At UConn, Wait Is Over for a Warrior From Africa

STORRS, Conn. — One morning in April 2008, Lee Melvin, then Connecticut’s admissions director, welcomed the Sudanese basketball recruit Ater Majok into his office. Before he sat down for an informal interview, Majok, wearing a confident smile, pointed to a framed painting of Shaka Zulu, the African warrior, hanging in a window.

“Do you know who that is?” Majok said.

Melvin did. The portrait was a gift from a South African student he had admitted, but Majok thought it was planted to impress him. When assured it was not, he began a lecture about the Zulu tribe’s history and detailed the slain general’s deficiencies.

Melvin was sold. “I was like, ‘This guy’s getting in,’ ” he said.

Twenty months later, Majok’s bare-knuckled journey from Khartoum, Sudan, to UConn’s lineup is nearly complete. A 6-foot-10, 233-pound freshman who was forced to sit out last season, Majok is expected to start for the No. 14 Huskies (6-2) on Sunday when they host Central Florida. He will add needed aggressiveness to their frontcourt, and Coach Jim Calhoun said he believed Majok might be the missing piece heading into Big East play this month.

Majok is ready for a new beginning. He survived eight years in a Cairo detention camp and relocated to Australia via a United Nations visa, but he said that was nothing compared with enduring an N.C.A.A. inquiry into his transcripts at two schools in Sydney.

“To be honest, sitting out was the hardest period in my life,” he said Friday.

Majok, 22, found peace in Gampel Pavilion last winter. Allowed to practice but not play in games by January, he would put on two hooded sweatshirts and a coat at about 2 a.m. and walk across campus to the arena’s south entrance. Once inside, he spread out at center court and absorbed what he calls “the creative aura of the arena.”

“I’d go in the craziest mode, sprinting, dunking, making moves at the top of the key,” he said. “I’d make mistakes there and clean up my art.”

Nicknamed the Terror, Majok, the oldest of six children, was hardened by his roots. Refugees from the war in Sudan, Majok’s family moved to Egypt when he was a child. The scar on his left ear came from a Muslim gang member’s knife when he attacked Majok, a Catholic, after his family was moved to Egypt. The wound on his right thigh came similarly. To communicate, he had to learn four Arabic dialects. Majok never forgot his father’s command, “Don’t back down.”

Credit...Andrew Sullivan for The New York Times

“American kids discuss backgrounds, but it’s a little different for Africans,” said Memphis Grizzlies center Hasheem Thabeet, a Tanzanian who helped lead UConn to the Final Four last season. “You don’t know if relatives have been murdered. I don’t go there with them.”

Thabeet and Majok also shared their competitiveness. While on a recruiting visit, Majok approached Thabeet, the 7-3 star center, before a pickup game, and said, “You’ve got to kill me to go through me.”

Majok, whose wingspan is pterodactyl-like at 7-7, also challenged forward Jeff Adrien last season. After a scuffle nearly broke out during one scrimmage, Calhoun was impressed that Majok did not shrink from his most intimidating player. Majok said: “I told Jeff, ‘They call you the Horse, but I’m the Psycho Maniac.’ I don’t run.”

Coaches harnessed the energy. The associate coach George Blaney worked on his first step, straightening Majok’s semicircle motion into a quick, forward strike. If he stood too tall on the perimeter, they chastised him to stay low to explode better.

“There’s a bit of Emeka in his studied approach,” said Blaney, referring to Emeka Okafor, the Huskies’ former national player of the year.

His game has come a long way. While in Egypt, Majok watched other refugees playing basketball. In the group were Luol and Ajou Deng, who went on to play for Duke and UConn. But he arrived in Blacktown, Australia, outside Sydney, in 2000 with little skill.

“He couldn’t hit the side of the backboard,” said Ed Smith, a Liberian running a basketball academy in Sydney, who has helped place more than 50 refugees in American high schools and colleges.

Smith took Majok on as a project. After traveling 12,000 miles to Las Vegas for a high school tournament in 2005, Majok saw the American stars O. J. Mayo and Kevin Love play and wanted to follow their paths. From then on, Majok was put through two-a-day workouts back home that often drove him to tears.

Credit...Andrew Sullivan for The New York Times

But recruiters eventually came. Fairfield Coach Ed Cooley saw his high-releasing shot first and extended an invite, “Come look at our place, and if you don’t like it, you should take a look at UConn down the road.”

The Huskies had an advantage on staff. The assistant Andre LaFleur had played professionally in Australia for 11 years, and flew to see Majok, who had started at a Catholic school, then transferred to the American International school. The overall education was the subject of the N.C.A.A.’s questioning upon his enrollment at UConn.

Coming to America was a community decision. Eight of Majok’s uncles, in addition to his parents and Smith, sat for a meeting. They spoke in turns, inquiring about their nephew’s responsibilities and expectations. By the day’s end, they approved his departure for the Heat Basketball Academy in Martinsville, Va., in August 2007. The move was made to gain exposure stateside before choosing a college to attend.

“They do not let you out of the nest unless you’re mature,” said Smith, who has spent the past week on campus with Majok.

Calhoun knew that he was ready when he saw him play that winter during a Heat game. “He’s the one,” Calhoun told the assistant coach Pat Sellers.

Assimilation to the United States further revealed Majok’s ascetic nature. The night before a high school All-Star game in April 2008, other players asked him to stay up late. Majok, who schedules meals and meditation alarms on his cellphone, looked at them as if they were aliens. “I keep curfews before battle,” he said.

But Majok could not avoid what Smith called “the underworld.” Majok’s recruitment was part of an N.C.A.A. investigation into the former UConn manager Josh Nochimson. Smith and Majok insisted that Nochimson was no more than a handshake acquaintance.

“We’re sheltered in Australia,” Smith said. “You’re like a virgin to the system.”

Majok, who tested N.B.A. draft waters before deciding to return to UConn last summer, has adapted. His dorm room is decorated with a kangaroo, a koala bear and rosary beads. For inspiration, he still dips into his African past. In the past year, he has watched “Shaka Zulu,” on DVD, seven times. The most recent viewing came two weeks ago.

“It motivates me like no other,” he said. “I see toughness and commitment. He made a promise to his father, and showed there is a future even if you’re knocked down.”