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From Sudan to Fairfield, Gai chasing NBA dream



FAIRFIELD, Feb 2, 2005 (AP) - In 1999, Deng Gai was a refugee fleeing Sudan’s civil war, going without food and cramming his 6-foot-7 frame into a train and then a crude boat for the three-day trek to Egypt.

Fairfield center Deng Gai, right, practices with the team in Fairfield, Conn. Seven years ago, Deng Gai was a refugee fleeing Sudan, going without food for days and cramming his 6-foot-plus frame into a crude boat. Nowadays, the Dinka tribesman leads Division I with 5.7 blocked shots per game and is hoping for an NBA career.

Nowadays, the Dinka tribesman is a senior forward at Fairfield University in southwestern Connecticut, leading NCAA Division I basketball players with 5.7 blocked shots per game and eyeing a career in the NBA.

"That’s my dream ... to play at that level," Gai said in an interview last week. "And hopefully my situation will be better and I’ll get to help my family."

As far as he has come, Gai’s thoughts are rarely far from Sudan, where fighting killed more than 2 million people and displaced twice that many. A peace treaty was signed this month.

"I hope that peace is near. They said the war is almost stopping," Gai said. "I feel guilty sometimes. I feel like I’m blessed: I’m going to finish school; I’m playing well. People are really nice to me. There’s a lot of freedom in this country."

Swatting shots equally as well with his left and right hands, he rejected a career-high 13 in an 80-58 victory over Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference rival Siena on Jan. 22.

Gai’s 387 blocked shots in 89 college games rank 18th on the NCAA Division I career list, and he’s helped the Stags start this season 10-9 by also averaging 14.4 points.

"His ability to block shots is something I’ve never seen," Fairfield coach Tim O’Toole said. "You don’t see ambidextrous shot blockers. It’s just an innate gift he has."

Now 6-9 and 225 pounds, Gai is agile and quick. The soft-spoken 23-year-old says his size and speed help him block shots — as does his mind. Often, he’ll pretend to look the other way when an opposing player dribbles into the paint.

"I’ll act like I don’t see and I let the guard come into my area," Gai said. "I use my quickness. I’m long and that helps."

Separated from his parents and nine siblings when he left Sudan, Gai found a home in Fairfield, where he joined fellow Dinka tribesman Ajou Deng.

Deng, whose brother Luol Deng starred at Duke and is now with the Chicago Bulls, transferred to Fairfield from Connecticut in 2001. The Deng brothers also fled Sudan, the African nation split along religious lines since the mid-1980s.

"There was a tribal mentality; there was that fellowship, that comfort," O’Toole said.

Gai’s mother arrived in the United States last year and is staying with relatives in Iowa; he last saw her last fall. He also has five siblings in America. His father remains in Sudan and his other siblings are scattered in other countries, including Norway.

"He’s seen too many things. He’s seen things we haven’t and we don’t want to," O’Toole said. "He’s grown in every dimension in his life. None of the guys on the team have ever dealt with civil war. That’s reality for him."

Gai could say little more than "My name is Deng" when he arrived in the United States and played for a while at nearby Milford Academy, an athletic prep school. At Fairfield, Gai, with Deng’s help, quickly assimilated. The two also shared their native Arabic with O’Toole and the team, using it to call out plays.

"When we run offense and we run the alley-oop, I call it out in Arabic," Gai said.

His teammates appreciate having the big guy at their back, knowing if they get beat on defense, Gai will be waiting.

The feeling is mutual.

"We’ve got to stay together. They look out for me," Gai said. "They’re my family now."

Gai participated in an NBA pre-draft camp last year but decided to return to college for his senior year. He now has a shot at going in the first round.

"He is improving. He’s a guy who definitely won’t get overlooked," said Ryan Blake of Marty Blake and Associates, a scouting service affiliated with the NBA.

Gai is an art major, with a minor in politics. Jo Yarrington, his art professor, said Gai brings a sense of his past to his work.

"He has wonderful ideas and is very sensitive to the cultural shift since moving to the United States," Yarrington said. "That sense of trauma that he must have felt and yet exuding a kind of calm is really quite special about him."

Gai recently explained his vision for his latest art project — a charcoal sketch of his journey. There will be a basketball amid a dark expanse, and leading up to it will be an open book and a self-portrait.

"I’m coming from my goals to reach it," Gai said. "I’m kind of in the middle now. It’s still in the dark and I’m still fighting to reach it."

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