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Ben Smith

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Sundanese newcomer expected to play vital role for Ball State

Majok

– The fresh face of this thing, sort of, looks down at his strange world from 6 foot, 8 inches in the sky. He’s a rebounding machine, by all accounts. Blocked a shot or two in his time, by those same accounts. Owns a soft little touch from 12 feet in.

Oh, yeah: And he’s good at traveling, too.

His full, lyrical name is Majok Maker Majok – “Maker” is his father’s name – and in his just-shy-of-20-years he’s gone from South Sudan to Perth, Australia, to Massachusetts to Texas. And now here he is in yet another place he scarcely could have imagined.

Ball State. Muncie. In the geographical heart of (where is it again?) Indiana.

He’s here, an entire hemisphere away from home, because Billy Taylor wanted him and Billy Taylor got him, and now he is Ball State basketball, or at least a piece of what it looks like these days. Eight of the 14 players on Taylor’s roster, after all, were either in high school or somewhere else a year ago.

They include 6-11 freshman Mading Thok, who played his high school ball in Iowa, but, like Majok, was born in South Sudan. And it includes Majok, who was born 10 days before Thok in a place that wasn’t even its own country until July of last year.

He came to Muncie from Midland, Texas, where he was an all-conference player for Midland Junior College last year and averaged 10.8 points and 7.5 rebounds. That brought a whole pile of schools running – Oklahoma State, Arizona State, St. John’s, Washington and Gonzaga were among the suitors – but Majok, after a summer of agonizing, chose Ball State.

“Really hard decision,” he says now. “It came down to basically the coaching staff and the team and all the opportunities available for me here at Ball State.”

Which would have entirely different opportunities had Majok not hit a growth spurt around the time he was a high school freshman back in Perth.

Like any number of other Aussies, Majok took to soccer first, as a lanky forward who loved headers. But then he got his growth spurt, and, even though basketball isn’t exactly the national pastime in Australia, the light bulb went on for his parents.

“Maybe you should start thinking about playing basketball,” they said.

So he did, and his world expanded. He got discovered while playing for Australia in the FIBA world age-group championships, winding up with a scholarship at Northfield Mount Hermon prep school in Massachusetts. He played two seasons there, helping his team to the prep school nationals and going hand-to-hand with culture shock.

“It was really tough, because Australia’s kind of laid-back and easygoing, and then you come into a whole new different culture,” Majok says. “The food’s different, the weather’s different. … I’d never really seen snow before.”

He’ll see some this winter, but now he’s used to it. How quickly he gets used to what Taylor has planned for him remains to be seen.

“To have somebody come in like Majok who’s rebounded the ball at a high level on the junior college level, and has done the same thing so far in practice for us, is very encouraging,” says Taylor, who envisions Majok being a key piece of the Cardinals’ inside game now that perennial all-MAC pick Jarrod Jones is gone.

Majok at least sounds like he’s up to that, as he has been for so much else.

“Definitely my strengths are rebounding and blocking shots, and I’m able to score in the paint,” he says. “So that’s what I can bring to the table for our team.”

And traveling, of course. Don’t forget traveling.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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