The unknown giant
Sudan's John Riek is a raw gem; where will he land?
Posted: Friday December 7, 2007 9:21AM; Updated: Tuesday December 18, 2007 8:29AM
The car rolled through The Winchendon (Mass.) School's postcard-perfect campus shortly before 2:30 p.m. on a late October afternoon.
En route to the Fay A. Rotenburg Gymnasium, it had had entered the property, going by an 18-hole golf course and making its way past the academic buildings along the path. Having reached the parking lot adjacent to a red-brick building, the driver and passengers sat in the car as students streamed between buildings.
Inside the car were representatives, ranging from executives to scouts, from three NBA teams. The professionals had come to get a look at John Riek Suas, the 7-foot-2, 240-pound postgraduate center from Khartoum, Sudan. Ranked by Rivals.com as the best center in the class of 2008 despite having only come to the United States last January, Riek's story seemed fresh out of the Sidd Finch fictional genre. In this age of hyperactive, hyperbolic recruiting analysis, the product of the Sudan's Nuer tribe, the second largest in Africa, was the rarest of unrefined prospects: an honest-to-goodness enigma. Unknown 10 months prior, he left a lasting impression on the basketball cognoscenti with his play at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron, Ohio last July. "The NBA scouts who saw him down there told me that he was, beside Roy Hibbert, the second best center prospect draftable," says Winchendon coach Mike Byrnes.
But with each swat, each thunderous dunk at the showcase, the inquiries came: Who was he? How had he developed? How did he get here? Is he Greg Oden's older brother? "When I first saw him, I was like, 'This is a man, not a high school prospect'," says Samardo Samuels, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound Louisville signee who went up against Riek last summer at the Amare Stoudemire Skills Academy and the LeBron camp.
The trail of questions only lengthened when Riek opted not to conduct interviews at the camps, which were crowded with national and local media. His height and weight could be verified by scales and measuring tape, but how tall was his tale?
For next year, Riek has three options: he can try and qualify for college, turn pro (he wouldn't be subjected to the age-limit rule because he'll be 19 when the season starts) or he could return to Winchendon for another postgrad year. Despite visits from Tennessee, Louisville, Kentucky and a midnight madness trip to UConn, he is not necessarily set on matriculating to college. "If John is a first-round draft pick then obviously in all likelihood it would be best for him to go," says Byrnes. "I find it hard to believe right now where he is academically that he could pass the SAT."
Three months after his emergence representatives from NBA teams had made the pilgrimage to Winchendon, a small town in Massachusetts, to glean as much information as possible. Though Riek transferred from Our Savior New American (Centereach, N.Y.) to Winchendon, the scouts never lost track of his whereabouts. Here to see the 17-year-old, who just turned 18 in November, go through conditioning and scrimmage, their intent seemed innocuous enough. See John run. See John reverse pivot. See John pin balls to backboards. Write up an evaluation, file an expense report. All was set for another day of bird dogging, or so they thought.
"I told one of the representatives: please contact the NBA offices before they came into our gym because of the age-limit rule," says Byrnes, an imposing disciplinarian with a Boston accent as thick as clam chowder. "They said no it was alright they could come out."
So Byrnes informed Riek that the the scouts were coming. Before they could exit their cars, though, one of them received a text message, which read: "Buzzer went off. Contact us ASAP."
After practice, Byrnes listened to a message on his phone. One of the representatives said that the NBA office had contacted their organization, warning that if they walked in that gym they would be fined $50,000. "They came long distances for nothing in the end," says Byrnes, who would not reveal which teams came.
Standing in the corner that day though, was University of Delaware coach Monte Ross and an assistant. "John must have thought they were NBA guys," says Byrnes with a laugh. "He had his best workout yet. I'm thinking about from time to time dressing people up in NBA shirts, giving them a pen and pad as a motivational tool."