Freshman Chol living a dream at Arizona

JOHN MARSHALL AP Basketball Writer Published:

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -- Angelo Chol can't remember much about his mother, only that she was too sick to play with him and pestering her got him into trouble with his father.

War-torn and racially divided isn't the Sudan he knew, his father's torture something he heard about later.

The long journey across the Red Sea to Egypt, as far as he can recall, was fun, not an escape.

Chol's real memories, not just the glimpses, began after he arrived in the United States nearly a dozen years ago: of being scared, unable to speak the language, feeling like an outcast, struggling with the cultural differences between Africa and his new home, like eating Fruit Loops for breakfast.

The focus of those memories isn't on the struggle itself, though. It's on the people who, enamored with an introverted kid's thoughtful spirit, guided him through a long journey that took him from a refugee camp to the basketball court at the University of Arizona.

"I don't know where I'd be without them," Chol said.

An 18-year-old freshman at Arizona, Chol is 6-foot-9, 217 pounds of athletic, springy legged grace, a player who seems to float as he goes up to swat shots and snare rebounds.

For those who saw him first pick up a basketball, it's hard to even imagine.

Enticed to play in the seventh grade because he was tall, Chol was a disaster on the basketball court. Unable to dribble, shoot, make a layup, even stay on his feet, he was the butt of jokes for his teammates, not a basketball player.

"He couldn't do anything," said Ollie Goulston, Chol's coach at Hoover High School in San Diego. "He was probably the worst player I've seen, literally, at that age. On a 12-man team, he was probably the 13th man."

Goulston helped change that.

Picking up on Chol's aptitude and prove-everyone-wrong desire, Goulston saw him play and invited him to work with him individually.

Nearly every day after that, the coach and the gawky-but-determined kid met to work on basketball. They started with the simple task -- at least to most people -- of shooting under the basket, added a couple of dribbles after that.

Through his persistence -- he would shoot and dribble on his own every night -- and Goulston's patience, Chol progressed quickly, making big breakthroughs every few months. He ended up becoming an all-state pick all four years in high school, was runner-up for California's Mr. Basketball as a senior and one of the most sought-after recruits in the country.

Arizona coach Sean Miller convinced Chol -- and his supporters -- to play in the desert, adding him to a recruiting class ranked among the best in the nation.

Though Chol isn't a starter for the Wildcats, who open the NIT against Bucknell on Wednesday, he is a momentum-changer, someone who can alter a game with his enthusiasm and ability to send opponents' shots into the second row.

"As a basketball player, he's as driven as any guy that I've been around, especially for a freshman," Miller said.

Learning to play basketball, even with Chol's limited skills initially, turned out to be the easiest part of his transition.

Chol's mother died when he was 4 and he has almost no recollection of her, except for the times he was scolded for trying to play with her while she was sick.

His father, Ajieng, was tortured for writing and singing songs about religious persecution and war in the racially split country. He had his fingernails ripped out while in jail and heard reports that there were people looking to kill him.

Trying to protect himself and his family, Ajieng loaded them onto a train and, after a three-week stay in a refugee camp, took them across the Red Sea to Egypt.

Angelo was too young to remember much about his life before that boat trip and some of the details -- like his father's torture and the people being killed in southern Sudan -- were kept from him until he was older and could better understand.

He does remember arriving in San Diego after being relocated there through a refugee program. Just 7 at the time, Chol felt like he was on another planet, not another country.

The family's house had a couch, a table and little else when they arrived. Unable to speak English other than the ABCs he learned in Egypt, Chol spent his first days in school hovering in the back, trying to figure out what was going on.

The culture was baffling, the environment and the food unlike anything he had ever seen before.

"There was all this colorful cereal, Fruit Loops and stuff, and I was like 'What is this stuff? You have to eat it with milk?'" he said. "It was just crazy."

Chol eventually adjusted and learned the language, thanks to an attentive second-grade teacher and the students in the class.

The real help came later in his life.

While attending a tutoring center at a local church, Chol met Becky Moores, the ex-wife of San Diego Padres owner John Moores, and made an instant connection.

Moores was working as a volunteer at the center, which her sister-in-law had opened, and bought condominiums for several refugee families, including one for the Chols.

The family didn't make a lot of money, so Moores pitched in whenever she could, buying Angelo school supplies, groceries, video games, Christmas presents -- anything he needed to get by. She also bought Angelo a used SUV so he would no longer have to take long bus rides around town and provided emotional support when he needed it.

"She did so much for me, I can't even tell you," Chol said.

Not long after that, Chol met Leslie Coughlan, a commercial real estate lawyer who also volunteered as a tutor. She was working with two other kids when she met Chol and, like Moores, felt an immediate bond with the lanky kid with the charming demeanor.

Coughlin and Chol became closer over the years and she too began helping him outside of the tutoring sessions.

The mother of two older sons, Coughlin helped Chol any way she could, allowing him to stay at her house or have friends over to go swimming, helping him with monetary needs, giving him rides to practice or wherever he wanted to go.

She also listened whenever Chol needed to talk, initially taught him how to drive, and was there when college coaches made recruiting trips, again when he achieved one of his biggest goals by becoming a U.S. citizen.

"I truly thought of him as my own son," she said. "He calls me mom and I call him my son. That's just what kind of spirit he has in him."

Chol's extended family became more important as he got older.

During his sophomore year, Chol's father began leaving more often to play music in places like Los Angeles and Arizona. He also worked a variety of jobs that sometimes took him out of town, and moved to Texas for a while for a well-paying job at a slaughterhouse.

Ajieng also remained passionate about the strife in Sudan, often singing songs to Sudanese groups, and eventually moved back to his homeland and remarried.

With his father gone, Angelo could have fallen into the wrong crowd and gotten in trouble.

His supporters wouldn't let him -- not that they believed he would have anyway.

Goulston, at Ajieng's request, became the father figure while he was gone, providing encouragement, support, even discipline, though it was rarely needed.

Moores and Coughlan were the mothering influences and continued to provide him with whatever financial or emotional support he needed.

They rallied around him not because of any underlying sense of obligation, but because of the thoughtful, caring person he was and the way he made them feel.

"Angelo's a special person. They don't come around every day. That's the bottom line," Goulston said. "Sometimes there are kids, they impact you as much as you impact them.

"Angelo has impacted my life a great deal and I can say with confidence that pretty much anyone who Angelo has come in contact with, he has impacted them in a very positive way."

And, because of what they've done, Chol will have memories he'll never forget.