“I knew about America, because people would come teach us at church, and that’s the most important thing we have there, because we all believe in God.
“When Americans came over, we saw them as good people. We were happy to see them come. And they brought kids balloons. We had never seen them before. And we heard about America, and it was like, ‘Oooh, America!
“It’s in the sky! The streets are full of gold. Everything you want you get!’ Right when I got here, I saw these big buildings, and I was surprised; I looked up, and I said, ‘Is this man-built? Man-made?’ I thought it was in the air!”
Kamis Magot breaks into the kind of grin that could be featured in a toothpaste commercial.
He is on the freshman basketball team at Cholla High School, and he will be the fourth Magot brother to play for varsity coach Masai Dean. Oldest brother Ajak is now a center for Idaho State University and older brother Lual is a senior for the Chargers. Awou graduated last May.
Their journey to America is the stuff of legend, and the same can be said for three-fifths of Cholla’s starting lineup.
The Chargers are 22-1, led by four senior starters: point guard Jorge Carrasco and the trio of Lual Magot, Ruai Ruai and Boss Mujambre.
Cholla is seeded No. 1 heading into Wednesday’s Division II Section VI regional playoff matchup against Canyon del Oro at Amphitheater High.
Magot, Ruai and Mujambre sit in Dean’s office at Cholla on a recent afternoon, telling personal tales of adventure and woe, of refugee camps and armies.
Mujambre was only a child when his family left the Congo and eventually ended up in Burundi, in the midst of a civil war. His refugee camp was attacked at 4 in the morning. They had to flee.
Asked if they’ve all experienced similar journeys, Magot and Ruai nod.
Ruai was born in South Sudan and raised in Egypt, and Lual was born in Kenya, lived in Sudan and raised in Ethiopia, where he had to escape Joseph Kony and the advancing Lord’s Resistance Army. As soon as the army came to a close town, Lual’s family would move. Kamis can remember the pounding on the door by older boys with guns trying to kidnap younger boys.
So who would have thought that after a journey so perilous, a life so perilous, that the Magots would find danger in Tucson?
Shortly after he and his family arrived in America, the brothers hopped a fence to go swimming at a closed pool. When they got out of the pool to head home, someone approached, lifted his shirt and pulled out a pistol. The gun fired twice, the bullets hit the ground and smashed into shrapnel, and the Magot brothers bolted.
“The next thing I knew, I jumped the fence, and I don’t know how, because it was really high,” Lual says. “We get home, and I was good, but my brother was hit in the thigh, and Kamis was hit, too. And this is before we even knew about 9-1-1.”
“South Sudan is a dry place, very hot. Schools are not fun; teachers threaten the students. Do this, or you get whupped. Everything is so strict; when it comes to soccer, you have to be good, or you can’t play. When you go to school, it’s academics before anything else, and African parents, they will let you leave early and stay out (late). They don’t want you in the house.
“It’s dangerous — Africa is dangerous — but not really, because everybody is loving each other. The village is like a family. If you’re hungry, you eat with a neighbor. There is no such thing as homeless because people take care of you. There are a lot of stores, but the stores are made out of sticks, and the streets are rocky.”
Lual can still jump.
On a Monday night in mid-January, the Chargers are taking on Tucson High in the MLK Classic in McKale Center. In a game they’ll go on to win by 11, Magot grabs both the first offensive and defensive rebounds of the game. He’s averaging almost nine boards a game, and more than 15 points, for the Chargers, who will likely have a bye in the first round of the state tournament.
Magot seems to relish rebounding, the work it takes, the grittiness needed. You don’t luck into nine rebounds a game, and while 6 feet 4 inches is tall, it’s not as if Magot just stands there. He goes after it.
“If you don’t have an attitude, one way or another, what are you doing out there?” Dean asks, and he says Magot is expected to sprout like his older brothers, who stand 6-11 and 6-9.
“I know I have an attitude myself, a little fire, and when I played I was a staunch competitor. It was almost sickening.”
Dean, 40, looks like he could still play today. He was a star at Tucson High, and he played college and some semipro ball. But he can’t hang with these guys anymore.
“My birthday, they ran in here and jumped on me,” he said. “I couldn’t fight them off. I’ve got them in the weight room, they’re all big and strong now. I just had to take it.”
It was the best gift he could have received.
“Kids don’t know I’m African; they say I speak really good English. They look at me as one of them. Sometimes I adapt to where I’m at, and when I get home, I have to understand I’m African again.
“Our home is very African. We eat African food, my mom cooks rice and beans, Sambusa, my favorite — a triangle, a wrapped tortilla, cooked, meat, different spices, oh my God, wonderful — and we still have that here. My parents embrace it and they do not want us to ever lose our tradition. We’re not allowed to speak English at home. We speak Dinka.”
Dean and Ruai share a birthday. Recently, the coach gave his player a gift.
“I had this Larry Bird jersey, Team USA, gold edition, in the plastic, phat,” he said. “But I’m 40, dude, I’ll never wear it, and it’s way too big for my kids, so I gave it to Ruai, and that guy was so excited, and to me, for him to be excited like that, that’s what it’s about.
“My kids (have) got it good, my wife and I have gone out of our way to make sure our kids have things … but my kids have things, and they’re kinda spoiled, and it’s good for them to see what it’s about, what it’s really about.”
Dean said that he never has to worry about these guys — “they don’t drink, don’t smoke, they’re very religious” — and that each is incredibly hard-working, on and off the court.
When Ruai had to get a job last year to help his family and missed some practice time, it was Dean who explained it to the team. Ruai wasn’t working so he could buy Air Jordans, or so he could take a girl out, the coach said.
“He’s working to keep the lights on,” Dean said.
This unique group of kids, thousands of miles from what they describe, almost in unison, as “The Motherland,” has managed to assimilate into a new culture without losing a sense of duty, a sense, of earnestness, of home.
“I don’t want to forget any of my traditions,” Lual Magot said. “When I get older, get married, have kids, I want to be able to explain to my children about our traditions and what our people did. When I go back home to visit my father and my brothers, I want my fathers and my brothers to know that I still have them in me.”
But their lives are different now, and so are the clothes. A quick look at Facebook profiles reveals stylish, young men, no different than in Chicago or Atlanta or Cleveland.
“I tell Ruai and the guys, ‘I think Boss is lying to you all; Boss is from Cleveland, he (isn’t) from Africa, man,” Dean laughs. “Game days, Boss will come in, and he’s looking like he just stepped out of GQ magazine.”
Then, just as fast as he looks at his new kids as fully immersed, Dean remembers: These are unique stories, each of them harrowing, each of them impactful. And while it may be something as small as Ruai’s reaction to receiving a basketball jersey for a birthday, it is a reminder, to the Cholla Chargers and to Dean and to each other, that this was all once very new to them, very strange.
“I remember our flight, coming over. Being in the air. The food they gave us was strange to me, I never had it. I didn’t want to eat it at first, I thought it was poison. But it actually tasted good.
“It was a hamburger.”