Editor's Note: This piece was written at the start of Northwestern's basketball season.
First the bleachers shook. Then came the smile, gap-toothed and wide. When I looked up, I realized I had underestimated Chier Ajou’s height. Seven-foot-two always sounds tall when you say it out loud, read it on the Northwestern basketball roster or compare it with the heights of NBA centers, but to see it up close was something else entirely. After placing down two large, white boxes from Panera Bread, the contents of a post-game meal packaged within, Ajou sat beside me and sighed.
It had been a long night for the 22-year-old. The Northwestern Wildcats had just beaten Lewis, a Division II school located in Romeoville, Ill., and Ajou had shown up at Welsh-Ryan Arena at least 75 minutes prior to the 7:15 p.m. tip-off. Northwestern had beaten the Flyers, 57-46, but the only court action Ajou got that night came in warm-ups. That part didn’t seem to bother him. Ajou’s endured far worse. And besides, was spending one 40-minute exhibition watching from the sidelines really such a bad thing, when Northwestern is guaranteed to play at least 30 games this season? Surely Ajou would see the court at some point. That’s the hope, anyway. The thought doesn’t cross his mind – irrelevant, something to revisit in the morning, or at Northwestern’s next game three days later, a meeting with Ohio Valley Conference denizen Eastern Illinois. More important at the moment is Ajou’s physical state. He’s exhausted, strung out over a long day of schoolwork and basketball.
Lugging around an 86-inch, 245-pound frame all day isn’t easy, after all. He takes classes, too, and presumably, had not yet finished his schoolwork for the next day. It was late, and Ajou looked antsy, sort of like he just wanted to go back to his off-campus apartment, eat whatever delicacies lay inside those two rectangular boxes, and call it a night.
He wore a red hat with a blue brim, the letters “LUOL” emblazoned across the front, a fashionable nod to his cousin, Luol Deng, a two-time All-Star forward for the Chicago Bulls. Around his neck were black headphones, attached to an iPhone by a thick red chord. A black winter jacket seemed to engulf his upper body, obscuring the width of his chest. Ajou had no intentions of removing it. He wanted to get out of here, soon as possible. The ‘Can we just do this some other time?’ vibe was so apparent I was almost surprised he ever agreed to sit down next to me in the first place. Then Ajou finally spoke, and his story was just as interesting as I had suspected.
Most of it’s still blurry.
Ajou knows he grew up in a village near Juba, South Sudan. He knows he had multiple brothers and sisters, and even more half brothers and half sisters. His total number of siblings, he estimates, is somewhere around 30. He knows his father had several wives and that his school, which intermittently met under a tree, did not organize students by age, but by level of intellect. Ajou and his family enjoyed what he called a comfortable lifestyle. “We were living in an ok house,” he says. His parents were involved in the government – How? He doesn’t know – and they owned a house in the city that Ajou remembers visiting every now and then. Most of the kids Ajou spent time with played soccer. The only basketball Ajou played was unorganized and unregulated, a unique form of street ball, unlike anything you’d see at Rucker Park in Harlem or on the old AND 1 Mixtape Tour. “I didn’t know anything, really, when I played then [in Sudan],” he says. “We just kind of ran around and threw the ball up.”
A question startles Ajou. “What was the worst thing you experienced during the war?” The Second Sudanese War (1983-2005) was, like most wars, violent and tragic. A Holy War, or jihad, declared by the National Islamic Front against the Sudan People’s Liberation movement crushed hopes of a peace agreement between the largely non-Muslim south and the central Sudanese government. A brutal conflict ensued. Millions of people were displaced, and at least a million others killed – because of a lack of nourishment, in the field of battle or some other unknown cause. All Ajou remembers is pain and anguish, and he’d rather not revisit the topic. “I don’t like to think back. I don’t have a desire to talk about it, because you remind me about stuff that…,” he says.
From what Ajou remembers, at least two brothers and two other half-brothers were killed in the field of battle. He also lost his father and more than a dozen close friends. Some of these people were killed right in front of Ajou, in harrowing scenes that allowed no time or space for grieving. Ajou, once captured by Arab militia, was often concerned about his own safety. He constantly tried to spin the conversation forward, to the present, where he no longer has to deal with war or the deaths of family members and friends. Ajou is fortunate to have survived the conflict, and he knows it. He also recognizes some of those close to him weren’t so lucky, so he doesn’t talk about the war unless he absolutely has to. “Again, you keep asking about…,” Ajou says. He stresses that the conflict in Sudan has ended, that it’s safe to visit his homeland, South Sudan, which became an independent state in 2011 through a referendum. For Ajou, that’s what’s important now. Not the other stuff.
An opportunity for a fresh start came in the summer of 2008. One of Ajou’s cousins, Duany Duany, is a former basketball player at the University of Wisconsin and the international director of the nonprofit organization A-HOPE, which aims to place underprivileged students from Africa into American schools. Duany convinced Birmingham, Al., private high school Central Park Christian to accept Ajou, 16, on a need-based scholarship. Ajou hadn’t played organized basketball to that point, but the opportunity to move to America – where a better education and a chance to make good on immense basketball potential through coaching and skill development beckoned – was too inviting to turn down. Ajou would have to leave behind his brothers and sisters, his mother and his friends, but it was a price he willingly paid for the promise of a new life overseas.
The perception, arrogant perhaps, that Ajou was eager to leave Sudan at the very first suggestion that he might be able to enroll in an American school – that the choice to leave his homeland didn’t require any deliberation – is flatly wrong. Ajou had reservations. His family loved him. The United States was a world apart, literally and figuratively, from the country he grew up in. When he finally left, he did so knowing he wouldn’t be far from people he could trust. Duany is not the only family member Ajou knows that lives in the United States. He has cousins that live in Boston and Deng, a former Northbrook, Ill., resident. “That’s my dude!” Deng, the Bulls’ leading scorer this season, says of Ajou.
Ajou claims his transition to a new lifestyle in the United States was practically seamless, in part because of the family members that supported him. “It’s great,” he says of his reaction when he first arrived in the United States. “It was a great transition for me. All the people that helped me, coming here, this life. I’m thankful.” He anticipated a better standard of living in the U.S., and that’s exactly what he found when he arrived. Most of the other stuff – the food, the culture, the technology – didn’t surprise him. “I enjoy both. I have friends in both,” he says of the United States and Sudan. If there was one big difference he noticed almost immediately upon alighting in Birmingham, Al., it was the academics.
The coursework at Central Park Christian was far less difficult than Ajou had predicted. Even for a student that hadn’t yet mastered English, academics were not a concern. Ajou was shocked at how specific teachers were about the subject matter of assessments. Whereas in Sudan Ajou would take tests on a variety of subjects at one time, not knowing in advance the material he should review (“It was just like, you have exam, and then you show up,” he says), at Central Park Christian Ajou felt prepared for everything teachers threw at him. He knew exactly what was coming.
One scene Ajou remembers vividly happened shortly after he enrolled at Central Park Christian. Ajou sat in a class, waiting for instruction from his teacher, who had scheduled an exam for the next day. Fearing a night of frantic studying, Ajou was unnerved – an emotion that quickly turned into excitement when Ajou’s teacher gave him a piece of news he never thought he’d hear, not even in this new, exciting world he was just beginning to acclimate himself to. “This is the section the test is on,” Ajou recalls the teacher saying. His response? “I’m like, ‘What?!’” Academics would be different here, he reasoned. “This is great for me.”
Ajou joined the basketball team mid-season and began receiving, for the first time, instruction from coaches. He began to learn plays, defensive principles, rules he never knew existed. Being 7-foot-2 was one thing. Actually learning the nuances of the game was completely another. Ajou got going on the second part at Central Park Christian. “Before then, I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Ajou said. “That’s [at Central Park Christian] when I finally started learning plays.”
When Ajou, 17, left Central Park Christian for Culver Academy, a prestigious military school in Culver, Ind., he was still learning the game. But he was better, having improved to the point that Duany could convince school officials to admit Ajou to the esteemed institution without pay. Ajou’s living quarters at Culver were a welcome change. The barracks he called home for more than a year were more luxurious than anything he’d ever experienced. “That was a great place,” he says. Ajou enjoyed classes and hanging out with friends, and it wasn’t long before Division I college basketball programs came calling. New Mexico was the first to show interest in Ajou. After talking with UNM coach Steve Alford and visiting the school’s Albuquerque campus, Ajou committed to the Lobos in September 2010. His future seemed settled, then: four years of Division I hoops in the Mountain West Conference and free tuition, untold amounts of national exposure, a possible springboard to a career in professional basketball. After helping lead Culver to its first state finals appearance in school history in 2011, a season in which Ajou averaged 10.1 points and 6.3 rebounds, things fell apart with New Mexico.
Instead of graduating from Culver and beginning his college career in Albuquerque, Ajou, 19, transferred to St. Thomas More Academy in Oakdale, Conn., for a postgraduate year. He had some academic issues to sort out, including his standardized test scores and questions about the legitimacy of his grades from Central Park Christian, before he could pass the NCAA eligibility clearinghouse. His opportunity with New Mexico had come and gone, it seemed. Ajou doesn’t remember how the relationship between he and New Mexico coach Steve Alford broke down. There’s a possibility Alford simply wasn’t interested in bringing in Ajou after his prep year. Whatever the underlying reasons, Ajou would be forced to string out his college search at least one more year, hoping to draw the attention of Division I schools interested in an irregularly tall big man with huge upside.
At Northwestern, Ajou found a new home. Cleared by the NCAA in August 2012, Ajou – who joined the Wildcats after receiving interest from Butler, Cincinnati, Oklahoma and Central Connecticut State – joined a recruiting class that would end up being Bill Carmody’s last, one featuring graduate transfer Jared Swopshire and three-star forwards Sanjay Lumpkin and Kale Abrahamson. Ajou played a total of just 30 minutes in seven games for the Wildcats in 2012-13, and was shut down in early February due to a lingering knee injury, in the midst of a Northwestern basketball season that had long since fallen off the rails. The Wildcats would finish the season 13-19, the last straw for Carmody, the Northwestern head coach for 13 years, who was promptly fired after the team’s final game in mid-March. Ajou would receive a medical redshirt, meaning he would still have four more years of eligibility after missing the rest of the season. Ajou’s first basketball campaign at Northwestern didn’t go quite as he planned – a far cry from the 14 points, nine rebounds and 2.6 blocks he averaged for St. Thomas More. He was a non-factor, almost completely irrelevant. The potential was there. The polish was not. Ajou had a long way to go before he could become a valuable asset on the court.
Off it, Ajou’s transition was smooth. He enjoyed Northwestern just as much as he thought he would when he first visited Evanston before signing with the Wildcats in June 2012. Lakefront vistas, a location near one of the best cities in the United States, friendly teammates, academic acclaim: Northwestern had everything Ajou wanted. “This is a really nice place,” he says of Northwestern. “It has everything I want.” The basketball aspect of his college experience would improve in time, but since Ajou wasn’t healthy, he would need to wait before becoming the impact college player his height suggested he one day could he. Save rest and rehabilitation, there was nothing Ajou could do but bide his time until next season. “Because I was hurt, that was frustrating,” he says.
He focused on the positives, tried to make friends away from basketball, find a major he might be interested in pursuing, do things most non-athletes do in college. Ajou frequented the main University Library, where his entrance never failed to draw awe-struck glares from Northwestern students. When he would walk down the main hallway on the first floor, his long strides devouring carpet space, others stopped dead in their tracks, lifting their heads from whatever multivariable calculus problem or 19th century Victorian novel was occupying their attention, and looked up. This was a normal occurrence for Ajou, inside the library and out. Students stared at him almost as a reflex. Ignoring a 7-foot-2 human isn’t easy, of course. The attention Ajou attracted everywhere, from doing nothing particularly out of the ordinary – other than, you know, being tall – was remarkable.
Ok, so maybe there was one thing Ajou did those first few months that might have seemed a bit odd. His roommate, redshirt freshman forward Lumpkin, recalls Ajou frequently blasting music, neglecting to use headphones, seemingly unaware of the fact Lumpkin wasn’t always interested in listening to the same songs Ajou was. “No one ever really does that,” Lumpkin says.
On one day Lumpkin still remembers clearly, Ajou took his odd listening habits to a new extreme. The Sudanese big man, naturally drawing attention for his height, had students and other sidewalk dwellers bumping to the music emanating from his iPhone. Rick Ross was his artist of choice, but the music selection didn’t matter. The act itself – the fact Ajou was strolling around campus, blasting tunes as if he wanted to give Northwestern’s student body a taste of his “Ricky Rozay” playlist, drawing curious glances from nearby pedestrians all the while – is something Lumpkin will never forget. “It was really, really funny,” jokes Lumpkin. “He was just out there, playing it out loud. He didn’t really care.”
Cultural naiveté notwithstanding, Ajou was thoroughly enjoying college life. “He was fitting in really well, even at first,” Lumpkin says. “Getting along with all the guys, making friends. For sure.” Ajou had settled in to Northwestern, despite spending a year essentially nursing a knee injury. The only thing left on his checklist was basketball-related: he wanted to contribute, rather than sit idly on the sidelines.
Maybe he’ll get his opportunity this year.
Ajou strolls into Northwestern’s practice facility one Friday afternoon in late October for a typical workout with the Wildcats. He begins putting up shots – short and long, off the glass and not, angled and straight-on. He’s testing his range. “That’s it!” a teammate yells. Ajou’s stroke looks considerably improved over last season, but it’s hard to say whether that will translate to more playing time. The Wildcats have at least two big men with more athleticism and skill than Ajou – sophomore center Alex Olah and senior forward Nikola Cerina. Both of them have been playing the game far longer than Ajou has, and while this is considered a “rebuilding” year for the Wildcats, new coach Chris Collins isn’t going to play someone before he’s ready.
“We’re just trying to take it slow with him,” says Collins, who became Northwestern’s coach in April after Carmody was dismissed. Lumpkin has watched Ajou develop over the past year, so he has a better feel for whether his former roommate will be able to help Northwestern to its goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. “He’s working every day,” Lumpkin says. “But he’s still raw. The main thing is for him to keep working.”
And Ajou is. Only now he’s alone on one side of the court, nearing the end of his shooting session. Other teammates begin practicing on the other side, preparing for that weekend’s opponent, Eastern Illinois. Ajou doesn’t appear to be involved in the game plan. Does Ajou want to play? “Whatever I can bring, I’ll do it,” Ajou says. “My role will come by itself, as long as the team is winning. Whether its rebounds or playing good defense, just to help the team win is my goal.”
Achieving it from the bench won’t be easy.
As much as he loves college, Ajou can’t help but think about the life he left behind more than five years ago. He’s been trying to return to Sudan since he arrived at Northwestern, but said his busy schedule – which includes everything from basketball to schoolwork to injury rehabilitation – has kept him stateside. When he leaves Northwestern’s campus, Ajou typically visits the family of one of his high school roommates, Peter Hamm, a student at Baylor University. He refers to Peter as his brother and thinks of the Hamms, who have visited Ajou at Northwestern, as his “new family.” That’s not to suggest Ajou doesn’t speak to his old one. He does. Ajou talks to his mother frequently, and tries to keep in contact with some of his other relatives. “I try to talk to them a lot,” he says. “That’s really important for me.” Perhaps one day, maybe this summer, when basketball season is over and Ajou is, hopefully, healthy, he can see his real family in person.
It was Saturday night and Ajou was preparing for Northwestern’s first regular season game, against Eastern Illinois. Ajou wore white shorts with a vertical purple stripe on both sides, black skin-tight leggings over his knees and white mid calf socks. He looks ready, but will he play? “I doubt it,” a Northwestern beat writer says. If Ajou wasn’t available for an exhibition, what were the chances he would see the court when it really mattered? Collins doesn’t want to rush things with Ajou, who was just cleared to play at the end of September. “He needs to be patient, he needs to keep working, and as we continue to develop him, he needs to be ready when he’s called upon,” Collins says. Ajou’s coming off a knee injury and sometimes his hamstring flares up. Bringing him back too soon is a needless risk. There’s plenty of season left.
And plenty of time left in Ajou’s college basketball career. “He hasn’t played basketball his whole life,” Collins says. “He’s new to the game. We just want him to be patient and celebrate the small victories of getting better day in and day out.” Ajou may not be a major contributor to the basketball team this season, but he will grow more comfortable with his new life, while hoping to revisit his old one sometime soon. “Of course!” he remarks when asked if he hopes to return to Sudan. If Ajou makes it back this summer, he’d be completing a journey he’s been hoping to embark on for years. If he doesn’t, that’s ok, too. Ajou likes this place.