Like a first-rate rapper, Deng has sampled from a number of high-and lowbrow sources, from Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen (on television) to the Egyptians and Sudanese he first competed against. Each time he has moved, he has made new discoveries. "In Egypt I played inside," he says. "Then in London I started moving outside a little, and when I got to Saint Thomas More [Prep, in Oakland, Conn.], I worked more on my outside shot. I played as much as I could."
Deng is delightfully forthcoming on most topics—basketball, school, music—but when the subject turns to his native country, he becomes pensive. "People here are like, 'Sudan?' " he says. "And I'm like, 'What, you don't know it?' So I just tell them that it's the largest country in Africa." Then he pauses. His voice lowers. "I don't tell them about the war."
He doesn't tell them because it's a long and personal and chilling story. Since 1956 the Sudanese civil war—pitting north against south, Muslims against Christians and animists—has killed at least two million people (more, by some estimates, than any conflict since World War II). Human rights groups estimate that Sudan is home to tens of thousands of slaves, most of them Christians owned by Muslims. In all, more than four million Sudanese, nearly all of them southerners, have been forced from their homes, either to the north or, like Ajou's family of 17, into exile.
Ajou's father, Aldo, the deputy speaker of Sudan's parliament from 1978 to '80 and again from '91 to '93, was imprisoned without charges for six months following a military coup in '89. These days, Aldo lives in London with his wife, Martha. Like most Dinkas, he cuts an imposing figure-6'8", 280 pounds—though not even a man of his stature can support the weight of Sudan's misery. He tells horrifying stories of hunger, war and slavery, stories that have been supported in accounts by journalists and human rights groups. The war, he informs you, claims 5,000 lives each month. A 1988 famine killed a quarter of a million southern Sudanese, largely because the northern-based government refused to allow the distribution of aid to the starved areas. Thousands of cattle, the Dinkas' lifeblood, have died. "Appalling human rights violations are taking place," says Aldo, a Christian from the south.
Ajou was born in 1979 in the southern Sudanese city of Aweil but almost immediately moved with the rest of the family to Khartoum, the capital, in the north. But in '89, with rumors circulating of a military coup, Aldo sent his family to live in Alexandria. "We had a huge party when we left for Egypt," recalls Ajou. "All my friends and relatives were there [to see us off], and I thought I was coming back. I haven't seen any of them since."
In June of that year the Islamic-led military overthrew the civilian government. Aldo had held various high-ranking jobs in the government and he says that, because of this, the ruling junta detained him under house arrest. "I was only allowed to take my Bible," he says. In an effort to gain legitimacy, the Sudanese government released Aldo in early 1990 and even made him a presidential adviser. He says he accepted because of promises that the government would eventually separate the north and south into two countries and end the war. "I tried to work with the government, to talk about peace," Aldo says.
While Aldo stayed in Sudan, Ajou took up basketball, playing on an outdoor court in Alexandria with Egyptians and members of the Sudanese exile community (including Bol, who spent part of his NBA off-seasons there). Ajou would watch NBA games on videotapes and try to imitate the moves he saw. Eventually, he played for a season with an Alexandria amateur club.
Soon, though, the Sudanese government was in turmoil once again. According to Aldo, he was deceived by the Muslims, who reneged on their promises to divide the country. The final straw, he says, came after a 1993 government-led massacre along a southern railroad. "My people lived on this line," Aldo says, "but government officials decided to do what they called 'cleaning' the railway line. They killed over 1,000 people, took hundreds of thousands of cattle and burned the crops." It was then that Aldo and Martha left Sudan, having received political asylum for their family in London.
While Aldo studied law and produced a pro-reform pamphlet called The New Sudan, Ajou, by now a 6'9" 15-year-old, had to adjust once more to a new culture. It hardly helped when the basketball coach for the Crystal Palace basketball club told Ajou he wasn't good enough to play on his team. "Can you believe that?" asks Jimmy Rogers, the coach at the club in nearby Brixton. "This is a Third World basketball country. You don't reject anybody who's 6'9"."
Deng joined Brixton, where his height, shot-blocking prowess and rapidly developing perimeter game caught the attention of Tony Hanson, a former UConn player coaching in England. Hanson alerted the Huskies' coaches about Deng, and Rogers sent them a highlight tape in the spring of 1996. In June, Calhoun observed Deng from the Brixton bleachers.