He couldn't be mean. Not on the basketball court at first, and certainly not off it.

In the truest sense, it just wasn't in Angelo Chol's blood.

The Arizona Wildcats' freshman forward arrived in the United States at age 6, a refugee from the Sudanese wars that nearly claimed his father and exposed him to true hatred.

He grew up with a trio of supporters in San Diego, wanting only to be kind, to be humble, to be thankful. And he grew into an agile big man who made the Hoover High School varsity team as an ninth-grader.

On the team, he was exposed to the aggressive culture of American basketball - a cultural collision that took benefactor Becky Moores by surprise. Having met Chol when she tutored him as an elementary student and growing closer to him as he neared high school, Moores noticed that Chol seemed sad after practice one day.

" 'I don't understand,' " Moores remembers him saying. " 'When we're out there in practice, it's like the coach wants us to be mad at each other. I don't want to be mad at anyone.' "

Many adjustments

Chol adjusted. He blocked more than 1,000 shots at Hoover and went on to become a Top 50 recruit as a high school senior. He chose Arizona over Washington last February.

Along the way, he's learned that the border of aggression can be at the edge of the court. He remains polite and unassuming away from basketball, but intense and aggressive while playing.

Chol has had to adjust even further during his freshman season at Arizona. The 6-foot-9, 217-pound forward was asked to shift positions to center, filling a role usually played by bigger men because the Wildcats are small this season.

Entering the UA's game at Colorado on Saturday, Chol was averaging 2.5 points and 2.6 rebounds a game. He is generally the Wildcats' third or fourth substitute off the bench, a key reserve with the potential - and will - to become a standout.

UA coach Sean Miller said Chol's best days are ahead of him.

"As a basketball player, he's as driven as any guy that I've been around, especially as a freshman," Miller said. "One of the reasons you see his body continue to develop, get bigger and stronger, is he's putting the time in extra during the season. His work ethic and personality will make him the best player he can be."

Already, Miller has played Chol for an average of 11.5 minutes a game, the eighth-most of the Wildcats. He played 7.7 minutes a game through the first six Pac-12 conference games.

While he's helped the Wildcats with his size, agility and defensive presence, Chol also has made an impact off the court. His personality and life history add a unique chemistry to the Wildcats' locker room.

"He doesn't act like a child," fellow freshman Nick Johnson said. "He's like the grandpa of the group."

Chol smiled when he heard that remark. "I'm more mature," he said.

A lifetime of hardship

Chol is the youngest player on the Wildcats' roster, but he's already endured a lifetime of hardship.

His mother died when he was 3. His father was tortured and jailed for singing songs against religious persecution. Finally he and his father hopped a train to escape, connecting to a boat up the Red Sea that opened another world.

Chol was born in the Muslim-dominated north of Sudan, to a Christian family from the Dinka tribe of what is now the Republic of South Sudan. He spoke Dinka at home and Arabic because, well, he had to.

"The Muslims dominated the north," he said. "If you want to get a job, you have to know Arabic."

But Chol's father, Ajieng, remained passionate about the south. He wrote and sang songs about religious persecution there, and the famine and disease caused by war. He was nearly killed for it.

At one point, Ajieng's fingernails were torn off. But he didn't want to burden young Angelo with details about that and other torture he faced. He waited until the two arrived in San Diego, and Angelo was old enough to understand why they had left.

When leaving Sudan, "I didn't know all the stuff that was going on," Chol said. "It was just sad. People were dying over land and the border."

Food, life were "different"

What Chol does remember: that train and boat ride, followed by a year in Cairo, where the Chols were processed as Sudanese refugees and eventually assigned to San Diego.

Chol spent his first-grade year in Egypt and then began second grade in Southern California, with no clue how to speak English or how to live in such a different environment.

"Food was different," he said. "Life was different."

Eventually his few words turned into sentences, thanks to a helpful second-grade teacher and classmates who helped him pick up the language.

A tutoring center at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in San Diego helped further guide the Chols into their new culture. Moores volunteered at the center, which her sister-in-law had opened. The Chols lived nearby in City Heights, a melting pot of immigrants from all over the world.

The center, and the people he met there, are the source of much of the gratitude Chol feels today.

At Hoover High, he wore No. 3. Not No. 1, because it wasn't about him, but No. 3 because it was about the three most influential figures in his life as he entered high school: Ajieng; Leslie Coughlan, another St. Luke's tutor who became a mother figure in his first years in San Diego; and Ollie Goulston, the varsity coach at Hoover.

"He calls me 'Mom' "

Between Coughlan and Moores, who became more involved in Chol's life as he grew, the teen lacked little in San Diego. If he needed groceries, one of the women would send them. If he needed a lift to a game or a practice, they were there. If he just wanted to talk, they were there.

"He calls me 'Mom,' when he texts or calls me," Coughlan said. "I supported him and took care of him like he was one of my own. I would have liked to have adopted him officially, but at the time his dad was around enough."

Moores, the ex-wife of former Padres owner John Moores, bought condominiums for several refugee families and chose one for the Chols. When Angelo could drive, she bought him a used SUV so he could avoid long bus connections and get around in comfort.

Goulston became a father figure as Ajieng felt a stronger tug to Africa.

" 'Whatever you need to do, do it,' " Goulston remembers Ajieng telling him. " 'I trust you, Coach.' "

Ajieng traveled with a band that continued to sing about the Sudan conflicts to other Sudanese groups.

He also was trying to finance his way back to Sudan and repay airfare he was given for the trip from Egypt. He worked a variety of jobs that sometimes took him out of the area. He did carpentry work and, when that dried up, he moved to Texas to work in a slaughterhouse because it paid well.

Ajieng was gone so often by Angelo's sophomore year that, even with neighborhood support, Moores was as worried as any mom might be. Quietly, she installed a camera just outside his front door that would snap a photo if it sensed motion and email it to her.

"Somebody needed to watch him," Moores said.

The camera actually worked only about 20 percent of the time, Moores noted, but it didn't really matter. Angelo was safe and hardly caused trouble.

He was, after all, already a grandpa of sorts.

"My father was always talking to me about it, that I'm going to stay out of trouble and that stuff," he said. "I think it made me mature more for a kid of that age."

"I was a normal kid"

By the time he entered middle school, all Chol really wanted to do was play basketball.

At first, the game frustrated him. From third through sixth grade, after he picked up English, he played no sports whatsoever. "I was a normal kid," he said.

But by seventh grade, he was so big and athletic that coaches encouraged him to try the game. He took a liking to it - even if it did not initially like him.

"I remember going to some of his earlier games and almost being embarrassed for him," Coughlan said.

Moores said Chol was "the worst player on the team," and that may have been putting it gently.

"He literally could not dribble nor make a basket of any kind," Goulston said. "He was playing on a YMCA team that wasn't very good, and he was the worst player on it."

Balls went though Chol's hands. Shots missed the baskets. But he kept at it.

As much as potential, Goulston saw a hunger to learn.

"You just saw arms and legs. He was long and tall," Goulston said. "You could just tell there was something special about him."

"Humility, appreciation"

Chol kept working on his game, often in the early-morning when nobody could watch, or tease, him.

Within two years, he starred on Hoover's freshman team as an eighth grader. As a sophomore, he broke the national high school blocks record by swatting away 337 shots.

By then it was Chol who could have done the teasing. The University of San Diego offered him a scholarship. Washington and other major schools came around.

After his sophomore season, he was invited to train with the USA Basketball Developmental team, which prompted him to seek and obtain U.S. citizenship, a formality for a Sudan native who already considered himself an American.

It wasn't until Chol's senior year that Arizona started recruiting him heavily. But Goulston said Miller was so persistent that he quickly made inroads.

By last February, Chol committed to the Wildcats.

Of course, Chol never did tease anybody he surpassed on the court as he left San Diego. That's not in his blood, either.

"Angelo has humility and appreciation," Goulston said. "He's a great example of the American dream. He came from zero. His family had losses. He didn't have much in the way of clothes. And now he's on TV and getting his college paid for.

"He's really what it's all about."

On StarNet: Follow Angelo Chol's long journey from Sudan to the Arizona Wildcats - a story told in photos and a Google Earth animation, at azstarnet.com/video

Angelo Chol

Freshman forward, UA men's basketball

• Born: Khartoum, Sudan

• Age: 18

• Years in the U.S.: 12

•Citizenship: American

"As a basketball player, he's as driven as any guy that I've been around, especially as a freshman. His work ethic and personality will make him the best player he can be."

Sean Miller, UA basketball coach

Contact reporter Bruce Pascoe at 573-4147 or at pascoe@azstarnet.com