Peter Jok created space with a hard dribble, took a step back and swished a baseline jumper. It looked easy, effortless. If only life imitated sport.
Jok’s journey from civil strife and family tragedy in the Sudan, stops in Uganda and Kenya and then to the tranquility of Des Moines was neither easy nor effortless.
And his up-and-down basketball career mirrors his life story. A senior at West Des Moines Valley, Jok was the apple of every college recruiter’s eye as a freshman. The love vanished after a knee injury in the summer of 2010.
“You’re labeled the best player in the country,” said Dau Jok, Peter’s older brother and a co-captain on the Penn basketball team. “Duke, all these people are calling you. And then all of a sudden, nobody calls you. It would have been easy for him to quit. I’m very proud of him.”
Playing again with a bounce that has been missing for several years, Jok will continue his comeback Wednesday when he signs a letter of intent with Iowa.
“They stuck with me the whole time,” the 6-foot-6 guard said. “Before the injury, during the injury, and after the injury.
“So I count them as my family.”
Peter, 18, doesn’t remember his father, a general in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Dut Jok was killed in the Sudanese civil war when Peter was3. His grandfather, the chief of their village, was later killed, too. Peter was9 when his mother, Amelia Ring, moved her children and her mother to the safe haven of Des Moines and its large Sudanese refugee population in December of 2003. Dau and Peter are two of Amelia Ring’s four children. A brother, Jok, and sister, Alek, are younger. Amelia, a member of the Sudan parliament, returns to Des Moines several times a year to see her children.
“She is one of the strongest people you will meet,” Dau said. “We owe it all to her. Without her, we don’t get these opportunities.”
Dau and Peter will get a college education through basketball, a sport that was foreign to them when they arrived in the United States even though there’s a history of the sport in their family. The late Manute Bol, who stood 7-foot-7 and played 10 NBA seasons, was their uncle. Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls is a cousin on their mother’s side.
“I was a soccer player,” Peter said. “I hated basketball.”
Peter was in the fourth grade when some friends asked him to play on a basketball team at Greenwood Elementary. About that time, Mike Nixon was looking to put together a fourth-grade AAU team to play with his son.
“I heard about Peter from a friend of mine,” said Nixon, who now shares power of attorney for the four Jok children with Bruce Koeppl of Des Moines, his teammate on Des Moines Lincoln’s 1975 state championship basketball team.
Nixon went to see the Greenwood team play in a Des Moines Recreation League game. Jok, the tallest player on his team, never touched the ball. But he accepted Nixon’s invitation to join his AAU team.
“I didn’t know he’d be the player he is today, but within a matter of weeks I thought he’d be a very good player,” Nixon said.
By the end of the season, Peter was on the all-tournament team at the fourth grade AAU state championship. By the seventh grade, after their team won the prestigious Spiece tournament title in Fort Wayne, Ind., Peter viewed basketball differently.
“I just fell in love with the game,” Peter said.
A summer later, at an AAU event in Chicago, the college offers started to roll in after Peter’s eye-catching performance. Marquette, Illinois, Providence and others.
“I was, ‘OK, I want to play DivisionI basketball now,’” Peter said.
He injured his left knee at a Nike C
amp in 2010.
“I played through it my sophomore year, because I thought it was just tendinitis,” Peter said. “It got worse.”
In June of 2011, Jok had surgery to repair the torn patellar tendon in his left knee. Peter, who transferred from Roosevelt to Valley for his junior year, struggled to find his game when he returned to the floor.
“I came back too early,” he said. “It’s taken almost a year to get back. My doctor said I probably won’t be back to 100 percent until the season starts. But I feel good.”
Iowa assistant coach Kirk Speraw kept tabs on Jok after his injury. As he continued to make progress, schools such as Wisconsin, Kansas State, Drake and Nebraska started to show interest. Speraw and Iowa coach Fran McCaffery came to Valley on Sept.17 to watch Jok play in an open gym. It was, in a sense, a final tryout. Nervous?
“I don’t think Pete gets nervous,” said Valley coach Jeff Horner, a former Iowa guard. “He’s a free-flowing kid. He goes out and plays, and doesn’t have a lot of worries. I think that’s because of his life. I think he’s been through the worst of it.”
Peter talked to Speraw, who offered some advice.
“He told me coach McCaffery just wanted to see how I was, mentally, with my knee,” Jok said. “He said, ‘If you have an open lane, dunk it. Play your hardest.’ That’s what I did. I guess they liked it.”
McCaffery offered Peter a scholarship that night, which he accepted the following weekend during his official campus visit.
“To be honest with you, he’s always had that confidence in himself and a belief that no matter what happens, he can do it,” Dau said. “The primary thing is to have an opportunity to get an education, and use basketball as a bridge to other opportunities. We’ve gotten an opportunity to play for our education. That’s a special privilege.”
Dau has used his opportunity to create a foundation in his father’s name, using sports as a way to fight poverty and violence and create hope.
“Dau is going to change the world,” Koeppl said. “He’s an inspiration at so many levels.”
Dau went on a goodwill mission to Rwanda in the summer of 2011 and to the Sudan and Uganda this summer. He took sports equipment and school supplies with him.
“Take a country where people are traumatized by war, and the first choice is violence and fighting,” Dau said. “There is no dialogue between people. No adequate education, no health care. A country’s future is the young people. If we can educate them to be leaders, in their lives and their family’s lives, it’s a lot easier to bring about change.”
Peter calls Dau his role model.
“Dau works hard at everything,” Koeppl said. “He’s a great example for Peter.”
Amelia has never seen Peter play basketball. She saw Dau play for Roosevelt as a senior. Peter was sidelined with a broken wrist. She is scheduled to see Peter play for Valley in December, her next scheduled trip to the United States.
“It’s interesting how fate has led this family, and what they’ve been able to do from their life in the Sudan to Dau being at an Ivy League school and Peter a Big Ten school,” Koeppl said. “It’s remarkable.”
Nixon and Koeppl have served as father figures for the Jok children.
“They’ve been there to tell us the truth,” Dau said. “I was blessed to have Bruce as my mentor. And Mike Nixon with Peter. He tells him what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear.”
Next fall, Peter’s family will include the Iowa basketball team.
“It’s a great story, and he’s really worked hard to get back,” Nixon said. “I’m glad it’s worked out for him.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball