The story of how Wenyen Gabriel became a Kentucky basketball player includes the longest civil war in African history, the culture shock of a move from Cairo, Egypt, to Manchester, New Hampshire, and the inspiring example of a family’s perseverance.
Gabriel was born in Khartoum, Sudan, where his family had fled to escape the fighting in a civil war that raged off and on for more than 50 years. Arab Muslims dominated in the northern part of the country. Black Christians were the majority in the southern part of the country.
“It started off as a political fight,” said Komot Gabriel, the UK player’s oldest brother, “and turned into a religious fight. Then it turned into a resource fight.”
Two weeks after Wenyen was born, his mother took him and three siblings to Cairo.
“We moved in with an aunt,” Komot said. “A two-bedroom apartment. My mom and us four kids in one room. And my aunt and her husband and their family in the other room.”
Komot remembered his mother, Rebecca Gak, working night and day to support four children and make enough money to bring their father to Cairo.
“I was essentially the primary caregiver for Wenyen because he was a baby,” said Komot, who was 7 at the time.
Living in a major metropolis like Cairo was a shock. But the family absorbed a greater shock two years later. A second appeal to the United Nations got the family passage to Manchester, which had a sizable Sudanese population.
“We pretty much won the lottery,” Komot said.
Life in the United States required an adjustment. No one in the family spoke English. Snow “kind of frightened us the first time it happened,” Komot said. “We sort of fought through it.”
A Catholic nun, whose church helped immigrants adjust, introduced the family to cereal and explained that you ate it with milk.
“When the time came to go to the store and get it, we couldn’t find it in the store,” Komot said. “My mom didn’t know what to do. I’m with her trying to shop. So we go to the clerk looking for cereal and we say, hey, we’re looking for ‘with-milk.’ The clerk says, what the heck is ‘with-milk.’
“You’ve got to go through those everyday battles. It’s a communications battle. And you’ve got to survive.”
The children not only survived, but thrived. Komot is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire. A sister, Karima, graduated from Boston College. Another brother, Mabor, attends the College of Coastal Georgia.
Wenyen’s younger brother, Gob, and sister, Piath, are doing well in high school.
Wenyen won his high school’s Phil Shaw Award, which goes to the student who excels athletically and academically, plus shows high moral character. Wenyen won by a unanimous vote of the faculty.
Mike Mannix, who coached Wenyen in high school, credits the mother for the success of the children.
“Mom’s really a hard worker,” he said. “A nice, sweet lady. All the older kids have all gone through college. … I think that’s been a priority of the family, which just kind of shows the foundation they’ve built.”
Piath, who was born in 2001, has a name that signals the family’s success. Her name means good in the language of the Dinka, the dominant tribe in South Sudan. “Good meaning a good time for us,” Komot said.
By the way, Wenyen’s name also has meaning. A sister born a year or so before Wenyen died in infancy. The name Wenyen means wipe your tears, Komot said.
Wenyen is well aware of the basketball players from South Sudan who rose to prominence. They include Manute Bol and former Duke star Luol Deng. Louisville sophomore Deng Adel is also a native of South Sudan.
“He’s my rival for this year,” Wenyen said with a smile. “Hopefully, he’ll be there (in the NBA), too. Hopefully, I’ll be there, too.”
Wenyen is proud of his South Sudan heritage. The nation’s flag is on display in his dorm room. “On the wall right next to my bed,” Wenyen said. The nation gained independence — finally — in 2011.
Early in the preseason, UK Coach John Calipari said that Wenyen needed time to get stronger. Calipari had him working out with Kentucky’s big men in an attempt to make him tougher.
Calipari mentioned Wenyen’s willingness to play hard, which Mannix said was the reason the player had success in high school.
Wenyen grew up rooting for Duke. With his solid academic record, it was assumed he fit the Duke profile and would play for the Blue Devils.
When asked if it was hard to say no to Duke, Wenyen quipped, “It was just easy to say yes to Kentucky.”
Meet the Cats
Today’s stories on Wenyen Gabriel and Jonny David are the fifth and sixth in a series of 14 on Kentucky’s 2016-17 men’s basketball players.
Coming next: Dominique Hawkins and Dillon Pulliam