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Forgrave: Brothers' journey leads from Sudan to basketball reunion
IOWA CITY, Iowa
The basketball player crossed the bridge over the Iowa River and strode toward one of the first classes of his freshman semester. Peter Jok was smiling his usual toothy smile, and he wore an Iowa Hawkeyes fleece on the first chilly morning of the school year. It was only days before the first basketball practice of the new season, another new beginning in the barely believable journey of this 19-year-old man.
Jok walked into the freshman writing seminar in the English-Philosophy Building, and his 6-foot-6 frame slouched into the seat. The instructor began the class with a question: “What is a personal narrative?”
Jok raised his hand.
“It’s a story,” he said. “A story about yourself.”
“What do you know about stories?”
“They have a beginning, a middle and an end,” Jok said. “A story has an emotional journey.”
For Peter Jok, who is entering his first season of college basketball as a darkhorse Big Ten freshman of the year candidate on a team that ought to finish near the top of the conference, one big question is this:
How can any of his college classmates or teammates even begin to digest this young man’s journey?
His is a story that’s incomprehensible to the 18 other freshmen in his class. It’s a journey that robbed him of his father at age 3. That chased him and his family from their homeland of South Sudan. That brought him from a deprived life as a refugee to a challenging life as a 9-year-old immigrant in Iowa. That saw him ranked as one of the top basketball players in the country in ninth grade before a major knee injury tore him off every recruiting radar, and which made him think about life’s big things: trust, and loyalty, and chance.
Peter Jok is averaging 9.8 points early in his first college season.
But perhaps the bigger question for Peter Jok is this:
How will this journey end?
As a decent college athlete who used his basketball skills to get a free education?
Or as an inspiring story of redemption, a young man whose life was turned upside down twice before he turned 18, a tale of someone who overcame those obstacles and went on to the NBA?
It’s a journey that will be on display Friday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, when Penn's basketball team comes to town. On the other side of the court from Peter Jok will be another young man who grew up fast, and who has taken on Peter’s burdens since their father, a powerful rebel Army figure in southern Sudan, was shot and killed.
That Penn player is Dau Jok, Peter’s older brother.
Despite their shared journey, the brothers could hardly be more different.
Peter is silky smooth on the basketball court, with natural yet polished skills that brought his first Division I scholarship offers in eighth grade. Dau, a senior at Penn, is a less-skilled grinder who averaged a couple baskets a game last season. Peter is a bright but fun-loving college kid who loves playing Grand Theft Auto 5 with dorm mates; friends describe Dau as an old soul, a serious and thoughtful philosophy major who is aiming for a Fulbright.
Peter doesn’t talk politics; Dau doesn’t stop. Peter is focused on basketball while he gets his degree, and he dreams of the NBA; Dau wants to do post-graduate studies in educational leadership at Harvard and dreams of using the international non-profit he started as a college student to create leaders for South Sudan’s future.
It’s almost as if, when their father was killed, the older brother turned into the younger brother’s father. Dau took on life’s heavy burdens, allowing his younger brother a life more similar to his American classmates than his Sudanese relatives.
“It’s God’s blessing that he’s got to live his childhood — I sort of skipped that phase,” Dau Jok said. “I let my childhood go to fill the void left by my father.
“The things I think about are different than the things he thinks about. He has to worry basketball and being best he can be. He can worry about the now. And I’ve had to worry about the future. All the time.”
Peter Jok doesn’t remember much from Sudan. He barely remembers anything about his father. He doesn’t remember anything about the war. He doesn’t remember when his father’s lifeless body was brought home on a stretcher. He doesn’t remember leaving his war-torn country; all he remembers about life as a refugee in Uganda are the strict schoolteachers who hit him with a stick.
Remembering? That’s a burden left to his older brother.
Dau Jok remembers the violence. He remembers the noise of the men in his tribe digging a grave in the dirt when Dau’s uncle was killed, and the sound of wailing and crying from the women. He remembers his father, Dut Jok, whipping his uncle with a horse tail until he pissed blood; his father was a tribal chief and was angry Dau’s uncle tried to start a skirmish with another tribe.
“I remember a lot,” Dau Jok said. “I’d rather not go into a 40-minute thing. I’d rather not go into specifics.
“Death was all around us in one form or another, with malaria or violence or war or other things. My father and my family as a whole tried to protect us from the reality of what was going on around us. I knew to an extent what he was, in the sense that he had an Army he was in charge of, and he would leave every morning, and he’d have three pistols with him and two rifles.”
It was a violent time in a violent society. It was a place where either you fight or you’re the one getting beaten. But Dau Jok remembers the humanitarian side of his father, too. He farmed, and he would send crops to areas struggling during dry season. Dau remembers people showing up unannounced, and his father slaughtering a chicken or a goat or a cow, depending on the size of the group. He remembers his father taking in homeless children, giving them food and shelter.
And he remembers after his father was killed, and when all those visitors went away, and when the family fled home, first to Uganda and then to Iowa.
Iowa is where Peter Jok’s memories become as clear as his older brother’s. It was Dec. 3, 2003. Peter was 9, Dau 11. They only knew America from the movies. They expected New York City skyscrapers. The airplane landed in Des Moines, and they wondered where their journey had taken them. They didn’t have winter coats. It was the first time the brothers saw snow. On their way to a home the refugee agency found for them, the brothers stuck their hands out of the car window to feel the snowflakes, and to taste them.
Peter Nixon was in fifth grade when he saw another fifth-grader named Peter Jok playing basketball.
The two future AAU teammates and future best friends were playing a pickup game at a local middle school. Peter had never played basketball before. He grabbed the ball and ran, forgetting to dribble.
Dau had been the first of the brothers to discover basketball. He’d walk a couple miles to the downtown Des Moines YMCA, imitate the other basketball players, put up thousands of shots after school. Basketball could help him get to college, he’d heard.
Peter was never interested in a college scholarship. He just wanted to make friends.
Peter Nixon’s father, Mike, was starting a local youth team. He heard about the tall African kid and invited him to practice. Peter Jok didn’t especially like it — until after practice, when the Nixon family took him to McDonald’s, and Peter ordered his favorite: chicken McNuggets. Another practice, another McNuggets.
“I wasn’t really into basketball," he says now. "I was into McDonald’s.”
Soon, he was on the team, and it became obvious he was a natural, not just a great athlete but one with a natural basketball IQ.
By the summer after seventh grade, when he led an Iowa AAU team to winning a prestigious national tournament, Peter Jok was becoming a local legend.
“Usually, you see kids that early who are the best players out there, and they’re usually just bigger, stronger, develop earlier,” said Lefty Moore, who later became Peter Jok’s AAU coach. “Not with Pete. From the first time I met him (in seventh grade), he could flat-out score. Not one-dimensional. Not just a spot-up shooter. Not just drop his head and barrel to the rim. He had a midrange game, he could shoot 3s, and he could also take it to the rim. Everything.”
“You could show him a drill, show him some new ball-handling moves, and he could do it within two tries,” said Julian Seay, another Iowa AAU coach. “And he’d add it to his game right after you showed it to him.”
By eighth grade, Division I scholarship offers were rolling in: Marquette, Providence. Then bigger schools started calling: Kansas and Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina, Louisville and Michigan State. Soon, he had a shoebox filled with recruiting letters.
Meanwhile, his older brother was about to travel away from Iowa for college, and his mother was spending most of her time in the fledgling country of South Sudan to serve in parliament. The structure of Peter’s life in many ways came from his older brother and from Mike Nixon, whose family took in Peter as a surrogate son.
By ninth grade, Peter was widely considered a top-10 recruit nationally. At least one recruiting service ranked him the nation’s best, above talented teenagers like Jabari Parker and the Harrison twins. The natural comparison people made was to Harrison Barnes, another No. 1-rated recruit from Iowa; people who coached both of them considered Peter the more talented player at that age, a better passer, better shooter, better dribbler. His beautiful shooting form garnered comparisons to Ray Allen.
“When we were that young, when Pete was named best player in country, it never hit me — it was just Pete,” said Peter Nixon, Jok’s best friend. “People were coming up and already asking for autographs. Pete didn’t realize what it meant either.”
Then, at a Nike basketball camp after his freshman year in high school, he was undercut by another player and landed awkwardly. The next day, he couldn’t move on his left knee like he usually did. He kept playing, thinking it was only tendinitis. It got worse.
He couldn’t dunk. Soon, he could hardly run. X-rays showed a torn patellar tendon, an injury that takes a notoriously long time to heal.
When college coaches heard about Peter Jok’s knee surgery, promises of college scholarships dried up. He tried to come back too quickly; his knee didn’t improve like it should have. It was nearly two years, until right before his senior year, before he felt like himself on a basketball court again — too late to regain ground on most coaches’ radars.
“He was down about things,” said Moore, his AAU coach. “All of a sudden you don’t got John Calipari, you don’t got Bill Self, you don’t got the big guys talking about you anymore. And your mission becomes to prove yourself to them.”
And as Peter Jok struggled with losing his status as one of the best young players in the nation, it was his older brother — that wise old soul — who counseled him to make the best of it.
“It’s like it becomes your identity,” Dau Jok said. “People praise you, you thank them for it. But they criticize you? Thank them for looking at your weaknesses. You don’t go down or up in life because of other people saying it. Screw what other people think. Just do you.”
On Friday night, Peter Jok will take the court as the Iowa Hawkeyes’ only true freshman. He was a lottery ticket of sorts for Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery, who stuck with Jok throughout his difficult times and then offered him the team’s only available scholarship this year. Now, Jok is closer to resembling the player many thought he could become when he was ranked at the top of this year’s stellar freshman class. He’s averaging nearly 10 points and 18.3 minutes on a team that’s playing a 10-deep rotation. In Iowa’s most recent game, he scored 15 points on 3-of-5 shooting from 3.
Unlike his older brother, who’ll be playing for Penn, Peter doesn’t spend much time thinking or talking about his old life in South Sudan, the first big obstacle of his life’s journey. He barely remembers those times.
But when he talks about the second big obstacle of his journey — the knee injury that knocked him off the path of becoming one of the nation’s elite college basketball players — the fun-loving Peter sounds philosophical and wise. He sounds like an old soul. He sounds like his older brother.
“I didn’t really used to think about my journey,” Peter said. “But I did when I got hurt. I just thought about all the stuff, everything I went through. I thought about where I’d be if I didn’t get hurt. But I’m glad I got hurt, because it taught me a lot of lessons about life.
“It taught me a lot about who to trust. A lot of coaches promise you a lot. A lot of them pulled back. I always look at it as things happen for a reason. Me getting hurt, that was God giving me a test. It’s all about how you come back from the test.”
The brothers’ tests are very different.
Peter is busy filling out his 6-6 frame into a chiseled body that can compete in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten. McCaffery and the Iowa staff are trying to take that outstanding potential on the offensive end and turn it into a better product on the defensive end, where he often falls short. Do that and there’s a high ceiling for Peter Jok in the Big Ten, perhaps in the NBA.
And Dau? He spent his summer reading 32 books to develop his leadership skills, books by people like Malcolm Gladwell and Donald Rumsfeld and John Maxwell. He visited Africa again to put on sports camps and leadership workshops in Nigeria and South Sudan.
The shadow of his late father is both a burden and an inspiration to Dau. He named his non-profit foundation after his father, the Dut Jok Youth Foundation. The past two summers he has delivered sports equipment to youth in South Sudan.
“I have crazy visions,” Dau Jok said. “The absolute craziest vision I have is having a model of an after-school program in every major city in South Sudan. They’ll play sports, talk about life, help their self-esteem, discuss current issues and HIV/AIDS, everything.”
Their journeys started in the same place, but the brothers are heading in different directions. Those journeys will intersect Friday night on a basketball court. They’ve only seen each other three times since Dau Jok went to college. Longtime friends will be in the crowd, and they’ll surely marvel at how differently these young men have turned out.
“God willing, if he’s able to finish school at Iowa and go to the NBA, win championships in the Big Ten, that’s awesome, awesome,” Dau Jok said. “But the important thing is, he has to live the life he wants to live. I want what’s best for him. I want him to succeed in everything he does. He deserves it.”
Then Dau Jok paused a moment. He was thinking about this family’s journey: They’ve gone from brothers without a father, to a family making a life in America while their mother often traveled back to South Sudan, to now, when Dau Jok is obsessed with the dire problems of his homeland while his younger brother makes a go at every American kid’s dream.
He took a breath. Then the old soul said something wise and philosophical, something that might help his younger brother’s classmates and teammates begin to comprehend this family’s journey:
“You need to realize something,” he said. “This is not my story. It’s not his story. It’s the human story.”
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