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HIGH SCHOOLS

Village Christian star carries memories of his war-torn Sudanese homeland

His road to the U.S. was a bumpy one, escaping violence that claimed the lives of his sister and other family members. He is grateful for opportunity to help his team succeed in playoffs.

February 17, 2009|Sean Ceglinsky

He is 19 years old now, and a highly regarded basketball star for a small school in the San Fernando Valley. But Bak Bak is still haunted by memories of the war-torn village in the Sudan where he was born and spent the first few years of his life.

Blood-curdling screams in the night. Bullets flying seemingly at random. The anguished looks and tears on the faces of the people most dear to him.

"Three of my uncles were killed. My sister was killed," he recalls. "Women were being raped and babies were being murdered and thrown into rivers. . . . Innocent people were being tortured every day, every night.

"I think about it all the time. . . . It's hard to believe."

Those recollections are from his first five years, but they have left an indelible mark.

They have made him focused. And they have left him very appreciative of the life he has as a senior at Sun Valley Village Christian who has already accepted a scholarship from California.

He has plenty to be thankful for.

An athletic 6-foot-10 frame, for one thing.

The love of a sport that has always given him solace, for another.

It might sound trite, but it's true: Simply stepping out on a basketball court and shooting a few jump shots has always been a good way to escape the harsh realities of whatever is troubling him.

"I should have ended up dead a few times," says Bak, who arrived in the United States in 2006 after bouncing from country to country to avoid the constant threat of conflict that he was subjected to as an adolescent.

Before he turned 5, Bak moved from his birthplace in Wau, Sudan, to Johannesburg, South Africa, because casualties in the Second Sudanese Civil War were mounting at an alarming rate.

From the start of combat in 1983 to the peace treaty in 2005, approximately 1.9 million civilians were killed and 4 million more fled the country.

"It wasn't a safe place to live. We had to get out of there," Bak says. "To this day, Sudan is not a safe place. I know that. I was back there recently, two years ago, and it was bad. Really bad. Maybe worse than it was when I was a kid, if that's possible."

Before his teenage years, his family settled in Nairobi, Kenya -- a more peaceful environment, where Bak was enrolled at Friends' School Kamusinga, a regional basketball power.

As a freshman, he traveled to tournaments throughout South Africa, going up against some of the continent's top players, including center Hasheem Thabeet, who now stars for Connecticut and is considered a top NBA prospect.

"He was good back then," Bak recalls of Thabeet, "but honestly, I had no idea that he'd be as good as he is now."

Bak was offered a chance to play professionally in Greece before his sophomore season at Kamusinga, but his family chose to send him to the U.S. to finish school.

His first try at that didn't go so well.

Bak says a businessman told his family he could bring their son to the U.S. and get him enrolled at Mt. Zion Christian Academy, a prep school basketball juggernaut in Durham, N.C.

"Growing up, I watched college and the NBA all the time, so my goal was to play the game that I loved in America against the best in the world. I was excited," Bak recalls.

However, after dropping Bak at the campus, the businessman quickly disappeared.

The businessman "promised me a lot of things, but he never came through on his word," Bak says. "He was playing games with me, making decisions for me, taking advantage of me."

Bak then tried to catch on at American Heritage Academy in Plantation, Fla., but that didn't work out, either, because he lacked proper documentation to stay in the U.S.

His only alternative was to return to the Sudan, acquire a new passport and visa, and begin the process all over again.

Sudanese officials at the airport didn't roll out the welcome mat, Bak recalls. "Once they learned that I didn't have a lot of money in my pocket, they gave me a hard time," he said. "I was detained. I don't want to get into all of the details, but . . . I didn't know if I was going to make it out of there alive."

Two days later, he was released into his family's custody.

It wasn't until February of last year, finally equipped with the documentation he needed, that Bak boarded a plane heading to California. He missed what would have been his junior season at Village Christian, but he quickly made a name for himself playing on the summer club circuit.

Playing for Pump and Run, an L.A.-based team that featured UCLA-bound Tyler Honeycutt of Sylmar High, Bak performed well enough that he had scholarship offers from Gonzaga, Louisville and Pittsburgh, as well as California.

"I remember hearing something about this big kid from Africa and didn't think much of it at the time," said Dana Pump, who co-founded the team with his brother, David. "Then I met Bak and liked everything about him.

"When you think about where he's come from and where he's going, it's unbelievable. . . . Athletically, academically, culturally, it's a remarkable story. A beautiful story."

And, for Village Christian, a winning one.

The Crusaders enter a Southern Section Division V-AA first-round playoff game at home against Templeton on Wednesday night knowing they have not advanced to the second round this decade.

Yet, with Bak averaging more than 18 points and 11 rebounds, plus 3.5 blocks, 2.4 assists and 2.2 steals, Village Christian has been ranked among the top teams in its division most of this season.

"There were times when I thought that I'd never get a chance to tell my story," Bak says. "Things looked bad for me. Looking back, I'm lucky to be alive, lucky to be able to play basketball in America.

"My experiences, my struggles in life, have made me a stronger person. I've been through some tough times, but I feel like I can make it through anything because of everything that's happened.

"I'll never forget my past, but I'm finally excited about the future."

--

sean.ceglinsky@latimes.com

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