Basketball front and center for Austin's Idris brothers
Moses Idris was asked what his life might look like once he’s finished high school.
Idris is a 6-feet-3, 190-pound Austin High School senior and starter on one of the top basketball programs in the state. Like the majority of the players on this team — three of them starters — Idris is of South Sudanese descent.
"I want to play college basketball somewhere," the soft-spoken senior said. "I’m not sure where, but I’d like to go someplace where it’s warm."
So far, he’s being recruited by two schools, and neither would meet his weather criteria. One is Northland Community College in Thief River Falls, the other Austin’s own junior college, Riverland.
"We'll see," Idris said of his college options.
Idris was spotted one week ago in the Rochester John Marshall gymnasium taking alley-oop passes from good friend Agwa Nywesh and throwing them down for consecutive dunks. He’s averaging nine points and four rebounds this season, with 27 steals for the 17-4 Packers.
Clearly strong and athletic, Idris might be getting even more college looks had he gotten an earlier start in basketball. It took prodding from his buddy Nywesh, a 6-3 cat-quick guard who is getting Division I college overtures, to get him out there. That was in the seventh grade.
"Moses was tall even back then, and we didn’t have anyone tall on our schoolball team, so I told him to try basketball," Nywesh said. "With his raw athletic talent, he was catching everyone’s eye. He was already almost dunking then. Now, he loves to play and work on his game."
Moses’ parents — Adam and Abekiew Idris — immigrated to the United States in 2006 from Ethiopia, where for nine years they’d lived in a refugee camp after fleeing war-torn Sudan. They have three sons, 17-year-old Moses, 15-year-old Victor and 7-year-old Omod.
Moses and Victor were born in the refugee camp. Omod was born in Amarillo, Texas.
In 2009, the Idris family moved to Austin. Relatives were waiting there for them as was likely factory work at either Hormel Foods or Quality Pork Processors (QPP).
"Austin has been a good place," Abekiew said. "There is work here."
As is true of so many young Sudanese men in Austin, the Idris brothers have hoop dreams.
They’re dreams that sprung from watching the Sudanese players who preceded them at Austin High School, such as Ajuda Nywesh (2014 graduate), who is now playing professionally in Macedonia, as well as the Gach brothers — 2015 graduate Gach Gach, and 2018 graduates Both and Duoth, who are twins.
Gach Gach played at Division II college power West Texas A&M, while Both is a sophomore at Division I University of Utah and Duoth a sophomore at junior college North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton.
Both Gach, a 6-6 guard, is considered an NBA prospect.
The hoop dreams that those Packers stars generated have given much of Austin’s young Sudanese population not just joy, but purpose, inspiration and a reason to keep working — on and off the court.
"I hope that kids can use basketball as a vehicle for a better education and life," said longtime Austin boys basketball coach Kris Fadness, reminding that when grades aren’t up to snuff, players are no longer eligible. "In the classroom, you try to get them to do the best they can. Academics have to come first."
Like so many Sudanese parents in Austin — some, who like Abekiew, speak little English and have no formal education — Adam and Abekiew work at QPP. Adam’s shift runs from 3:30 p.m. until 12:30 a.m., while Abekiew is there from 5:30 a.m. until 2:45 p.m.
Abekiew is home in time to make Moses his favorite dish, Sambusa, a pastry stuffed with ground beef or lamb. When it comes to her cooking, she says with a smile, that’s the only thing he likes.
What Abekiew doesn’t come home to do is schoolwork with her kids. Her English isn’t good enough for that, which means Moses, Victor and Omod are either on their own, they help each other with school work, or they stay after school to get special instructions from school staff.
Adam finds himself continually repeating to Moses, in particular, that life continues after the balls stop bouncing, and that without a proper education, dead ends await.
Adam believes that Moses is finally seeing the light.
Victor, whose long, muscular physique is a carbon copy of Moses’, was asked by a reporter to probe his own future, and to think beyond college. Victor is an Austin High School sophomore and the first player off the bench for the Packers' varsity team.
"I want to continue to play basketball, to be a pro," said the 6-4, 180-pounder, who Fadness said already resembles a man with his build. "I want to be a player. And when my playing days are done, I still want to do something with basketball."
Tracing the Idris brothers’ athletic prowess is easy. They get most of that speed and leaping ability from their father. Adam was once an excellent soccer player in Sudan, using his explosiveness as a striker. He’s also run marathons.
Fadness said he believes Victor has a chance to be the next special player at Austin. The athletic gifts are there and so now is his focus.
"Victor is a talented, big, strong kid," Fadness said. "Early in the ninth grade he struggled academically and got into a little bit of a hole. But he’s done a 180 since, and the kid is really starting to open up."
Victor is Austin’s leading rebounder, at five per game and also its leading shot blocker. He’s not much of a scorer yet, averaging five points, but like Moses, he dunks easily.
"I think his game can really evolve and that he can develop into more of a perimeter threat for us," he said. "Victor and Moses are both gifted athletes."
Gifted, and with big dreams. Hoop dreams.
A different look: Basketball gyms becoming a second home for Austin's Sudanese population
Austin boys basketball coach Kris Fadness noted changes in his community starting in 2010.
It was then that the summer youth basketball scene in Austin began taking on a different look.
A town whose school district had been just 8 percent non-white in 1997 was transforming. With it, so too was the look of Fadness’ youth basketball camps.
Refugees from war-torn South Sudan, as well as Hispanics and southeast Asians who’d come to the United States looking for a better life, were finding it in Austin. There were jobs here for immigrants, factory work at meat processing plants Hormel Foods and Quality Pork Processors.
Of the new ethnic groups coming in waves to Austin, it was the Sudanese who especially were changing the look of those basketball gatherings. Not only were they enthusiastically flocking to them, but they were doing so while showing so much promise, so many of them long and sleek, and basketball naturals.
"Things were starting to change in Austin," said Fadness, the Packers boys basketball coach since 1997. "Those (Sudanese) kids loved basketball. A lot of them grew up here playing basketball at the YMCA. I tried to create as many opportunities for them as I could with open gyms at the high school. They have been so good for our program."
A glance at this season’s Packers varsity reveals just what a vital component the Sudanese student-athletes are to Fadness’ program. Of the team’s five starters, three are of Sudanese descent. Of the varsity’s 19 total players, 10 are Sudanese.
They’ve not just offered Fadness quantity, but quality. The list of Austin’s standout Sudanese players the last eight years is long. It includes such dazzlers as the Gach brothers, 2015 graduate Gach Gach and 2018 graduates Both and Duoth.
Gach Gach starred at Division II college West Texas A&M before graduating last year. Both is a University of Utah sophomore and an NBA prospect, while Duoth has been tearing things up at junior college power North Dakota State College of Science where he is also a sophomore.
There is also the Nywesh brothers, 2014 Austin graduate Ajuda, who is playing professionally in Macedonia, and present Packers senior star guard Agwa, who’s beginning to get Division I looks.
In the last two years, seven Austin players of Sudanese descent went on to play college basketball.
Then there’s all the winning the Sudanese players have helped bring to Austin's program. Including this season’s 17-4 record, Austin has gone a gaudy 213-45 the last nine years, with six state-tournament trips, three of those ending with runner-up finishes.
"I am so glad those guys picked basketball to play," said former Austin star Zach Wessels, a 2014 Austin graduate who played witih Ajuda Nywesh and Gach Gach. "They are so good at it. We all treated each other well; there was never any tension or any racism. We were all just coming together for team purposes."
Austin boys basketball wasn't nearly as dazzling prior to the Sudanese showing up to play in any numbers. The Packers went a combined 58-94 from the 2005-06 season through 2010-2011 season.
Fadness can’t help but think back to the infancy of Austin’s Sudanese wave, when he knew some community members had some trepidation.
"There was some concern about how it would affect our (basketball) program and how it would affect the community (in general)," Fadness said. "But I can’t say enough about how welcoming Austin has been toward diversity and how that has affected our entire program. To have a program like the one we’ve had the last 10 years, it takes a village; it takes everyone. This has been such a positive for our community. I am just so proud of what’s going on here."
Fadness was reminded that it’s not like this everywhere. That includes in northern Minnesota’s Beltrami County, which recently voted to disallow refugees from settling there.
It was a move that appalled Fadness.
"I just know then, that’s a community that I wouldn’t want to live in," Fadness said. "That’s not the kind of world I want to be a part of. It doesn’t matter whether someone is Sudanese, Norwegian, German or whatever. Immigrants are coming to America looking for a better way of life for their families. They’re trying to find their peace. We have to let them chase their dreams."
Austin High principal Andrea Malo says that not only have the recent immigrants to Austin found a better life, but they've made life better in Austin.
"Those students bring their culture to our school, and it enriches it," Malo said.
In the case of so many young Sudanese men living in Austin, their dreams revolve around basketball.
And it’s made all the difference.
In Austin, where fans flock to watch their boys basketball teams play, it’s given them a sense of belonging, purpose and identity. It’s also made their assimilation into what had been an almost entirely white community that much more seamless.
Basketball has helped put them and their town on the map.
"I wouldn’t say that Austin has been a good place to grow up, I’d say it’s been a great place," Both Gach said. "A lot of people know us (Sudanese) in Austin. I’ve never witnessed any racism there."
The Gach brothers, whose father is largely absent from their lives and whose mother works nights at Hormel, credit basketball for saving them. They say that’s true of so many other Sudanese young men in Austin who are living in similar circumstanes — mothers working late and fathers absent.
"To have basketball be such a big part of my culture growing up has been great," Both said. "As young kids looking for something to do, it gave us somthing instead of us just laying around. And when you’re always looking to get better (at basketball), you’re not going to be causing trouble."
As the oldest brother, 23-year-old Gach Gach carried much of the load when it came to raising twins Both and Duoth, as well as their younger sister, Nyabol. With their father not around and their mother working until midnight, it was Gach Gach who made things work.
He’d steer his siblings from trouble by heading with them to the YMCA immediately after school. That’s where they’d play basketball, night after night, the gym usually filled with other Sudanese teenagers. When they were done, it was back to the family apartment where Gach prepared dinner, then helped Both, Duoth and Nyabol with their evening’s homework.
"It was a challenge, growing up faster than so many others," Gach said. "I was exhausted all the time. I’d be worrying about getting (his siblings) stuff done, and then I’d forget to do my own stuff. But I had great teachers who understood."
And the Gachs had basketball, their savior.
"Basketball was vital," said Gach, who graduated from college in May with a degree in general studies and has hopes of playing professional basketball in Europe. "I don’t know where I’d be without basketball. My first couple of years (in high school), I didn’t take school seriously. But then Fadness set me aside and told me that I had to start doing well if I ever wanted to play in college. From that day on, I turned it around. I went to another level. It transformed me to push."
INCENTIVE BRINGS PROGRESS
Gach isn’t the only Sudanese young man who Santino Deng has witnessed "pushing." That’s been especially true the last few years.
A Success Coach at Austin High School the last 10 years and himself a Sudanese refugee, the 49-year-old Deng counsels Sudanese students on a daily basis.
The progress — or lack thereof — of Sudanese graduation rates at Austin High School had left him perplexed and questioning his own skills.
In 2014, 54.5 percent of the African population at Austin High (there are currently 48 Sudanese students at the school, and 112 black students overall) was graduating in four years.
But then something changed. It coincided with Deng going from agreeing that Sudanese kids get involved in extra-curriculars such as basketball, to actively pushing them to do so.
Extra-curriculars, he reasoned, force a student’s academic hand. When grades aren’t maintained, eligibility for "extras" goes away. Basketball, Deng now understands, means too much to the Austin Sudanese population to let that happen.
"With basketball, rules are set that if you don’t pass your classes, you aren’t going to play," Deng said. "Plus, when you’re playing a sport, or in music or taking any extra-curricular, that minimizes the time after school where you’re just lingering around and making bad choices."
Thanks in part to Deng’s push toward extra-curriculars, things have changed. In 2018, graduation rates among Austin High’s African students rose dramatically, to 71.4 percent.
Deng has also seen an ever-increasing number of Sudanese students moving on to college. Some of those opportunities have come thanks to basketball scholarships being offered.
For the Austin Sudanese population, basketball has been more than a game. It's been a provider.