Faithfulness and the Final Four
The joy of journeying with my brother Aguek Arop
Disclaimer: I am no journalist. I have barely even proofread what is typed below. But last minute I really felt like the Lord wanted me to share this story in my newsletter somehow and so below is just me sitting down and typing it out as best and quickly as I can.
I still remember the night that my brother Aguek Arop walked into our XLT (Evening consisting of a Talk, Adoration, Confession and Praise and Worship) at the SDSU Newman Center. The message had already been given, lights were dimmed, music playing, Jesus present in the Eucharist, and Fr. Pedro in His office hearing confessions. Aguek came in late, walked in and plopped in a chair, buried his head in his hands in front of the Lord in Adoration and never really moved from that position for quite a while. He eventually got up, went to confession, walked back to his seat and plopped back down into the previous position in Adoration. I remember worrying that this guy was probably totally freaked out by our worship and turned off by our community. Little did I know that during that XLT the Lord will bring back one of His sons out of darkness and despair. Aguek points to that night as a real catalyst moment of profound conversion (or re-version) for Him in his life. The Lord truly gave him a great gift of freedom that night and now everything would change for him and the trajectory of his life. For me, it would begin one of the coolest and most joyful journeys with a brother I have ever got to experience in my life of mission. His “yes” that night would become a great gift to me as well, not only in getting to play a small roll to journey with this man to Christ, but to be profoundly convicted through his journey, through his radical surrender, and the great story of Christs faithfulness that played out through my brother Aguek over the next few years.
From that night on I was able to walk with Aguek as He walked (more like sprinted) towards the Lord. We met regularly for discipleship over the next few years. In those times I learned a bit of the context of His life and what eventually brought Him to us at Aztec Catholic.
Him and his family were refugees from south Sudan. Came over to the United states when he was a small child. Bounced around from place to place until finally settling in Omaha, Nebraska. He came from a large Catholic family. Grew up in a very rough neighborhood riddled with racism, gang violence, and a setting that did not leave Him with much hope for what was to come. Finally he found a passion and sanctuary in the sport of basketball. Turns out he was pretty good at it too! He received a ton of attention in high school from colleges, won some championships, became Gatorade’s player of the year in Nebraska and eventually found himself as one of the top recruits to San Diego State University’s prestigious basketball program. He made his presence known immediately racking up some impressive shots, blocks, and stats in the first summer of practices. The newspaper had already begun raving about him. Eventually school started and he was living the life of a star basketball player at SDSU. He was seeing success on the court. Yet, he felt empty. Something was off. Also, some injury issues were starting to flare up and get in the way of the only thing that mattered to him. Success in basketball. Life was in one instance going exactly “as planned”. Shortly into the season he became a starter. Yet nothing was quite fulfilling him like he had hoped. Finally, he was invited by his weightlifting coach, a Catholic and friend of the Newman center, to come to the XLT that night. He was supposed to go on a date, however she cancelled (oh shoot. Haha), and so I guess he no longer had an excuse to not go to the XLT. So thankfully he walked through those doors that night at XLT.
After that XLT he began to really dive into the Aztec Catholic community and the path the Lord was laying out before him. SDSU basketball was expected to be a #1 seed going into the NCAA March Madness tournament that year, however, with the pandemic just starting up, the tournament was cancelled. This was an understandably tough pill to swallow for Aguek and the team. However, the Lord who tends to make graves into gardens, began to grow inside of Aguek a man whose heart was set on the Lords will and not his own. Him and I met up for discipleship regularly. He was going to monthly spiritual direction with Fr. Pedro. He joined the Aztec Catholic mens household and had genuine and Christ centered brotherhood. He was baptized in the Holy Spirit. He went on retreats and received great gifts of healing and freedom from those times. He eventually became the student co-president of the Newman center. He was also a great joy to our family. He would come over quite often. The kids adored him. The moment he would walk in they would steal him away to jump on the trampoline, ride tiny tricycles, or obliterate him in a nerf war. He really has a special relationship with Xavier and Kolbe and it is such a gift to see. I think also the kids were a great joy and blessing to Him as he went through some trying times. Grace always reminds me that our kids have a ministry too.
When basketball started going again, he was playing with a new sort of conviction and with great success. I would take the family to go watch the games along with Fr. Pedro and tons of other Newman students. It was so fun to watch our brother in a stadium of over 12,000 people “ball out” with such a joy and passion in the game that he loved. He was also leading a Bible study with the many of the basketball players and was such a leader in the clubhouse. He was often called by the players and coaches the ”chaplain” of the team.
Eventually however, injuries started to rear their ugly head once again. He had injuries to his jaw, knee, hip and shoulder all which needed surgery. He came down with random and freak illnesses. Severe cases of Vertigo would come and go randomly. This was really taking a toll on him in every realm of life. I remember sitting in my office with him, speaking about these struggles and asking the Lord what He was doing, and I remember Aguek saying to me, “Jamie, I think the Lord is asking me to give him basketball.” I remember how emotional and tough that was for Him to even vocalize. This sport he loves. This sport he had for the most part given his life to. This sport that he truly has a god given talent in. Now gone. However, Aguek knew the Lord wanted Him to lay that at the foot of the altar and surrender it that day. So He did. Aguek spoke with his coach, and officially retired from SDSU basketball. The coach however, being the smart man he is, knew Aguek was more to that team than just what he brought on the court asked if Aguek would still be willing to be with the team as a leader off the court. Asked if he would still help at practices and travel with the team and continue to be the backbone he always has been for the men of that team. Aguek was honored and excited to take on that roll and so agreed.
The Lord really used this time to re-orient Agueks life and truly place the Lord on the throne of His life replacing Basketball or whatever else might have been there before. I have never been more convicted by a mans full “yes” and surrender than the total and free surrender my brother gave to the Lord during this time. It was truly saintly. Fast forward a few months, through the offseason, the pre-season, and some of the early season. Agueks body just seemed to be different. He was slowly starting to play again at practice with the team, and none of the injuries seemed to be an issue like before. This led to the coach calling Aguek into his office and offering Aguek the ability to play on the team again if he wants. He basically said he totally respects his decision either way, and wants Agueks physical and mental health to be the priority. He said they would not even need him to practice if he cannot do it, but still is willing to put him into games for his final senior year, and the team would greatly benefit from him getting back on the court if that is something Aguek was wanting to do. They decided to give it a shot and to be attentive to how Agueks body holds up. I remember Aguek walking into my office once again, with a big smile on his face, and saying “Jamie, I think the Lord is handing me back basketball?” I said “I think He is man. I think He is”. A few months later I was at the game, surrounded by a stadium of Aztec fans at Viejas arena, and the announcers voice echoing through the stadium… “Now entering the game… Aguek Arop!!!”. The place went nuts. We went nuts. I Had tears in my eyes, and it was such a beautiful moment of Gods faithfulness… and crazy enough… God wasn’t done
The 2022-2023 SDSU men’s basketball season quickly became one for the ages. It was a bit of a rollercoaster year that saw them cruise up and down in the nations top 25 rankings. Aguek was the first man off the bench almost the whole year and was playing some of the best basketball of his life. The local newspaper really gravitated towards his story and covered him all the time. He was on the front page of the sports page multiple times and even the front page of the newspaper. He was all over various news websites and TV stations and giving glory to God all throughout. He was the leader and backbone they needed this past year. After one tough defeat to a ranked divisional matchup, he held a players only meeting and had every guy go around and confess to ways they have failed their teammates on and off the court. He went first, and every other player followed. It was said to be a real turning point for the team who the next game went out and beat another ranked team by over 20 points. The trajectory from that point on was up. They went on to win the Mountain West league title. They went on to win the Mountain West tournament. At last they finally qualified for the 2023 March Madness tournament. The regular season ended with the teams final home game which is the senior night in which they honor all the seniors. A whole section of the stands was filled with the Newman Center community as we were there to support our brother in the Viejas arena for the last time. Before the game, when the seniors are honored at center court, Aguek walk out with his two parents and Fr. Pedro. The Viejas arena went wild one last time for our brother. It was awesome. Now all eyes turned to the NCAA tournament.
SDSU squeaked out a first round victory against the Charleston Cougars and moved on to round 2. They were matched up against the Furman Paladins who had just knocked off the No. 4 ranked Virginia basketball squad. The Aztecs played with confidence and grit, our defense showed up, led in part by Aguek ,and cruised to another victory and found ourselves in the sweet sixteen. The next match was not going to be easy because we were matched up against the No. 1 overall seed, the Alabama Crimson Tide. I watched this game at home with Grace and all the kids decked out in our Aguek Arop Aztecs gear. It was nuts! The game went back and forth and my heart never stopped racing… and I never stopped pacing (ask Grace). The boys played SO well and we were able to defy all the odds and all the world and defeat Alabama that day. The Cinderella story, and the Lords faithfulness in the life of Aguek was on full display. The Aztecs were now in the Elite Eight. We were now matched up against the very team that knocked us out of the tournament last year, Creighton. This time I watched the game at a local Aztec bar with my parents and uncle. I have never been so nervous. The game was intense and a nail bitter. Aguek was HUGE in this game. He came in and gave the spark we needed with some huge defensive blocks, timely rebounds, and a few clutch free point shots in pivotal moments. At one point the bar was chanting his name. It was so cool! The game went down to the final seconds. We were winning by 1 point and the other team threw the ball down the court in a last ditch effort, but the pass was intercepted by our very own Aguek Arop and the clock ran out. We had won!! We were in the Final Four for the first time in school history. Houston here we come!
Tons of students from Newman made the trip out to Houston for these once in a lifetime games. The hype and build up for this was out of control. The game was being played in a football stadium and so the arena could fit over 70,000 fans. This was of course nationally broadcasted. We were matched up against another Cinderella story in Florida Atlantic University. They had been on an epic run all tournament as well. The game did not start as we would have hoped and we actually were down 14 points at one point. I was on a trip with some college buddies that we had planned years before, and so was watching in some random city in Wisconsin or Illinois. I don’t remember. Haha. Anyways, the game was brutal. But we slowly chipped away at the deficit until it was at last the final minute and we were down by 1 point. FAU charged down the court and drove in for a layup. Aguek was guarding the player, went up and blocked the shot! It was CRAZY! I was jumping on the couches in that random house in that random city. We got the rebound, passed it out to our point guard Lamont Butler. There were only a few seconds left on the clock. Lamont tried to drive, could not penetrate, dribbled back a bit, went up for the jump shot, released it as the buzzer went off, and… SWOOSH! It goes in! Game is over! We won! Aguek was first player to hug and lift up Lamont as the whole team stormed the court! I am screaming, jumping on couches, and just beside myself. Total disbelief. The Aztecs are going to the championship game!
I was able to Facetime with Aguek that night. Was so cool to see this man who had been through so much, who really took a risk on the Lord, be rewarded. He was radiating joy. To see him soak in every second of a moment that really the Lord gave Him, but only because Aguek was willing to give it to the Lord first. Really was an Abraham and Isaac sort of story of Gods faithfulness. Aguek was even telling me that night how healing it had been for his family, who has had their hurts and their drama over the years, but who were all in Houston supporting him and celebrating with him. He really saw profound healing in his family through this time. Also, turns out that Houston was the first place they were stationed as refugees, and they only had bad and very hurtful memories in that city. They even went to their old neighborhood while they were in town. So cool that the Lord was even intentional enough to bring this family full circle, to a place of healing, and replacing those tears with laughter. To take what was dark and bring light. Yes, because of a game of basketball, but more so because of the surrender of one man to the Lord and His will. God is good!!
Anyways… back to the Championship game. I decided I needed to be in Houston and so booked a ticket that night. So my Dad and I met up in Houston the next day along with a slew of SDSU Newman center students, with Fr Pedro, with our FOCUS missionaries. It was so cool. Walking in that stadium with 70,000 people, it did not feel real. Then seeing the team warming up, the students beginning to chant, the butterflies were building for me like crazy. Then the whistle blew. The game was on. It was hard fought. Our boys played so well and fought back from a deficit multiple times, but we could not pull it off that day. UCONN was very good and had our number. We lost in the championship. The Cinderella story was over. I remember as the final whistle blew, UCONN celebrating, and watching the entire Aztec team walk off the court into the locker room, understandably very bummed. I was looking for Aguek and did not see him in the numbers headed to the locker room. My eyes searched the court amidst the UCONN colored confetti falling, their players celebrating, and then I finally see Aguek over at a huge row of fans going along and hugging each one of them. It was his family. Even in such a tough loss and an end to an epic story, He was still grounded in more than a game. I was so proud of that man. Fr. Pedro, a few students, and I were able to hang with Aguek and his family that evening. He was in good spirits and just seemed so grateful.
I truly believe the Lord has only just begun to use Aguek and his incredible story. I am so proud of him and honored by his friendship. He is now a coach for the SDSU men’s basketball team. He is still on mission through whatever platform he is given. He is still such an example to me of what it is to continually surrender to the Lord and see just how faithful the Lord truly is.