- Mike Fish
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CULVER, Ind. -- The head of school's office is cavernous, on the third and top floor of the Legion Memorial Building. Huge windows overlook Lake Maxinkuckee, where on this winter's day fishermen are pulling blue gill up through holes in the ice-covered waters. Flames dance from a hearty gas-log fireplace implanted in a side wall of the office. The entire scene is fit for a man charged with educating and tending to offspring of the elite and well-to-do.
Chier Ajou isn't one of those blue-blood teenagers packed off to Culver Academy, his folks annually writing a $37,000 check for the prestigious Indiana boarding school, about a two-hour drive from Chicago. Until three years ago, his home was a mud hut in remote south Sudan in Africa. His school convened sporadically under a large shade tree, with an older sister serving as teacher.
Here, he wanders a pristine 1,800-acre campus that resembles Hogwarts of Harry Potter fame. The lakeshore school features a golf course, polo facility, equestrian center and 38 buildings, many bearing the names of wealthy alums -- such as the recently debuted Steinbrenner Recreation Center as well as the Steinbrenner Performing Arts Center.
"This could be a palace where the king lives," says Ajou, taking in the elegant digs, seated in the mahogany-paneled third-floor office of Culver's head of school John Buxton. They're joined by Chet Marshall, a faculty member and Ajou's campus mentor.
Unlike some of his basketball-playing countrymen, Ajou didn't arrive in the United States through the auspices of the Bloomington, Ind.-based African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education (A-HOPE) foundation, started by Mark Adams as a vehicle to bring promising African basketball players to the States. Yet the distinction is minimal. Adams coached him last summer with the Indiana Elite, a top summer travel team, and has met directly with Culver staff about Ajou's academic track. Duany "Doc" Duany, Ajou's distant cousin who brought him over from Africa, is A-HOPE's international director. Alan Huss, the former Culver basketball coach, is an A-HOPE vice president and has been an Indiana Elite coach.
In basketball lingo, the 7-foot-1-inch Ajou isn't a program changer. He averaged a modest 10.1 points and 6.3 rebounds a game for state runner-up Culver as a senior. Instead, he is best described as a work in progress, but his size-driven potential is such that former Indiana star and current New Mexico coach Steve Alford offered a scholarship almost two years ago. Ajou accepted after taking his only official college visit and was expected to join the Lobos this coming fall, but now likely will delay his entry a year.
"It is nice over there," Ajou says of the Albuquerque campus. "It is like Sudan. You can't see snow or anything. This is great. This is where I want to be. I like it over there."
This isn't Alford's first link to the Indiana Elite and A-HOPE programs. One of the players on the last team he coached at Iowa and a new hire to his Lobos staff earlier this month was Drew Adams, son of A-HOPE founder and Indiana Elite coach Mark Adams. And since Alford's arrival at New Mexico in 2007, Ajou is at least the third Indiana Elite player to commit to or play for the Lobos, including A-HOPE alum Emmanuel Negedu out of Nigeria and senior point guard Dairese Gary, who like the other two is an Indiana Elite product.
"Well, you start pulling these strings and you don't know where they end up," Buxton says of the influences in Ajou's young life.
An escape after being kidnapped, then a trip to America
As he talks in the head of school's office at Culver, the 19-year-old senior is attired in the school's military garb, his name tag with "Ajou" on it pinned straight to his dark blue, pressed shirt. With minimal prodding, Ajou -- a plugged-rifle-carrying corporal in the school's military structure -- leads the adults in conversation back to his village northwest of Juba, a world away. He talks in images of poverty and violence his classmates experience only from what they pull up on the Internet or maybe see in a 30-second snippet on the nightly news.
Before Ajou left for the United States in 2008, two of his brothers were killed in the ongoing conflict pitting the largely Christian Southern Sudanese against the Muslims of Northern Sudan. His father died a year later, though the circumstances of his death remain unclear to his son.
"It's dangerous back home," he says. "I have been captured myself by Arabs. They took my cows. They took my goats. I escaped. I left."
The great escape turns out to be mundane, though memorable for someone who was then a young teenager. "They were not watching me very well," he begins. "So I went on and I find a way -- I ran. I just leave. I still remember all kind of things that happened.
"Now I just think about freedom and try to learn something, be really well educated. The best way I can do it is go to school here, try getting a college degree, and going back to Sudan and help."
What's working in his favor is something not even the good people at Culver can teach -- the genetic gift of size, the kind AAU, prep and college coaches drool over.
Ajou never played organized basketball before catching a flight out of Sudan in the summer of 2008. That untapped promise was enough for Duany, a former Wisconsin forward, to persuade a private Christian school in Birmingham, Ala., to offer a class spot and a need-based scholarship. When Ajou soon complained about weak academics and a steady diet of chicken nuggets, Duany sold the same promise to Culver, a boarding school known for educating future Ivy Leaguers and boardroom titans, as well as sporting moguls such as Bud Adams (Tennessee Titans) and the late Walter O'Malley (Los Angeles Dodgers) and George Steinbrenner (New York Yankees).
Ajou attends Culver as a need-based student, with no ability to pay.
Buxton, caretaker of the Culver brand, quickly interjects that his school shouldn't be mentioned with basketball mills that seem to be cropping up with alarming regularity. Rather, Buxton portrays himself and Culver as watchdogs ensuring Ajou is properly educated, that he isn't just coldly passed through the system and manipulated by a subculture of summer league coaches and handlers and private schools driven by a basketball-first mentality.
"Chier might not have a perspective on this, and I wouldn't want to tell him the harsh reality of the fact that the B-pluses and A-minuses he was getting at this little Christian school in Birmingham weren't worth the paper they were written on," Buxton says after the Sudanese teenager has left the room. "He may have been going to class and working hard, but he just didn't have the skill set to be achieving at that level in courses like math.
"We get a transcript that said he took geometry and he got a B-plus, and we get him here and realize in Africa they don't even do [rigorous] math. The kid could no more do geometry, but they pass him along. And if it doesn't work there, they go to the next school."
As a former coach, Buxton isn't afraid to talk about what he describes as the cesspool shadowing schoolboy talent. He's suspicious of the summer basketball crowd and understands the pressures of big-time college sports. In hindsight, he acknowledges his trepidation when the Sudanese 7-footer suddenly showed up at his door, adding that Culver and Alan Huss, the former coach responsible for Ajou's arrival, have since mutually parted ways. Buxton says Huss wanted to relax standards in a bid to build a prep powerhouse.
Huss, now the basketball coach and assistant admissions director at neighboring La Lumiere School in LaPorte, Ind., declined comment for this story.
Allegations that A-HOPE founder weighed moving him after grade trouble
There might be some mystery as to why Ajou landed at Culver, but now that he's here, no one is more on Buxton's radar than the 7-footer with the warm, gap-toothed smile. And the school boss, who bears a resemblance to a young Bob Newhart, could care less about tweaking the outsiders who tug on his tall, gangly project.
Culver officials are finalizing arrangements for Ajou's first return to Sudan this summer. And a year ago, Culver picked up the tab for him to attend a remedial English language skills program at Indiana University, which conflicted at times with his summer basketball obligations but served as a compromise to school officials' first choice of Syracuse University. "We sent Chier, and paid for it, because we want the kid to be educated," Buxton says. "We're not going to give him a diploma if he can't do the work. But it didn't seem very hard for the AAU team [Indiana Elite] that he was on to pull him out of summer school and fly him to Las Vegas for a tournament, and not think twice about it when we were really clear. I mean, he is not going to get any shorter. And he can play enough basketball the rest of his life."
Culver officials didn't budge in December, either, when challenged on their decision that Ajou wouldn't be able to fulfill the academic requirements to graduate this spring. The ramifications proved huge. Ajou fretted that without graduation his plans to go home this summer would be squelched. It also meant he couldn't enroll at New Mexico in the fall and technically would reopen Ajou's recruitment.
"That was a hot button," Buxton says. "When we said we're going to reclassify the kid, it was timeout. Nobody wanted to play at that point. We said, 'We don't really care about you at New Mexico. We don't care about you in the AAU world. This is the right thing for this kid.'
"You admit a kid, you take care of him in all ways. So he'll be a senior [again] next year. He won't be able to play because he won't have any eligibility, but he will be at our school. He'll get the support he needs academically so that when he gets to New Mexico he'll actually be able to go to class and do things."
Buxton said New Mexico came around quickly, in part because Ajou likely would have redshirted next season, anyway. Adams proved tougher. Initially, Buxton says there was talk of Ajou possibly transferring to a small private school in Pennsylvania or Virginia, with hopes that he might still graduate this spring and move directly to New Mexico.
"Boy, it was amazing how the AAU people jumped into the mix on that one," Buxton says. "They had a school all set up for him that he could have gone to the next day. Oh yeah, the next day. It was, 'We got a place that will take him and they can graduate him and we don't have to worry about the [NCAA initial eligibility] clearinghouse.'
"Mark Adams was being pissy for a while. And all of a sudden, it was, 'OK, I'm good with this.' I have no idea why. Our academic people said he changed pretty quickly from being not at all supportive of keeping Chier here to saying, 'I think this makes sense for him.'"
In an email response, Adams told ESPN.com that it was Ajou, initially upset about not being able to graduate this spring, who called and asked him to find another school. Adams says that the schools he inquired of also couldn't graduate Ajou this year and that he in fact encouraged Ajou to stick it out at Culver.
"I was thrilled with his decision," Adams wrote. "I never wanted him to leave anyway. I wish my own kids could have had the opportunity to attend Culver."
Although Buxton acknowledges that the transfer possibility might have begun with Ajou, he says Culver officials never heard Adams strongly suggest that he should remain at the school.
Of the summer coaches and Adams specifically, Buxton says: "These people are so caught up in that world. When we started talking to them sensibly [about Ajou's academic situation], they started responding sensibly. But it is all about what these kids can do for them. I think they do care, but it is that devil and angel thing." He says they are "consumed" by the desire to control athletes, have nationally ranked AAU teams, be on a first-name basis with college coaches, have the potential to land a job on a college staff "and they miss the point of what really matters in all this stuff."
Ajou said it was a hard decision and one he cried about, whether to log another year of high school or shuffle off to an outpost promising to graduate him this spring. He assumes sole responsibility for the decision. In the end, what drives him isn't as much the NBA dream as the chance to be educated.
For that, he says, Culver is the right place. It has brought stability and, unlike other young players out of Africa, he hasn't been shuffled from school to school on an almost yearly basis. The kids like him and the adults are protective, in and out of the classroom. Even in simple ways, such as locating a longer bed for his barracks room and turning his trip home this summer into a community service project, arming him with shoes and sporting equipment to provide the locals.
"People here love that kid," says Chet Marshall, his campus mentor and a Culver alum, Class of '73. "He's such a hard worker."
Ajou understands the opportunity he's being afforded, saying: "In Sudan, there is war going on for so many years. I don't go to school. Or I go to school there and sometimes the school closes for a month. That was not easy for me."
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Player, headmaster see influence even though nonprofit didn't bring player to U.S.