Juke’s Journey: Sudan To Salpointe

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“Coming to Tucson was a place I wanted to see so bad…it’s like touching the sky. I just wanted to see America. I see Tucson as opportunities.”

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Korjok Majok Nuul Deng stretches out in his seat, slightly squinting his eyes as the fast-falling sun begins to set on an unseasonable warm winter afternoon in the desert.

Today is game day, nearly four hours before tipoff on Senior Night, and it’s easy to see his 15-year-old mind racing as his large, still-growing hands envelop a basketball while discussing everything from his day at school to the Fry’s Grocery up the road where his mom works. 

The drive from Tucson Salpointe Catholic High School to Amphi Neighborhood Park, where one of the country’s fastest rising 2019 prospects (who goes by Majok or simply “Juke”) first touched a basketball at age 11, is only a couple miles but Deng’s journey from South Sudan to southern Arizona is one maybe even too perfect for a Hollywood script.

Basketball is a part of Deng, whose cousin is long-time NBA forward Luol Deng, but it doesn’t define who he is.

To know the 6-foot-5 ridiculously athletic forward, is to know his backstory in a book filled with chapters, the bulk of which have yet to be scripted.

 

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“I’m leaving without my dad. I’m leaving without my older brothers. I didn’t think it was true. The next morning we woke up and there was a car waiting in front of the neighborhood.”

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On a cold, late January morning back in 2012 Deng, his two brothers and mother stepped off the plane in Tucson and into another world, another life—one far removed from violent South Sudan. He initially thought his stay would only be a week, not knowing the Land of Opportunity was there at his doorstep equipped with clothes, a warm bed, stocked refrigerator and a dream he could have never envisioned.

The only missing equation in this new, almost too-good-to-be-true 11-year-old’s life was his father who stayed back to fight a war, a war Majok and his family were all too familiar with.

In December it had been a year since Majok spoke to his father.

Although his dad is in contact with his mother and is “in a safer place now” in the Sudanese camps, the civil war wages on with no clear resolution in sight. The Deng’s are optimistic their father and two brothers will survive but nobody knows when or even if they will be re-connected with their family in a much safer place on the other side of the world.

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“I didn’t know how to dribble a basketball. I didn’t know how to speak English. Kids just laughed at me. I was just this goofy, tall kid.”

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Like a Slinky, Deng rises from the front seat of the now parked car and begins bouncing the ball on the loose gravel as the familiar sounds of the central Tucson park resonate louder and louder.

There are a half dozen or so unsupervised little kids scattering around one side of the court and a couple of transients slumbering on cement benches off to the side.

Majok peels off his Salpointe hoodie and steps out on the court flashing a wry grin, exposing the braces he wears to ensure his still-embedded baby teeth don’t tarnish his warm, welcoming smile.

This court is where it all started, but it’s far from where it will end.

Within minutes sweat is pouring down Deng’s face as he effortlessly bounces from spot to spot releasing one high-arching rainbow jump shot after another.

Shuunk! Shuunk! Shuunk!

It’s the sound every hoopster loves to hear seconds after the ball leaves their hand. Seems only fitting the surname “Deng” means “rain” in Dinka.

The unscripted workout eventually stops but the memories never do.

With the ball secured under his right arm, the former soccer player walks to the top of three-point arc and shares the story of first learning the rules of basketball. In the infancy of his game he drained a shot from half court and turned to his older brother confused why it wasn’t worth five points.

Even today life in America and the game of basketball are learning experiences.

“Last year as a freshman,” Salpointe athletic director Phil Gruensfelder explained. “He would approach an official after a foul and you could see in their mannerisms [the officials] saying, ‘why are you questioning my call?’ It wasn’t about questioning the call, it was asking the officials why did he get that foul.”

This year Gruensfelder made a concerted effort to prep the officials about Deng approaching them, not to dispute their judgement, but to greater understand the game he’s clearly just scratching the surface of learning and ultimately perfecting.

 

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“Every day when he buys his lunch, when he comes through the line he thanks the cafeteria workers. Every worker that’s there. It’s amazing.”

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It’s easy to see Salpointe principal Sister Helen Timothy runs a tight ship at the 1,200-student high school tucked away in the middle of a neighborhood just minutes north of Tucson’s academic epicenter, the University of Arizona.

Salpointe is a diverse, private school founded in 1950. It’s comprised of a collection of like-minded students with sharp brains and big dreams. Here Deng doesn’t just blend in, he fits in. High school, even more than basketball, is an opportunity.

His kindness towards the Lancer community is genuine, his attitude contagious as evidenced when walking the halls between classes. Giggling girls quickly stop for hugs, while teammates shug (half handshake, half hug) as the student body scatters to their next academic session like fish in a small pond.

“He’s a sponge,” Gruensfelder explained. “He’s so friendly. He wants to know everybody. He wants to reach out and talk to anybody he can.”

Despite the academic pressures, Salpointe is a place where Juke, now a U.S. citizen, is at ease. It’s in many ways an extended family, much different than his own who are still fighting for justice and peace in Africa.

 

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“He wasn’t very good at all when he came out but the fact that he kept coming out despite his inexperience showed his character and spirit. He is like a son to us.”

 

 

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Jimmie Nelson has coached and mentored hundreds of young basketball players but few, if any, have left the lasting impact of Deng.

The PowerHouse Hoops Tucson Director vividly remembers the four-mile car rides from Juke’s apartment complex to Steve Daru Clubhouse inside the Boys & Girls Club. It was Deng’s kindness, commitment and willingness to listen as a pre-teen which first caught Nelson’s attention, never his early basketball shortcomings.

The PowerHouse Family of coaches have been long-time fixtures of not only basketball advice and guidance, but more importantly a stabling collection of mentors and father-figures as Juke’s dad continues to make a much different kind of impact nearly 9,000 miles away.

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“She couldn’t walk. When the war broke out, my mom just went for the kids. She’s in a better place and I know she’ll always be in our hearts. She’s just so special.”

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An inscription of who Juke was named after sits on the top of his shoes. Every step Deng takes on the basketball court his grandmother is with him.

He doesn’t need a reminder of where he came from or what the game of basketball has given him but each time he looks down and methodically ties his shoes, his drive for greatness on and off the court is further fueled by a family member who, in some ways, sacrificed her own life so he, his mother and brothers could flee to safety and freedom in the deserts of southern Arizona.

 

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“Juke, we’ve always had these meetings but this is a special one…we would like to offer you a full-ride scholarship to the University of Arizona.”

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Sean Miller knows Deng in a different way than the nearly dozen Division I head coaches who have already offered the sophomore wing, one who believes he could grow to be 6-foot-8 by the time he graduates high school.

Miller’s chip-off-the-old-block son Cameron happens to be a teammate of Deng’s at Salpointe. The senior point guard has helped grow Juke’s game and maybe even more importantly, his basketball I.Q.

It’s rare, nearly unheard of, for Miller and his staff to offer an underclassman, much less a sophomore from Tucson. But the word on Deng’s game and 3.537 grade-point-average are now out, so much so Stanford head coach Jerod Haase and his top two assistants rented a car the night before their game against Arizona and made the 90-minute drive down I-19 to Nogales for an in-person scout on the kid who has barely played the game for four years.

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“I compare him to Nelson Mandela. People constantly say they met him or crossed paths with him. He treats every day like a gift. The way it rubs off on teammates and us coaches, it [makes] a huge difference.“

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Former Salpointe head coach Brian Holstrom nervously peeked his head around the corner, quickly monitoring the elapsing scoreboard clock before ducking down the short hall and back into the darkness of the Lancers’ locker room.

The steamy gym fills quickly as the pep band jams away on a stage behind the north basket. Like football games in the fall, basketball is just as much a social event as it is a sporting one for both student body and parents.

The Salpointe student section, oddly located directly behind the home bench, rises to their feet when the Lancers take the floor as the band gives way to a mix of old school jams and modern hip hop which resonates through the gym speakers.

This once awkward, rectangular court filled with confusing rules and snickering kids is now Deng’s main stage.

To many the lay-up line is simply part of the pre-game routine, to Majok it’s a showcase. In many ways a sense of freedom through the game which has given him so much.

When the music stops, the seven seniors take their places at center court exchanging awkward hugs and kisses from their beaming, proud parents.

Majok’s mind fast-forwards two years to him standing at mid-court in the packed gym with his mom, Lord willing his dad, and full collection of brothers.

On this Senior Night no player is enjoying the ceremony more than the sophomore Deng.

Then again there is no player quite like him, on or off the court.

 

 

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