Bak Bak was out of options.
He had gone back to Africa in May of 2011 to get his documents fixed before the Cal men’s basketball team’s European tour later that summer. He checked into the U.S. Embassy, handed over his passport and was told to come back in a week for his updated visa.
When he returned, his passport — his ticket back to America — was gone. “I thought maybe I’m not going to be able to go back,” he says.
Except he was also not allowed to stay either. Sudan, his country of birth, did not want him. Neither did Kenya, where he grew up and where his mother and siblings still live. Without citizenship, Bak had nowhere to go.
“You feel like you’re an orphan, a person who doesn’t have parents,” Bak says. “You don’t have your mom or your dad — you don’t have a home.
“I don’t belong in Kenya. I don’t belong in Sudan. Where do I belong?”
Countless times, Bak has told his life story. The emotion he has held back for so long comes out only in his soft, melodic tone, the occasional question, a laugh in disbelief. He tells his story because people ask, yes, but maybe there is another reason. Maybe if he tells his story again, he will find some answers.
“Going from place to place to place as a kid was difficult,” Bak says. “I don’t know how I managed to do that. I still don’t know.”
He names off the countries and cities he has lived in as if they were items on a grocery list. Sudan. South Africa. Kenya. New York. Miami. L.A.
“That’s where I graduated from,” he says with a hint of pride, as if the feat of surviving were not enough.
Born into war, Bak has spent his whole life fighting for some peace. Named after his grandfather, Bak has another meaning: morning. That was when Bak was born — and not a moment too late.
Sudan was in the midst of a bloody civil war that killed 2 million and displaced another 4 million. The Second Sudanese Civil War took two of his uncles and one of his sisters.
Bak got out just in time.
His mother took him and three sisters to Johannesburg, South Africa, when he was 6 months old. When he was 3, they moved to Nairobi, Kenya, where two more siblings were born.
Kenya was a corrupt country, Bak says, but a comfortable one comparatively. It was not like Sudan, where there was constant war. “If you don’t have money, you will not survive in Kenya,” he says. “If you are not lucky, you will not survive in Sudan.”
Like so many before him, Bak came to the United States for the dream of a better life.
He lived with a friend of a friend in Manhattan, N.Y. Knowing some English but not enough to prevent the kids at school from making fun of him, Bak had trouble adjusting.
“At that age you don’t have parents,” Bak says, “You don’t have Mom, you don’t have Dad, you don’t even have your uncles, aunts who can look after you.”
After eighth grade, Bak sojourned to Miami, where trouble found Bak once again. The man Bak was living with in New York was moving to Paris, so he sent Bak to live with his friend in Florida. There, Bak became a controversy.
In the shady underworld of high school sports, there are businessmen who bring Africans to the U.S. to play basketball in exchange for money. Coaches thought Bak was one of those players. Except Bak did not play basketball.
He figured out what was going on and decided to leave. “When I told the guy, ‘This is not a good situation for me, I need to get out of here,’ he got really upset,” Bak says, “and that’s when he took my passport and disappeared.”
Bak knew a lady he could trust, a friend of the man who brought him to America. So he moved to Los Angeles with her and enrolled in Village Christian High School in Sun Valley.
By then, Bak had nearly grown into his current 6-foot-9 frame. For fun, he had started playing AAU basketball during his sophomore year. “I didn’t think I was going to go anywhere with basketball,” he says. “I was just doing it for the hell of it.”
The high school basketball coach asked Bak to join the team. But Bak was not allowed to, not without proper documentation. So in 2006, Bak returned to Sudan to retrieve his passport.
The “war” had ended, but there was still war. Bak was not supposed to be there. He was not wanted.
At the airport, for the very first time, Bak met his father, a general in the army who had helped smuggle his wife and kids out of the war-torn country a decade and a half earlier.
“He said, ‘If I was you I would have not come here,’” Bak says. “‘You look a lot different than people who live here. People who live here know each other, and they’re probably going to know you don’t live here.’”
He was right. The Sudanese were suspicious of this stranger who had nothing but his high school ID. Bak had no choice though; he was already there. He spent two frightful hours in the immigration office.
Back in California, the more basketball Bak played, the more interest he received from colleges. He chose Cal in large part because of its many international students.
Still, he had trouble adjusting. Intending to major in business, Bak was put in classes like math, physics and economics, challenging courses even for students whose first language, not seventh, is English. Academically ineligible from basketball that spring, Bak took 21 units to make up for his first semester.
He played sparingly the next year, a wiry big man who needed to gain not just more experience but also more weight. Problem was, he was stuck in Africa for three months, losing weight.
Not that the summer was a complete waste. Bak worked with a friend at different basketball camps all across Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Bak ran drills for the children but also spoke to them about his experiences.
The camp sends a few of the kids to a U.S. camp, where they have a chance to stay for high school or junior college. Bak was the perfect example of the possibilities that sports bring.
“It’s kind of an easy way to address the issues that are facing a lot of African kids,” he says.
With his papers finally in order, Bak returned to Berkeley with a new career in mind.
For now Bak is happy. A reserve forward, he scored six points, a season high, on Sunday in Cal’s upset of Arizona. On Thursday he may play a few extra minutes against UCLA’s mobile bigs. His numbers will not likely stand out, but he will hustle and, as always, receive plenty of cheers from the Haas Pavilion student section.
In a few short months, he will be the first person in his family to graduate from college, after already being the first person in his family to graduate from high school. But he is not done.
He talks to his mom on the phone every night. He does not think she can take care of his younger siblings anymore. It is time for someone to step up, he says.
So Bak made a decision: He is going to bring his little brother and sister to America. “I don’t want them to go through what I went through,” Bak says.
His brother is 12 and already six feet tall. If he wants to play sports, Bak says, the U.S. is the best place. His sister is a few years younger. He says she wants to be a doctor or a lawyer.
He will make a home for them here. He will care for them.
Maybe then Bak will finally feel like he belongs somewhere.
Jonathan Kuperberg covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]