Eight years ago, Majok Deng (pronounced muh-JOOK) and his family were escaping war-torn South Sudan, living in a refugee camp in Kenya. They didn't know where Deng's father was, or his grandmother. The family had applied for asylum in the United States, but were waiting for approval. Deng had never so much as picked up a basketball. Before he moved to the United States on Jan. 22, 2010, he'd never learned a word of English.
Recently, Deng picked up his American passport (he came back from a trip to Canada two weeks ago), and speaks English better than a good chunk of Division I athletes.
He's a full-fledged citizen now, and being that he's a 6-foot-5, 180-pound citizen with long arms, a high motor, an explosive burst and a pretty smooth shooting stroke, the former soccer player now has 10 scholarship offers to play basketball at the Division I level, with the latest two coming from Stanford and California. He visited both this past weekend.
"It hits me sometimes," Deng said on Wednesday. "It is crazy. But, then, my coaches tell me that it's the time that you put in behind the scenes, that people don't know about, and once you come out and perform, they start seeing that you really want it."
"They've come to a lot of my AAU games," Deng said. "Coach Wyking Jones, he's been out to my games. He knew what I could do, and my story. It touched him. My game, my willingness to be a great teammate, and my energy, little things that others can't really do, he said, 'I want a kid like this in my program, and this is the reason why we're offering you a scholarship.'"
The staff didn't just talk about basketball with the 2019 prospect; they talked about life.
"I brought my mother, and some family friends, because my mom doesn't really understand much English, and I can explain everything to her," Deng said. "She just felt comfortable having the family friends with us. It was a really fun environment, very beautiful place. The weather is great, and the staff, they're willing to teach you a lot, other than the game."
Deng still doesn't know exactly where his father, Nuul Deng, and older brother, Mayen Deng are. For three years after the move to the United States, had no idea if he was alive or dead. When Deng, his mother Akech Ngong; and four brothers Lual Deng, Deng Deng, Ajang Deng and Leek Deng all moved to Arizona, Nuul and Mayen stayed behind with Deng's grandmother, who the family later found out perished in the war.
"We only sometimes talk to my dad, and sometimes talk to my older brother," Deng said. "It's rare when we talk to them. Either they call us, or we'll try to call them, and whenever they pick up the phone, we'll talk for maybe 5-10 minutes, if possible."
When the phone rings and rings, without an answer, Deng tries never to think about the unthinkable -- maybe they can't answer. Instead, he opts for hope.
"It's already scary enough out there. We just ask God to guide them," Deng said. "I hope they pick up so we can at least hear where they're at, and if they don't, we know they're probably not at the best spot, or where the network's not good, and then we'll try again maybe two days later, to see where they're at."
Deng hopes that, when all is said and done, the family can be reunited, "but it doesn't sound like it's going to happen," Deng admits.
There is, though, another family member who Deng hopes to connect with, former NBA star Luol Deng, who, Majok hopes, can help bring the family back together.
"I got invited to one of his camps, and people know that he's my cousin on my dad's side, and there's been a lot of conflict, but once I meet with him, over the camp, I would like to talk with him, and tell him that I understand the conflict, but this is my father. If I can reunite with him, and maybe learn how he was as a father, because I feel like sometimes, I have his energy, and the way he carried himself, and if I could learn more about him, it'd be a blessing."
Deng and his famous cousin haven't spoken, yet, but Luol was the one who extended the invite to the Deng Camp in Omaha, Neb., June 18-21. A documentary produced by Sports360AZ tells Deng's story of how he came to the states and grown into one of the top 2019 basketball recruits. He said Luol has seen it.
"He knows everything, and I feel like he's inviting me to talk to me, somehow," Deng said. "I have his phone number, but I feel like I always call at the wrong time, and he can't pick up. I've texted him and told him. he hasn't answered back. Before the camp or after the camp, I think it's going to happen. Maybe this is the reason he invited me, or maybe he invited me because of the type of game I have. I don't know."
If the camp goes well, Deng hopes, he can make the South Sudan 16U national team, and use that new passport to travel and play for his country.
A year and a half after he arrived in the United States, Deng first picked up a basketball. With a 3.5 grade point average at Tucson (Ariz.) Salpoint Catholic, his smarts and his basketball acumen have drawn a lot of attention. He currently has offers from the Bears, Cardinal, Arizona, Arizona State, Georgia Tech, Utah, Vanderbilt, New Mexico, Grand Canyon, San Francisco and Portland, with USC and UCLA showing interest.
"I've been talking to Cal for a while, and coach [John] Ortega and the 17U [Powerhouse Hoops AAU team] were playing up there, and I told coach Ortega, 'Since you're going up there, I want to come and check out Cal and Stanford,'" Deng said. "I wanted to visit the schools and talk to the staff, and everything went great. I wasn't going, knowing that I was going to get an offer from Cal or Stanford. I was just going to meet the coaches in person.
"Cal is very unique. There's a lot of unique stuff about it, like the history behind it, and the staff. They're great people, and it's a beautiful campus. The weather there is unbelievable. It doesn't really change much."
The visit also got rave reviews from Akech Ngong.
"She was very happy," Deng said. "She really liked the place. She really liked the coaches. All the weekend she was there, she was happy to talk to the coaches, and just let them know, 'My son would be happy to play here one day.'"
How did the Bears and Cardinal compare?
"They're both great, great," Deng said. "Great coaching staff, both sides, just willing to do anything for the kids, and make the program a better program. Both were willing to do whatever it takes to go to the national championship and win more games than they've won before. Both teams are unbelievable, and I really enjoyed being out there, with both."
While Deng has said that he would like to play close to his new home, Cal's location -- close enough to Arizona -- is intriguing to him, as well.
"[Playing for the Wildcats is] every kid's dream, living in Arizona and playing here, but my choices are open," Deng said. "I'm not saying that I'm going to live here and go to Arizona. Now that I have a school like Cal, and Stanford, and Vanderbilt and Utah willing to have me at their school and play, those are the schools that you're going to look into. Now, UCLA and USC, you've just got to keep your choices open and open the doors, because you never know what's going to happen."