Former refugee Ater Majok’s homecoming quest for Basketball Africa League glory

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May 20, 2021

  • Leonard SolmsSpecial to ESPN

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      Jack of all sporting trades. Author of my 11-year-old self’s fantasy story about his road to FIFA World Cup glory. Perfecting the art of writing about people who do what I said I was going to do.

US Monastir’s Ater Majok was only five years old when his family fled Sudan during its second civil war, and is using the Basketball Africa League as a continental homecoming of sorts.

The power forward, who was raised in Australia but represents Lebanon internationally [he was given citizenship for his performances with Homenetmen Beirut], initially had no intention of an African return for this tournament.

Instead, the former LA Lakers draftee’s heart was set on going back to China, where he has played for the Beijing Eastern Bucks, Luoyang Zhonghe, and Shaanxi Xinda.

However, Monastir pursued him relentlessly prior to the original BAL date of March 2020, and his head was eventually turned by their persistence.

Majok, who spent eight years in a Cairo refugee camp before going to Australia, told ESPN: “I was kind of dead-set on going to China, because that’s where I played for a long time.

“But the way they [Monastir] showed me loyalty and determination to get me went a very long way. They told me, ‘Listen, you are the player we are looking for and we’re not taking no for an answer’.

“After a while, I thought it might be a good situation for me, because not every team out there is going to be loyal or persistent to get the players that they are looking for.

“I just thought, ‘Ok, let me try it out. What’s the worst thing that could happen?'”

The coronavirus soon provided his answer. Tunisian basketball would come to a standstill early into his stint, and he would be forced into isolation in an unfamiliar environment.

Ater Majok’s US Monastir are one of the favourites for the inuagural Basketball Africa League title. Nicole Sweet/BAL/Basketball Africa League via Getty Images

He explained: “I had only just got to Tunisia and played two or three games or something like that. Then, the country started locking down and leagues started being cancelled. I was holding my breath because I didn’t know what they were going to do in terms of the BAL.

“One morning, the news came through that they [postponed] the BAL. Then, they suspended the Tunisian league as well. The whole country went into lockdown within about 72 hours.

“I kind of spent the first two or three weeks in the room, watching TV, being sad. Literally, I was on the verge of depression.

“It was just like, ‘I’m locked in this place. I don’t know anybody. I’m worried about my family. This is a global thing and I don’t know what’s in store tomorrow.’

“But this is

business — this is a job. You can’t come in like this is child’s play — you’ve got to come in very focused and wanting to win.”

Monastir indeed started their BAL campaign with a win, a big one at that. The only side to crack 100 points at the time of writing, they demolished GNBC 113-66.

For Majok, winning the title is the only goal his team has, and they’ve been tipped to reach the final by a fellow Australian in Kenya men’s national team coach Liz Mills.

Ater Majok was born in Sudan, spent eight years in a Cairo refugee camp, was raised in Australia from the age of 13, but represents Lebanon internationally after they gave him citizenship for his performances in their domestic league. Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images

He said: “Nothing else [apart from the title will be a success]. Anything [else] will be a failure. At the same time, with our team, we’re taking it a game at a time, a quarter at a time, and not looking too far ahead — that’s our vision as a team.

“I want the ultimate — which is the championship. With that said, I know it’s going to be very, very difficult. Even though people are saying we’re the favourites, we’re really not the favourites because we have a bullseye on our back, so we literally have to go to take it.

“You’ve got to knock everybody down to be the champion. Anybody who is in front of us, we’ve just got to out there and outplay them — outwork them to achieve the ultimate goal.”

Although a fiercely driven competitor, Majok does find time to pause and reflect on the plethora of countries and cultures that basketball has exposed him to.

Of his stints in the US [at UConn], Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, China, New Zealand, Australia, and Tunisia, he said: “Everywhere new that you go is a life experience. You get to meet new people, you get to experience things that are priceless to a lot of people in the world.

“You get to see a different side — basketball is not the same around the world. Tunisian basketball is not the same as Lebanese basketball; Lebanese basketball is not the same as European basketball.

“Being able to experience all these things — when it’s all said and done, would I do it again? Hell, yeah, I’d do it again and I’d do it the same way. It shaped me to be the man who I am today.”

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