The long-armed man in the No. 22 Ooks jersey is different from the others in so many ways. Smoother. More spring-loaded.
He moves the ball from one end of the court before wiping the backboard clean at the other. He does not score at will but he is everywhere, doing all things. Blocking shots. Grabbing a loose ball. Hitting the outlet pass. His coach describes him as "snake-like."
Bol Kong as king cobra.
But as you watch him coil, you wonder how it feels to go from Internet sensation and U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 player to being a Northern Alberta Institute of Technology Ook, playing in 1,000-seat gymnasiums on the brink of emptiness, to having a once brilliant career shrouded in doubt and what-ifs.
This is also why Kong is so different from his newest teammates and rivals. He has come from a ravaged country and risen in a new land as a 6-foot-8 basketball player. He has battled with the U.S. State Department to secure a student visa and enroll at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. He has played U.S. hoops a notch below the vaunted NBA. And now he is starting over by playing Canadian college ball in his freshly adopted hometown of Edmonton.
You watch him nail a three-point shot in an Ooks 20-point victory and you wonder: "Is this the rebirth of Bol Kong or a step back too far?"
His story cries for a happy ending: Sudanese refugee finds peace in a new country, turns to sports, becomes a star player and lands a full scholarship at a U.S. university in the hope of one day becoming an NBA professional. To get to Gonzaga, it took three years of back-and-forth dealings with U.S. officials.
The belief among Kong and his supporters was the U.S. government was leery of Sudan's Islamist links with international terrorist organizations. The feds wanted to do their homework on Kong; he just wanted to play basketball.
When he finally got the green light, he lasted one season at Gonzaga, then withdrew "for personal reasons." What those reasons are, he won't exactly say. Most likely there were issues with his grades. But if that had been the sole reason for his departure, he would have been declared academically ineligible and that would have been it. Instead, he left and has never explained why.
"The basketball was totally different," he said after a recent NAIT win. "It's a straight-up business. I wasn't living up to the hype. I came there with all these expectations. The Internet, that's what did it. I was supposed to be the second coming or something.
"I wanted it," he added of his NCAA experience. "I found out school was more [about]getting it done."
Kong was an Internet star of the brightest order. His pre-Gonzaga successes and travails were made into a mini-documentary dubbed Jumping Through Hoops and put on YouTube.com. In the piece, he tells of how his village, outside Khartoum, was destroyed and how he (at 6) and his family immigrated to Canada, first to Hamilton, then to Vancouver. His on-court abilities were also showcased via the Web.
He went to Gonzaga, where he was one of four Canadians on the team. He played in 31 games, mostly as a reserve and averaged 4.5 points and 1.5 rebounds, although he did score 14 points in a win over the University of Oklahoma.
Then last July, Kong suddenly withdrew from summer school and found himself with no place to play. He couldn't attend a Canadian university and compete in 2010-11 because, as a transfer student, he had to sit out a season. His grades also needed work. So he rejoined his family, now living in Edmonton, and wondered what to do. To pass the time, he played pick-up games at NAIT.
That's when Don Phillips entered the picture. Phillips is the Ooks head coach and a man with a polished résumé. He was an NCAA player who became an academic all-Canadian while at Brandon University. He was later an assistant coach at Brandon before jumping to the University of Alberta as an assistant to Don Horwood. Two years ago, he took over at NAIT and talked about putting the student back into the phrase student athlete.
When one of his players told him Kong was playing basketball in the gym, Phillips checked it out and reacquainted himself with the young Vancouver high-school forward he had tried to recruit to Alberta. Back then, Kong was invited into Phillips's home, had dinner with the coach and talked about life and basketball. When the two chatted again in the NAIT gym, Phillips had no indication what was about to happen next.
"Two days later, Jawauwn States, a good friend of Bol's, comes in and says, 'Bol wants to come to NAIT,' " Phillips recalled. "I said, 'Are you serious?' I got in contact with him and he said he wasn't eligible at the CIS level. He had to take a year off [but could compete at the Canadian college level] He said: 'I'd rather play for you.' "
Phillips insisted he doesn't know exactly why Kong left Gonzaga but he was certain about this: "I told Bol, 'There's a reason why you're here. You have to learn from your mistakes. This is it for you.' I told him I was not going to take him if he continues to squander his opportunities."
Kong scored 24 points in his first league game with NAIT. It may have been the worst thing for him. Painfully aware of his new surroundings and how easy things might be, Kong let his emotions sag. He developed what Phillips called "a Division 1 hangover. His ego was bruised."
Asked how it felt to go from the gaga of Gonzaga to the no-frills of NAIT, Kong acknowledged how different things were. "Definitely, early in the season, it was tough. It was the drop in talent level, the speed in the game. It's another challenge to try to manufacture myself to another level."
He has preserved by talking to Phillips, who has preached as much about the classroom as being versatile on the hardwood.
"I've been there and done that," Phillips said. "I was a big-time athlete myself. At the end of the day, I've got my masters in education. I've got a career. I told Bol, 'You've only got two years of school [left after this season]' He needs to have something in his hand."
So is this the rebirth of Kong? A reason to think there'll be a happy ending?
There are joys, he related, especially having his parents come to see him play at home games. His teammates respect him and he is trying to be more of a team man, an all-purpose player. It's not easy but it has improved and there is still the future to consider.
"I'll probably go to [St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia]" Kong said, noting he has friends and contacts there. "The rest of the year? I want to keep a good attitude and just try and teach these guys. Be a leader.
"I'm not getting any younger," he added.
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