Going to his ancestral homeland for the first time, Wenyen Gabriel didn’t know what to expect. But it wasn’t quite this.
What awaited him at the airstrip of Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, was a crowd of a few hundred people – cheering as he came down the plane ramp. It slowly dawned on him that they were hoping to hear him speak, and he didn’t have anything prepared.
His brother, Komot, had been to South Sudan a decade before, and he told his younger brother that he would be the LeBron James of these people. Gabriel was once an anonymous refugee in a family fleeing violence and persecution; now he played for the Lakers.
But the weight of that didn’t really land until he stood before the crowd, looking out at a sea of faces that resembled his own. They were screaming, weeping as if he was a long-lost treasure that had finally returned – even though he had never so much as set foot on their soil.
“It was like a grand welcoming, and they treated me like I was their son,” Gabriel said recently. “I feel like I need to do something. Me just coming back was something that was monumental, but I felt like I needed to do more.”
This summer, Gabriel came to South Sudan to do something nominally simple: put on a three-day basketball camp in Juba. The trip evolved into a homecoming of sorts, sprawling into a refugee camp in Mangalla, his “hometown” of Rumbek and the villages where his mother and father grew up.
It was eye-opening for Gabriel, who was born in Khartoum, Sudan, then lived in a refugee camp in Egypt for two years as his parents struggled, scrounged and hoped for a better life. He was too young then to appreciate exactly how hard life had been: His name “Wenyen” is an expression that means “wipe your tears” in Dinka, his parents’ native language after they had lost an older sibling as an infant.
Since the trip, Gabriel has been bubbling over with passion for his homeland and how he can help the people there.
“I mean a lot of people hold me up high now, trying to be like, ‘This is our child and he made it to the NBA,’” he said. “And I know a lot of people think they can be the next one to make it, too.”
Established in 2011, South Sudan is the youngest country in the world – when Gabriel was born in 1997, it was still a part of Sudan. But it has been a fragile state since its inception, besieged by its northern neighbor at times, and also a civil war between its ethnic groups. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which helped organize Gabriel’s visit to the Mangalla camp, estimates that 2 million South Sudanese are displaced within their own borders due to armed conflict or weather-related disasters.
The Dinka tribe is the largest ethnic group in the country, and also has a reputation for being one of the tallest ethnic groups in the world – former NBA players Manute Bol and Luol Deng also are Dinka. Gabriel was surprised to see people in the Mangalla camp (with some 40,000 residents) who loomed even over his 6-foot-9 frame.
“I’m seeing these young kids and thinking, ‘Man, imagine if I had this kid when he was 11, 10,’” he said. “Those were things going through my mind, if I could teach them simple ball-handling or how to move better. He would have a chance. He would definitely make it to college. You could come to America and definitely change your whole family’s life.”
That’s what happened in the Gabriel family: Besides Komot, who is now 31, every sibling played college basketball. While Wenyen has scrapped his way in the NBA since his rookie year in 2019, he’s hoping his second season with the Lakers can give him a foothold in the league. Though he’s on a minimum contract, he’s on track to make $1.8 million this season at a position of need for the team.
His statistics or minutes mattered little to his reception in South Sudan: Among the signs they made, one read, “Welcome Home our NBA Super Star.” Komot and their mother Rebecca Gak joined Wenyen for the trip, and the way people embraced them was deeply moving.
“Seeing how everybody came, they had these outfits for him, they were singing in our native language, I was so proud of him to be in that position,” Komot said. “Just what he means to the people of South Sudan, I felt humbled and just wanted to soak it in. Just to see him and my mom together. It felt really good – it’s a feeling that I couldn’t put into words.”
In general, South Sudanese infrastructure is lacking: Many buildings in many towns don’t have electricity or running water. To the extent that basketball courts exist, many are run down. Wenyen crammed his plane with basketball equipment, shoes and shirts and left it all behind. Next year, he plans to return to the country, and in the interim, he’s working with contractors and other charitable organizations (including possibly one of the Lakers’ foundations) to build a court there where he can host future camps.
But really, Gabriel said, basketball is a means of drawing attention to the resources South Sudan actually needs. The country is mired in political infighting that has left the government unable to provide some essential services, including free and independent elections.
One of Gabriel’s favorite memories from the trip was his All-Star game on the last day of the camp, which featured feel-good highlights, singing and dancing. But he knows day-to-day life, especially for refugees, is extremely difficult.
“I know it’s not how it is every day there,” he said. “I think a lot of people when they see it, they’re gonna see all the happy moments, that everyone was just happy, but people are really hungry. They have real issues besides basketball, but this is just a way for me to bring attention and change it to a more positive outlook, to work towards something.”
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Wenyen is bubbling with this positivity, flashing his gleaming white smile as he speaks of the possibility of basketball in South Sudan and Africa at large. Though he’s lived in the United States since he was 3 years old, he talks about South Sudan as “our country” and its residents as “our people.”
A number of high-profile players in the league, such as Joel Embiid (Cameroon) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (Nigeria) are first- or second-generation Africans, and in the last few years, the NBA has developed the Basketball Africa League as a means of expanding its footprint, but also seeking out new talent.
There were members of Gabriel’s own family, including his mother, who were conflicted about his trip to South Sudan. There are parts of the country that are still unstable or insecure. But he couldn’t be swayed – and now that he’s been once, he’s hooked on the idea of returning again and again.
“He didn’t have to do any of this,” Komot said. “He did it so early in his career, and it was just raw and emotional. There was nothing to it except that he wanted to open his arms and share what he has. And that’s the kind of person he’s always been.”