilton, right?
November 15, 1999
"I said, he's the best player on the team."
Whether El-Amin was inflating Deng's reputation remains to be
seen, but this much is undeniable: Unlike Bol, who was little
more than a shot-blocking sideshow, Deng, who's a small forward,
comes equipped with a full array of talents. He not only posts
up and rebounds but also dribbles behind his back, leads the
break and shoots a silky three. If he wanted, he could do
interviews in four languages: Arabic, two Dinka dialects and
(his latest addition) English. Yet those attributes aren't
nearly as remarkable as the odyssey--from war-ravaged Sudan to
Egypt to England to America--that has serendipitously landed him
First, make sure to get his name right. Nobody does. For
starters, Ajou is pronounced ah-JOE, not ah-JOO or AH-joo or any
of the other manifold ways he has heard. This will come as a
shock to many folks at UConn, because Deng is so unfailingly
polite that he not only refuses to correct anybody who calls him
ah-JOO but also deliberately mispronounces his name that way on
his answering machine. "Everyone knows me here as ah-JOO," he
says, "so I've just used it as a nickname. But I would like
people to know my real name."
For that matter Deng has also ditched the tripartite handle by
which he has been known in recruiting circles. Since arriving in
the U.S. three years ago, he has been known by his full name Ajou
Ajou Deng, a linguistic mouthful that, while correct (Ajou is
also his middle name), wouldn't exactly resonate from the pipes
of Michael (Let's Get Ready to Rumble) Buffer during intros at
Gampel Pavilion. From now on, per his request, he'll be Ajou
Deng, unless you're talking to Huskies coaches and players, who
just call him Juice.
The details are important, because to know Deng's name is to
understand his game. In Dinka, ajou means "sea of placid water,"
while deng is the word for "rain," which the Dinkas believe
issues directly from God. Likewise, Deng plays with a smooth,
almost gospel grace. During one September pickup game at UConn's
Hughs Greer Fieldhouse, he froze El-Amin on the dribble, took
forward Kevin Freeman to the baseline and nailed a 19-foot
jumper. The next time downcourt he knifed through the lane on the
break and zipped a pass to guard Albert Mouring for a layup. Two
minutes later, apparently undistracted by his rapidly descending
gym shorts, he unspooled a three-pointer from the top of the key.
For the next half hour the shots kept falling, one after the
other. Like deng.
"What's remarkable about Juice are the wonderful endings to his
plays," says Calhoun. "Some kids just try to dunk everything.
Other kids always do fadeaway jump shots. He's got tricks:
up-and-unders, finger rolls, all those things. We're trying to
figure out where he got them. Was it in Egypt or the streets of
London that he picked up all these New York City playground
moves? I have no idea, but they seem very natural."
Like a first-rate rapper, Deng has sampled from a number of high-
and lowbrow sources, from Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen (on
television) to the Egyptians and Sudanese he first competed
against. Each time he has moved, he has made new discoveries. "In
Egypt I played inside," he says. "Then in London I started moving
outside a little, and when I got to Saint Thomas More [Prep, in
Oakland, Conn.], I worked more on my outside shot. I played as
much as I could."
Deng is delightfully forthcoming on most topics--basketball,
school, music--but when the subject turns to his native country,
he becomes pensive. "People here are like, 'Sudan?'" he says.
"And I'm like, 'What, you don't know it?' So I just tell them
that it's the largest country in Africa." Then he pauses. His
voice lowers. "I don't tell them about the war."
He doesn't tell them because it's a long and personal and
chilling story. Since 1956 the Sudanese civil war--pitting north
against south, Muslims against Christians and animists--has killed
at least two million people (more, by some estimates, than any
conflict since World War II). Human rights groups estimate that
Sudan is home to tens of thousands of slaves, most of them
Christians owned by Muslims. In all, more than four million
Sudanese, nearly all of them southerners, have been forced from
their homes, either to the north or, like Ajou's family of 17,
Ajou's father, Aldo, the deputy speaker of Sudan's parliament
from 1978 to '80 and again from '91 to '93, was imprisoned
without charges for six months following a military coup in '89.
These days, Aldo lives in London with his wife, Martha. Like most
Dinkas, he cuts an imposing figure--6'8", 280 pounds--though not
even a man of his stature can support the weight of Sudan's
misery. He tells horrifying stories of hunger, war and slavery,
stories that have been supported in accounts by journalists and
human rights groups. The war, he informs you, claims 5,000 lives
each month. A 1988 famine killed a quarter of a million southern
Sudanese, largely because the northern-based government refused
to allow the distribution of aid to the starved areas. Thousands
of cattle, the Dinkas' lifeblood, have died. "Appalling human
rights violations are taking place," says Aldo, a Christian from
Ajou was born in 1979 in the southern Sudanese city of Aweil but
almost immediately moved with the rest of the family to Khartoum,
the capital, in the north. But in '89, with rumors circulating of
a military coup, Aldo sent his family to live in Alexandria. "We
had a huge party when we left for Egypt," recalls Ajou. "All my
friends and relatives were there [to see us off], and I thought I
was coming back. I haven't seen any of them since."
In June of that year the Islamic-led military overthrew the
civilian government. Aldo had held various high-ranking jobs in
the government and he says that, because of this, the ruling
junta detained him under house arrest. "I was only allowed to
take my Bible," he says. In an effort to gain legitimacy, the
Sudanese government released Aldo in early 1990 and even made him
a presidential adviser. He says he accepted because of promises
that the government would eventually separate the north and south
into two countries and end the war. "I tried to work with the
government, to talk about peace," Aldo says.
While Aldo stayed in Sudan, Ajou took up basketball, playing on
an outdoor court in Alexandria with Egyptians and members of the
Sudanese exile community (including Bol, who spent part of his
NBA off-seasons there). Ajou would watch NBA games on videotapes
and try to imitate the moves he saw. Eventually, he played for a
season with an Alexandria amateur club.
Soon, though, the Sudanese government was in turmoil once again.
According to Aldo, he was deceived by the Muslims, who reneged on
their promises to divide the country. The final straw, he says,
came after a 1993 government-led massacre along a southern
railroad. "My people lived on this line," Aldo says, "but
government officials decided to do what they called 'cleaning'
the railway line. They killed over 1,000 people, took hundreds of
thousands of cattle and burned the crops." It was then that Aldo
and Martha left Sudan, having received political asylum for their
family in London.
While Aldo studied law and produced a pro-reform pamphlet called
The New Sudan, Ajou, by now a 6'9" 15-year-old, had to adjust
once more to a new culture. It hardly helped when the basketball
coach for the Crystal Palace basketball club told Ajou he wasn't
good enough to play on his team. "Can you believe that?" asks
Jimmy Rogers, the coach at the club in nearby Brixton. "This is a
Third World basketball country. You don't reject anybody who's
Deng joined Brixton, where his height, shot-blocking prowess and
rapidly developing perimeter game caught the attention of Tony
Hanson, a former UConn player coaching in England. Hanson alerted
the Huskies' coaches about Deng, and Rogers sent them a highlight
tape in the spring of 1996. In June, Calhoun observed Deng from
the Brixton bleachers.
A few months later Calhoun began recruiting Deng and encouraged
him to come to the U.S. to finish high school. Calhoun
recommended Deng to Saint Thomas More, a 200-student school 14
miles from the UConn campus, and officials there offered him a
scholarship. After what Calhoun describes as "a zillion phone
calls"--including a few by Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman to
the Immigration and Naturalization Service--was able to help Ajou
get a student visa. When Calhoun told Aldo the news, the giant,
dignified man shed tears of joy.
Culture shock struck Deng again at Saint Thomas More. "It was in
the middle of nowhere," he says. "This wasn't the United States I
had heard of. I thought I was going to go back to London after a
week." He persevered, though, graduated on time and averaged 22
points, 12 rebounds and five blocks a game.
Though he and his family have been separated for much of the last
two years, Ajou has never been alone. Ed Bona, a Sudanese Dinka
who played at Fordham from 1979 to '83, lives in West Hartford
and often invites him over for dinner. Ed's father, Bona Malwal,
worked in the government with Aldo, and their sons call each
other cousins. Although neither of Ajou's parents has been able
to visit him in the U.S., Ajou has been joined this year by two
siblings--his 6'7" brother, Luol (who goes by Michael), 14; and
6'3" sister, Arek, 16--who are attending school and playing
basketball at Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J.
When Aldo left Sudan almost six years ago, all of the Dengs'
assets--two large farms, six houses and livestock--were taken by
the government. "We are very poor now," says Aldo, who relies on
the British government to provide a modest flat, along with a
small stipend. Yet, as his family begins a new chapter, in
England and America, he says he couldn't be more proud.
Someday, Aldo hopes, the Dengs can return to Sudan, to their
friends and relatives, but for now the war continues, with no end
in sight. It's reason to ask: As Ajou grows older and spins
farther and farther from his homeland, is it better for him to be
involved in the political debate over Sudan or be removed from
it? "He must know the survival of his country," Aldo says. "I
have shown Ajou videotapes that can turn your face, children who
are walking bone. He watches, he's aware, but then he switches to
basketball videos. He may not be interested in practicing
politics right now, but he must know what his nation is about."
Don't worry, Aldo. He knows. On his answering machine message,
the one in which he politely mispronounces his name, Ajou closes
with that vitally important--and elusive--word: "Peace."
Unlike Bol, who only blocked shots, Deng can post up, rebound,
dribble and shoot a silky three.
Four million Sudanese, nearly all southerners, have been forced
to the north or into exile.
"Ajou may not be interested in politics now," says Aldo, "but
he must know what his nation is about."