The Mangok Tree
How Fleeing the Sudanese Civil War Helped Set in Motion Mathiang’s NBA Career
By Sam Perley
It takes about an hour and a half to drive from the Charlotte Hornets’ facilities up to Greensboro, NC, which is where the organization’s G League affiliate, the Swarm, plays its home games. It’s a trip Mangok Mathiang has made a couple times now, shuttling back and forth between the two teams in his first season of professional basketball. While a bit of a gap separates the NBA and G League, it’s nothing compared to the distance Mathiang has traveled to get here in the first place.
Mathiang was born on October 8, 1992 in the city of Juba, which is now the capital of the newly-formed South Sudan located in central Africa. At the time, Sudan had been plagued by on-going civil war and widespread human rights violations for much of the latter half of the 20th century. From 1983-2005, nearly two million people died in the Second Sudanese War as a result of violence, starvation and disease with twice as many forced to leave their homes as refugees.
When Mathiang was five, his mother, Grace, moved Mangok (pronounced like the fruit) and his four siblings to Egypt in order to escape the dangerous conflict. His father, Alfret, stayed behind in Sudan.
“My father basically told my mom to take the kids and just get out,” recalled Mathiang. “I don’t remember living in Sudan. I honestly don’t remember leaving the house much unless I was going to watch my brother or my cousins play soccer in the dirt in front of the house.”
It wasn’t until years later that Mathiang finally began understanding the circumstances that forced he and his family to leave the country.
“As a parent, you basically try and keep your kids out of harm’s way. Growing up, I really didn’t know that. Now I know it. To me, going outside in front of the house was as far as I could go. I wasn’t going to ask why.”
After two years in Egypt, a place that Mathiang described as “not that much better than Sudan,” his family migrated to Sydney, Australia before settling in Melbourne shortly afterwards. The transition to another African country wasn’t nearly as big an adjustment as moving to an entirely different continent though.
Raising five children as a single mother in a foreign country was not easy for Grace. She often times worked multiple jobs at once while dealing with health issues. Her determination to give Mangok and his siblings the best life possible is something that continues to drive him today.
“A lot of people don’t know what hard work is until they see it and I’ve seen it my whole life,” he said. “My mom did a terrific job and there isn’t a day that goes by where I feel like I’m too tired and I’m not going to work hard today. My mom could have said ‘I’m feeling sick. I’m not going to go to work today,’ but she didn’t. I’m where I’m at today because of her.”
As a teenager, Mathiang enrolled at Emmanuel College, a high school located in a Melbourne suburb called Altona North. He initially partook in soccer, Australian rules football, rugby and track, but a growth spurt during his adolescence helped steer him towards basketball.
When Mathiang was around 18 years old, he moved to the United States to play basketball at Brehm Preparatory School in Carbondale, IL. With his family still back home, he lived with a coach and eventual mentor named Loren Jackson, who had a background working with Sudanese-Australian players. Mathiang followed Jackson to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL before enrolling at the University of Louisville in the fall of 2012.
Mathiang was forced to sit out his freshman season because of NCAA regulations, although still trained and traveled with the team on its way to a National Championship title. In his ensuing four seasons for the Cardinals, Mathiang functioned largely as a reserve over 114 career games, posting averages of 4.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 18.0 minutes per appearance.
Outside of winning the 2013 Final Four, Mathiang’s most memorable moment as a collegiate player took place early in his senior season during a showdown with future-Hornet teammate Malik Monk and archrival Kentucky. For the first time ever, Grace was able to make the 9,700-mile journey from Melbourne to see her son play in person.
“My sisters were telling me she was watching the game and then closing her eyes, keep watching and then close her eyes and she was just praying non-stop. I was like ‘Yeah, that sounds like my mom alright,’” reminisced Mathiang. “I don’t even remember myself scoring a bucket that game, but I do remember the highlights of me playing hard and just doing what I do best.”
He added, “She just gave me the biggest hug like I dropped 40 in that game. She didn’t care. She didn’t understand what basketball was, but she was just so happy to see me on that stage. Just to see everybody that she didn’t even know cheering me on and cheering my name on. They were coming past [her] and saying ‘You’re Mangok’s mom. He’s a good player and all of that.’ That just made her so happy. She was crying after the game. Moments like that make you want to sleep in the gym and keep working.”
Louisville managed to come away with a 73-70 victory, snapping a four-game losing streak to the Wildcats. A three-time team captain, the Cardinals finished Mathiang’s senior season with a 25-9 record and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Still a relatively raw talent with his age perhaps working against him, Mathiang went undrafted this past summer. He took part in an early-June workout with the Hornets and his size (6’10” and 230 pounds), athletic ability and overall attitude convinced the team to add him to its Summer League Roster. Mathiang finished with marks of 4.4 points on 53.3 percent shooting and 5.0 rebounds (2.8 offensive) across five games in the Orlando competition. Still, his future ultimately remained unclear at the time.
Around a month or so later, Mathiang got the call that the Hornets would be offering him a two-way contract with the organization. This deal meant he’d be playing with the Greensboro Swarm for a majority of the season and up to 45 days at the NBA level. Unlike traditional G League contracts in the past, Mathiang’s rights were controlled exclusively by the Hornets.
Mathiang arrived in Charlotte on August 2 to make his signing official, an extraordinary moment he was also able to share with his family via FaceTime.
“When I came down here to sign my contract, my mom, my aunties and everybody that’s been beside me was up in Australia at like 4 a.m. waiting for me to check on my call and say ‘Okay this is actually going to happen,’” recollected Mathiang a few weeks afterwards. “I just feel like we’ve all been through a lot as a family. I consider everybody that’s helped me through my journey as my family and for them to go through it with me and actually make it, it feels great. I remember when I was actually signing the contract, my hands were shaking. I tried to calm myself down.”
Mathiang spent all of training camp and preseason with the Hornets and stayed on the team’s active roster until the G League campaign started in mid-November. Although it was an achievement he expected to come much further on down the line, Mathiang officially made his NBA debut on Oct. 25, finishing with a pair of rebounds in a 110-93 home win over the Denver Nuggets.
“It was great. It didn’t really catch me by surprise because in the first half we were up by a lot,” he said the day after his NBA debut. “Me and [fellow two-way player] Marcus [Paige] were anxious, fingers crossed, sitting on the bench like, ‘We got to get [the lead] up to 25 so we can get in.’ The boys held it down for us and made our dreams come true. You can tell I was anxious, I was nervous out there, but it just felt good to get it out of the way early in the season.”
Upon checking in, Mathiang became just the fifth Sudanese-born player to appear in a NBA game, joining the late Manute Bol, Deng Gai, Luol Deng and Thon Maker, the latter two of which currently play for the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks, respectively. Bol, in particular, is very highly-regarded back in Sudan following a decade-long NBA career and years of humanitarian work.
“That’s headscratcher right there. That’s ridiculous. To say my name [with those players], it’s something special,” Mathiang said in August when informed about the exclusive company he would someday join. “We’re a very young nation, a new nation that’s going through a whole lot of hard times as we speak. All we need and all it takes, you say those names, it makes people think that if they can make it from where I come from, I can definitely make it. That’s all it takes to bring a nation from the ground up. A little inspiration.”
So far, Mathiang has appeared in 12 games this season for the Swarm, posting averages of 9.9 points, a team-high 8.5 rebounds and 1.1 assists across 24.1 minutes of action. He was officially recalled by the Hornets on Dec. 8 following injuries to Frank Kaminsky and Cody Zeller, although has yet to appear in another game for Charlotte.
Finding a niche in the NBA is a process that’s hard enough as it is, let alone for somebody that’s been through everything that Mathiang has. For those that understand his journey, his success wasn’t a matter of if, but when.
“[Sudanese people] are taught to work hard. It’s in a lot of kids’ DNA and growing up as a child, you have to provide for your family at an early age,” said fellow countryman Luol Deng. “[Mangok’s] taken advantage of his journey. You could say moving to Egypt, moving to Australia, moving here, not a lot of people would be able to be sitting down with a NBA team going through all that. He’s one of the few just to make the NBA. It’s such a small percentage. Just to get out of Sudan, it’s such a small percentage. Just to be an international player, it’s a small percentage.”
Although seven years older than Mathiang, Deng and his family also fled to Egypt in 1990 in order to escape the Second Sudanese War. They eventually settled in England before he moved to the United States at age 14 to continue his basketball career. Like Mathiang, Deng’s journey included several different obstacles from a cultural standpoint.
“A lot of times unless you’re from somewhere and look different, you don’t understand what it’s like to not be home. I think the challenges for everybody are just different, but overall, it’s just the language barrier, the culture barrier, the weather, the attitude. There’s so much you’re asked to change in an instance and I think the hardest part for us was moving from Egypt to England. I had never seen snow until I was there. It was constantly raining. People speaking English, I’m speaking a different language.”
Australia is home to roughly 20,000 people of Sudanese ancestry, many of whom like Mathiang emigrated to the continent to escape the war. Although Mathiang has and will likely continue to represent the Aussies on the international stage, he and other Sudanese players have become a huge source of inspiration to those in his original and adapted homelands.
“Basketball in Australia is so huge in the Sudanese community. There’s a lot of kids playing basketball,” said Thon Maker, who was also raised in Australia. “I get calls saying the kids are getting so good here. It’s exciting for us as a small nation coming up. For us, the best thing we can do on this platform as NBA players is to show them how to do it, play the right way and how to take care of yourself.”
Maker, who is close friends with Mathiang’s former Louisville teammate, Deng Adel, has followed Mangok’s career ever since meeting him on a recruiting trip to the school and isn’t surprised by where he ended up.
“That just shows with hard work that anything is possible. For him, he just believes and continues to work. I hear it from guys like Deng every time. Like last year when I contacted Deng, he was telling me like, ‘[Mangok] works hard. He’s going to go somewhere.’ It just shows you where hard work takes you and a lot of players.”
It’s true Mathiang’s work ethic and perseverance are largely behind why he’s in the position he is now. But if you ask him, there seems to be two people who deserve the credit.
“Just to see all my hard work pay off and to basically make it here, it’s all to do with my mom. I’ve seen my mom work three jobs just to put food on the table. I’ve seen my mom come in from work making sure we’ve done our homework [and] not causing any trouble in the neighborhood. I’ve seen my mom work her butt off while she has high blood pressure, bad kidneys. All that extra stuff on top of raising five kids on her own in a country that we’re not used to or has our culture or ethnicity, it was tough on her. Basically, moving from country to country and then a whole different continent. Stuff like that makes you work hard.”
Although yet to physically reconnect with his father, Mathiang has stayed in touch with Alfret and remains grateful for the difficult choice he had to make for his family roughly 20 years ago.
“With me, my father is still in my life. It’s kind of hard with him being all the way in Africa and keeping up with what I do night in and night out. It’s not like he walked out of life or my family’s life. The man just had to make a very difficult decision for a man to do and basically sent his family away. I feel like that decision was one of the best decisions he ever made in order for us to go all the way to Australia. I’m pretty sure he was probably in my mom’s ear on the phone every now and then. I talked to him after I signed and made sure I talked to him before I came down [to Charlotte]. His support is always there.”
Mathiang plans to have his family visit again at some point this season and hopes to get back to South Sudan in the near future in order to finally see his father again. Although their relationship is understandably a bit unconventional, they both seem to be on the same page in terms of where the other is in each of their lives.
“I’ve thought so much about going to see him, but I’ve been so busy summer after summer just trying to craft my game. Right now, with me just not meeting him since I left Africa, I’ve been so busy chasing my dream and he respects that. It’s not like I don’t want to meet him because we grew apart. Did we grow apart? Yes, but we have the great father-son relationship now. What I do respect is the fact that he made that choice for us. If he didn’t make that choice, I don’t know where I’d be. That’s one of those things I’ll be forever grateful [for] and within a year or two, I’m definitely going to go down to [Sudan] and let him know how thankful I am for the decision he had to make.”
Overcoming civil war, life on three continents, culture shock, language barriers and everything in between has helped make Mangok Mathiang the player and person he is today. Hard work and unconditional support from many allowed him to never give up on his dreams despite the adversity he encountered.
“Nothing is going to be handed to you,” he says. “You just have to go out there and give it your all. The best thing you can do is pray, plant your seed and basically give it to God and hand it to him. Just keep up with your hard work and one of these days, your plant can turn into a huge mango tree.”
After many years of perseverance and determination, it seems Mathiang’s mango tree is finally starting to blossom.