The unknown giant (cont.)
Posted: Friday December 7, 2007 9:21AM; Updated: Tuesday December 18, 2007 8:29AM
Enter the gymnasium at Winchendon and you'll find a modern-day basketball Babylon. Not lost in sneaker squeaks and rhythmic dribbles is players speaking in many tongues, what with its collection of players from eight countries. It is here, at a school with more than 40 percent of the 240 students hailing from the far reaches of the globe and studying a curriculum focused on English as a second language, that Riek says he feels at home. "I have to learn the game," he says. "I have a chance to be better." (Riek, who is fluent in Arabic and his tribal language of Nuer, is forced to speak English all day at school and staff is available to translate if need be.)
Two days after the scouts had come and gone, there is Riek, towering over his teammates while running 20 suicides in a preseason conditioning drill. Just five sprints in, though, he is unable to continue. He walks off to the sideline despite his teammates' encouraging pleas.
"C'mon, John!" yells point guard Anthony Raffa, pushing his right hand on Riek's left hip to guide him back on course.
"We're not giving up, John!" yells Jansy Cruz, another point guard, looking every part the Lilliputian to Riek's Gulliver, pushing his right hip.
Riek sits out four sets, but then is coaxed back on the court by teammates. To onlookers, his natural instincts and abilities are revealed as teammates bully him with pushes and fouls to toughen him up. He is able to get low, keep the ball high and has a penchant for perfect timing in shot blocking. Tom Konchalski, a talent evaluator who made the trip to Winchendon, says: "He has a lot of potential, but his pot of gold will be at the end of the rainbow not the beginning."
While adjusting to a foreign land, Riek, who rarely smiles and often wears a stoic stare, is concurrently learning a game that he took up at age 14. Having eschewed the conventional Sudanese path of soccer, he instead pursued basketball, playing on village teams and watching NBA games on The World Channel. "I never worked like I do here," says Riek. "Not easy to find a rim, backboard and ball back home."
From the second Riek arrived in the U.S., he was immediately immersed in the American game. Last Jan. 21 he landed at New York's JFK airport, carrying little else but a satchel. The previous day he flew out of Nairobi, Kenya, had a two-hour layover in Dubai to catch a connecting flight and then landed in Queens with Thon Thiang Luony Goak, 18, who was also destined for Our Savior. Within 24 hours they played in a basketball tournament at St. Andrew's in Barrington, R.I. "I was very tired," says Riek, who had yet to take a class. "I needed to come out."
Watching Riek from a seat underneath the basket that day was Byrnes, whose team had handily beaten Our Savior the previous night. "He was a giant. Long arms, huge body, bulky, but you could see he was out of shape, similar to the mold of many Sudanese kids very long skinny legs," says Byrnes. "He was more than a grasshopper type."
Now under Byrnes' tutelage, Riek, who averaged 13 points, nine rebounds and four assists while shooting 68 percent from the field in 16 games last season, is still developing. "I know he has trouble adapting, but he obviously knows he has to do it to improve," Byrnes says. "Sometimes when he's lagging, I ask him if he wants to get on a bus back to New York?"