In the five years since he arrived in Connecticut from the Sudan, Deng Gai has gotten used to frigid winters and fast-food meals. But he still marvels at the shoes. The 6'9", 250-pound Fairfield power forward has enough basketball sneakers for a lifetime, considering he wore one pair, beat-up and too small for his size-16 feet, for a year as the youngest member of Sudan's national team. "Shoes were always a big problem," says Gai, 24. "I could never find my size. Now I have so many."
Gai's fortunes multiplied similarly in his four years at Fairfield. As his senior season ended last weekend, he led the nation in blocked shots (5.7 per game), topped the Stags in rebounding (8.5), averaged a career-high 13.9 points and won his third Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference defensive player of the year award. (He also finished with 444 career blocks, tying him for sixth in NCAA history.) Fairfield was third in the MAAC with an 11--7 record (15--15 overall) and reached the conference semifinals last weekend before losing to Rider. Gai's pro prospects are solidifying. "He has lots of upside," says an NBA scout who projects Gai as a second-rounder. "He's a great shot blocker--long, lean, athletic and has great timing. He's a little bit away, but he's got very good potential."
Seeing his name in the NCAA record book or on an NBA draft list was a distant dream in 1999, when Gai put a few belongings in a backpack and fled Khartoum to avoid compulsory army service in civil-war-torn Sudan, a country riven for decades by sectarian violence. In the army, Gai, a Christian, would have been fighting for the Muslim-led government against his family and friends. So after graduating from high school, Gai secured a visa to Cairo on the pretext of going on vacation.
In Cairo he lived with 10 family members and friends in a two-room apartment, and like many Sudanese refugees in Egypt couldn't find a job. For eight months he passed his days playing in pickup games at a nearby church until he received word one day from his uncle, who had been sending Gai's basketball tapes to American schools: Gai had been approved for a student visa to go to the U.S. "I was lucky I got out," he says. "It's tough. A lot of my friends want to be playing, but most of them are not doing anything now."
At age 19 Gai played one year at Milford ( Conn.) Academy and was recruited by elite programs such as North Carolina and Georgia Tech. He ended up at Fairfield largely because his cousin Ajou Deng had transferred there from UConn. Last spring Gai declared for early entry to the NBA draft but changed his mind and returned for his senior season. It was the right decision. "If you put him in a Sixers uniform tonight, he'd be blocking shots," said Rider coach Don Harnum after Gai had scored 25 points and had 10 blocks in a 72--69 Fairfield win in January. "He has a combination of length, timing and explosiveness, and there's not much you can do [to stop him]."
Gai's aspirations reach beyond making it in the NBA (where a distant cousin, former Duke star Luol Deng, is a standout rookie for the Chicago Bulls). He wants to use his success to help other Sudanese fulfill their dreams of playing basketball in the U.S. Another priority is taking care of his mother, Lucia, who also fled the Sudan and now lives in Des Moines with five of Gai's eight siblings. (Gai's other brothers are in Lebanon and Egypt. His father, Nathaniel, is a college professor still living in the Sudan.)
"Civil war is all real to him, all vivid," says Fairfield coach Tim O'Toole, who compares Gai's instincts and ability to block shots with each hand with Bill Russell's. "Early on, Deng had a tremendous amount of sadness. He carries that burden with him and constantly wants to reach out to those who want to come to the U.S."