By Megan McGill
On a corner of 38th Street in South Omaha resides an old white house. It hides behind an old oak tree, whose branches cover the front porch. The house is lined with a silver fence that encloses the small front lawn. A single detached garage sits on the side.
In the driveway stands an old basketball hoop, the only hoop one will see on this block. It’s a movable hoop with a black pole and red rim. The white and red net is tarnished, and the thread is discolored. It hangs, barely, by a thread from the red rim. At first glance, the hoop looks like it’s been through the ringer and then some.
But this hoop is where one of the best high school basketball players in the state of Nebraska plays, and it’s plenty good enough for him.
Like the hoop in his front yard, Aguek Arop has been through a lot. But unlike the transparent wear and tear on his hoop, Aguek shows no signs of distress. In fact, one would never know. To Aguek this old white house on the corner is more than enough; in fact it’s a mansion. Humble beginnings don’t even cover the half of it.
The 16-year-old junior at Omaha South appears to be just like every other high school student. He’s dressed in the usual ensemble of the teenage boy: light blue gym shorts, white T-shirt, Nike socks and slides. He lounges on his couch, texting his girlfriend on his iPhone 4s. (She has a volleyball game he plans to attend tonight.) It’s about 4:30, and he’s off school, done with basketball practice, freshly showered.
His fireplace is lined with dozens of photographs and trophies from his early basketball days, all displayed by his mother with great pride. One picture on the mantel shows Aguek and Wade. Mrs. Wade that is. He smiles as he looks down at the picture. Aguek didn’t mind not getting a snapshot with the Miami Heat sensation, Dwayne Wade. He was too thrilled that he got one with Wade’s wife, Gabrielle Union, like most teenage boys would be.
But this 6-foot-5 teenager isn’t like every other. He’s well known on the Omaha basketball scene. And it isn’t just his height or his size 14 shoes that make Aguek different from the average teenager. It’s where he is today.
Most important, it’s how he got here.
Last season, at age 15, Aguek committed to eventually play basketball for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, making him the youngest player to ever commit to play Nebraska basketball. Several other schools were vying for his attention, but in the end, Aguek said, Nebraska was the easy choice.
“I just love the program,” he said. “Tim [Coach Miles], he’s a really great guy. I just love Nebraska, their facilities and the coaching staff—they’re great. I really loved that they had the most Academic All-Americans, too.”
Aguek doesn’t remember a whole lot about the day he signed his letter of intent. He isn’t a fan of being the center of attention, which is exactly what he was on that day at Omaha South.
“I was so nervous. There were a lot of people there,” he said. “I wrote down everything I wanted to say, but I don’t remember any of it because I was so nervous.”
This summer Aguek played for Omaha Elite, which includes some of the best players in the city. Omaha South is eager to get their starter back on the floor after a knee injury that left Aguek sidelined for his sophomore season. Tim Miles and Nebrasketball fans will be keeping a close eye on the soon-to-be-Husker.
Everyone is talking about Aguek, the refugee phenomenon, everyone except Aguek.
“I’m OK, but my brother is a lot better than I ever was at his age,” he said, pointing toward his 9-year-old brother, Jacob, in the kitchen. Most superstars could list off 10 of their best stats as easy as they could the names of their siblings. Not Aguek. He looks down to try to remember. “I don’t know,” he said. Then it comes to him.
“It would probably be ineighth grade.” After much prodding he finally admits, “I had 40 points.”
The pronouns “me,” “I” and “my” don’t seem to register in Aguek’s mind. It’s never “his” season, it’s “our” season. It’s never “my” moments, it’s “our” moments. In a lot of ways the teenager slouched over on the loveseat in his living room is just like everyone else, but in so many other ways he’s nothing like everyone else.
Basketball is “fun,” but in the grand scheme of things it’s just a game. It’s not the be-all and end-all of Aguek’s existence. He’s lost more than a jump shot. He’s faced more adversity than an opposing team on the floor. He’s conquered more than just a scoreboard and won more than a scholarship. Aguek’s unusual perspective on life didn’t happen over night. His resilience was built far before he ever stepped on the basketball court.
Aguek was born and spent the first year of his life in South Sudan. He is the sixth child of nine. The Arop family is composed of seven boys and two girls. During that time Sudan was suffering through a civil war that left Aguek’s parents with two options: stay in Africa, the only place they’d ever known, or move in hopes of a better life for their children.
Their first stop was Cairo, Egypt, where they stayed for only a year before deciding to make the trek to the United States.
Aguek remembers his extended family gathering to mark the occasion.
“All my aunts, uncles and cousins had a big going-away party,” he said. “We ate so much food and danced all night.”
The family’s first stop in the U.S. was Houston, Texas. Again, they didn’t stay long. After three years they left for Nebraska.
Aguek doesn’t recall too much about being introduced to Nebraska. However, the weather is something he can’t forget.
“I remember how cold it was here. I came in only a T-shirt and shorts,” he said. “It was my first experience with snow.”
The family found an apartment in Bellevue. A three-bedroom apartment for 12 people. All nine children stayed there along with Aguek’s parents and nephew. He remembers sleeping close to his siblings, packed in four to a room. The idea of fitting this many people into such a small space for a year would be a scary thought for some. However, it didn’t faze Aguek.
“It wasn’t that bad,” he said. “We just made it work.”
In fact, Aguek didn’t just tolerant the experience; he enjoyed it.
“It was kind of fun,” he said. There was a swimming pool in the apartment complex and a lot of my cousins and friends were there.”
When Aguek was in the fourth grade, his family moved to Omaha. They started in the Projects. From an outsider’s perspective the Projects are poor, small, inadequate and dangerous. He remembers never being able to take a shower because the tub in his apartment didn’t have a showerhead. Baths were the only option.
But again, the Projects never fazed Arop. He had a very different experience. He looks back on his time there with nothing but good memories. He notes that his apartment at the projects was actually bigger and nicer than his apartment in Bellevue. This apartment had five rooms for nine people. A more comfortable fit than a three-bedroom for 12.
“It wasn’t that bad,” he said. “I had a lot of friends there, so it was fun.”
Aguek remembers spending hours with his friends from the Projects at the YMCA shooting hoops.
He started school at All Saints Catholic School in Omaha. He had no idea what to expect, but he was surprised by the amount of diversity that roamed the halls. It was comforting that he saw many Sudanese kids that looked just like him.
Elementary school is hard enough for any child, but the burden of learning a new language made even the simplest of tasks difficult. Aguek spoke Dinka and was in the process of learning English. He vividly remembers a small moment when his language barrier created serious confusion.
“I remember going up to ask my teacher if I could go to the bathroom. I stood there and tried to tell her that I needed to go, but she couldn’t understand what I meant,” he said. “My older brother had to come down to the school to translate, just to tell my teacher that I had to go to the restroom.”
During his young elementary years, it wasn’t uncommon for Aguek and his siblings to translate for their parents and help them with paperwork.
Today Aguek speaks English fluently, but he still maintains his tribal language. His mother still doesn’t speak very much English, so around the house he speaks Dinka to her.
Still, growing up, Aguek was able to be a kid. His first year at All Saints, he was introduced to a game that would change his life and the life of his family. Basketball wasn’t something Aguek took to seriously in the beginning. His friends asked him if he wanted to play. Never having played before, Aguek gave it a shot.
“I was doing it for fun at first,” he said. “Then I just really loved it.”
Aguek treated basketball much like he did everything else in his life. He enjoyed it, not completely aware of the reality of the situation and just how talented he really was.
But others noticed.
Bruce Chubick, head basketball coach at Omaha South High School, was one who took quick notice of the young hoop star. He was frequently in the All Saints stands keeping a close eye on the potential recruit.
“The first thing I noticed about him was how hard he worked and how hard he played,” Chubick said. “He is one outstanding young man.”
Chubick first put a bug in Aguek’s ear about Omaha South when Aguek was in eighth grade. He said that if Aguek were to go there, he would have a shot at starting as a freshman.
Despite Aguek’s double-figure performances game after game in only elementary and middle school basketball, he was surprised.
“I wasn’t expecting that at all,” he said.
To his own surprise, Aguek did more than start his freshman year. He was instrumental in helping the Packers make it to the state tournament, where they eventually lost the finals in triple overtime.
Chubick gave the young Aguek a nickname his freshman year.
“I called him Bambi,” he said. “You know the little deer from the Disney movie. Aguek was on the floor more than he was on his feet.”
This Bambi-like, wobbly image of Aguek could be attributed to his hustle style of play and the way his body was growing into its abnormally large frame.
“Aguek got knocked around a lot as a freshman, but now he’s the one that does a lot of the knocking around,” Chubick said laughing.
However, this is not to say that Aguek has never been knocked down again on the basketball court. His sophomore season was short-lived. After only 11 minutes in his first game of the season Aguek was out for the year. He broke the top of his tibia in three places and slightly tore his patella. The starter was forced to experience his sophomore season from the sidelines.
Like any kind of adversity that comes his way, Aguek remained positive. Sitting on the sidelines game after game and during the state tournament can put on a strain on any athlete’s attitude. Not Aguek’s. Although, he yearned to be out on the floor with his teammates, he admitted that being injured wasn’t as terrible as people made it out to be.
“It wasn’t that bad because we were winning,” he said. “If we were losing it would have been a lot worse.”
Aguek’s unselfish play and his team attitude are just a few of the reasons Chubick respects him as a player and, more importantly, as a young man.
“Aguek is so humble,” Chubick said. “He really is every coach’s dream. He’s the kind of kid you want your daughter to bring home.”
Today, Aguek is in his junior year of high school. He’s a straight-A student and just as well-rounded academically as he is athletically.
The small forward has begun practicing for the upcoming season. He will start again this year.
At workouts these days Coach Chubick, whose son played for Nebraska, notices the strides Aguek has made.
“He looked really good today,” he said. Nebraska is getting a good one.”
Nebraska is still far from Aguek’s mind. Right now all he’s worried about is securing the state title that he had to watch his team lose from the sidelines last season. To Aguek, the future isn’t nearly as pressing as the present. In his eyes it’s a lot like his favorite play in basketball: the alley-oop dunk.
“It’s accelerating,” he said. “You get caught up in the moment sometimes with everyone screaming.”
With so many eager for the Omaha South star to begin his Husker basketball career, Aguek doesn’t give much thought to it. He would rather live in the moment.
“It can wait,” he said. “I just want to enjoy these last years of high school.”
Aguek’s secret to athletic success is simple: “I just play hard and do my best.”
Perhaps, this is also the 16-year-old’s secret to life as well. So simple yet, at the same time, so difficult to do.
Today, Aguek prefers to do his knocking around in the basketball game. But like the decrepit hoop in his driveway, this refugee phenomenon realizes that he is not immune to the unforeseen obstacles that could knock him down.
The black hoop in his front yard has seen better days. It’s obvious the wear and tear of the past has left it with an appearance that matches those hours of practice in the driveway. The net is discolored and hangs by a thread from the red rim.
However, it seems that the past has left Aguek Arop unscathed. His experiences have not left his spirit or his attitude tarnished or discolored. One might argue that it has had the opposite effect.
Right now, Aguek stands on the porch of the white house on 38th Street, the house his family has lived in now for three years. He throws a football around with his two younger brothers, who stand in the driveway. Laughing and poking fun at each other, he’s not worried about the next two years, his college career, or even tomorrow.