Article, 2010-2011 Season - Ohlone College Renegades Men's Basketball
His spirit, giant: Sudanese player embraced at Ohlone College
By Carl Steward, Bay Area News Group.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011—Reprinted from Inside Bay Area.
Historic elections are being held in Sudan this week that could end decades of genocide and reduce strife in the war-torn African country.
Ring Ayuel is a tall example, literally and figuratively, of why these elections are important. The literal part first: Ayuel is a freshman center on Ohlone College's basketball team, and you can't miss him. He stands 7 feet, 3 ½ inches.
But Ayuel's true enormity rests in the 11-year odyssey that led him from his native Sudanese village of Turalei -- the same village that produced the late 7-foot-7 NBA center Manute Bol -- to Fremont and a community college family that has embraced him and his spirit of survival.
A 22-year-old who has played sparingly, Ayuel has far to go to become an impact player, but not nearly as far as he has come as a human being.
In 1999, when Ayuel was 11, his Dinka tribe was invaded by insurgent Islamic soldiers from the northern part of Sudan. They shot and killed several Turalei villagers, including Ayuel's cousin, and burned many of their homes.
Ayuel was separated from his family during the invasion and couldn't get back to them. Instead, frightened and disoriented, he followed several thousand people who fled the village and undertook a precarious 30-day, 600-mile walking journey to safety in northwest Kenya. They often traveled under cover of darkness to avoid soldiers, but met other dangers.
"Lions killed many people," Ayuel said. "And the people killed animals so we would have food to eat."
Ayuel's shoes fell apart and he had to walk barefoot for several days. Cut, bruised and exhausted by malnutrition, he had to be carried for the last part of the journey to the remote, desolate United Nations-sponsored Kakuma Refugee Camp -- Kakuma means "nowhere" in Swahili. Then, despite his young age, Ayuel lived on his own in a settlement of crude shacks and tents for five years without any adult guidance or schooling.
"I had nobody to take care of me, so I just tried to be a grown man by myself," he said. "I missed my family, so it was bad. They would give you a card every month to get food. There were 20 young people like me who were my neighbors. We put our food together and we cooked that food to make it last longer, until the next month."
Ayuel told many stories about the horrors in Turalei and Kakuma in an autobiographical paper Ohlone coach John Peterson asks his players to craft before the start of each season. The players share their life experiences, but none come close to Ayuel's story for drama and heartbreak.
"Every day I'm around the kid, it's humbling," Peterson said. "For him to be able to survive and make it out of there is truly phenomenal. The stuff he has seen in his lifetime, an American can't comprehend it."
Fortunately, Ayuel received a break in 2005. He was singled out along with a number of young Sudanese refugees to come to the U.S. and go to Our Savior New American High School, an international exchange institution in Centereach, N.Y., on Long Island.
At the school, he was introduced to English -- he spoke only his native Dinka dialect when he arrived in the U.S. at age 16 -- and basketball. He was one of four players on the Our Savior team taller than 7 feet, but he knew little about the sport.
"I saw it in Kenya, but I didn't like it," he said. "I played volleyball and soccer. I tried it but I wasn't good."
Peterson learned of Ayuel through a coach friend who wanted to place him at a California community college where he could further his English skills, earn his GED and play sports. Peterson took on the challenge in 2008 not knowing what he was getting.
"They took great care of him (at Our Savior), but the ESL (English as a Second Language) program wasn't good there and I knew ours was," Peterson said. "He has those ESL classes here, but he's learning stuff that you would just naturally assume a 21-year-old kid would have down pat. The key is finding him a place where he's going to have unlimited academic resources. He's going to need very specific individual attention in order to make it work."
Shortly after Ayuel arrived at Ohlone, Peterson contacted Sandy Bennett, the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services coordinator at the school. Bennett helped Ayuel navigate cultural adjustments and connected him to academic and social-service resources, as well as additional English classes at Fremont Adult School. In short order, she became so taken with the young man and his plight that the married mother of two came to treat him as one of her own.
"Love just sort of came," Bennett said. "He hadn't seen his mom since he was 11. That just broke my heart. So he started hanging out with my family and eventually started calling me Mom. And he's my son. I sort of look at it as though I'm standing in the gap for his mom until he can be reunited with her. But I love him like I birthed him myself."
Ayuel had no contact with his family in Sudan for a decade until he finally had brief telephone conversations with his father in the past year. He still yearns to talk to his mother and his five siblings, some of whom were born after he fled Sudan.
He knows enough about them to know height runs in the family. His mother is 6 feet 11; his father 6 feet 7.
"I am fourth tallest in my family," he said. "My grandpa is 7-8, my little brother is second tallest (7 feet 6) and I have an uncle who is 7-5. A lot of people are taller than me in my tribe. It's normal."
Ayuel is aware of Bol's legacy -- the 7-foot-7 Bol spent 10 years in the NBA including three with the Warriors -- but was perhaps more noted for the humanitarian efforts he helped organize in Sudan before he died from a kidney ailment last year at age 47.
"We're not related but we're from the same tribe," he said. "Back home, I knew his house and his family. When I was growing up, people were always telling me I should grow up to be like Manute. Sometimes people call me Manute and I say Manute is not young like me."
Unlike Bol, Ayuel does not have NBA aspirations, and Peterson said it will take considerable work for him to become a productive college player. His four-year school options may be limited as well because of his academic qualifications. He had microfracture surgery in both knees in 2009, which further stunted his progress.
Turning Ayuel into a basketball player is secondary for Peterson, however. He believes the social skills Ayuel has gained from working with a wide-ranging group of teammates -- Ohlone also has players from China, Australia and Israel -- will help him even more as he looks to build a happy and productive life.
His English has dramatically improved, to the degree that he worked in the Ohlone bookstore until time constraints forced him to quit. He likes watching movies with his teammates, who call him King Ringo.
"I think he gave himself that nickname, but it fits because he's a real special kind of guy," said guard Charles Barnes. "He has a real kind heart, so whenever you're doing something with Ring, he's always looking out for you and making sure you're happy."
Conversely, the Ohlone community is protective of its gentle giant.
"He's like a rock star around here," Peterson said. "If he charged money for pictures, he'd be the wealthiest guy in town."
Once people get to know him, Ayuel makes an even greater impression with his sense of humor, his spirit of generosity and his willingness to do whatever it takes to make a successful life for himself.
"It puts so many things in perspective when you're around somebody like that," the coach said. "Winning and losing a basketball game is not that big of a deal anymore. I certainly want to win, but when you just think about Ring's story and hopefully where he ends up, it's exciting."
"I believe Ring has a mission and purpose in life," she said. "Basketball is just a means now and it's definitely part of his journey, but I think there is something much, much bigger out there for him."
Ayuel, who said he is monitoring southern Sudan's secession vote closely, has dreams that are modest for a man of his size. Improving his basketball skills is only a small part.
"When I finish college, I would just like to find a job where I can help my family, and one day see them again," he said.
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