FISHERS – You think he’s skinny now? You should’ve been in that driveway two years ago when Mabor Majak got out of the car. First came his legs, then his arms, then the rest of him. He stood up and he just kept standing, rising toward the April sun, this kid of 14 years smiling nervously at his new family. He was 7 feet tall. He weighed 160 pounds, tops. Seemed so scared and alone, it just about broke your heart. What am I doing here, that smile was asking. Who are these people? Why is this woman hugging me?
Where Mabor Majak came from, affection wasn’t normal. The gunfire was normal. So were the tanks rolling past his house, the looters trying to get inside, the stacks of dead bodies in the street.
The war began on a Sunday. Mabor remembers that. Since that December day in 2013, he has lost brothers, uncles and an aunt in the South Sudanese Civil War. The fighting was still going on that day in April 2015 — it’s going on now — when Mabor got out of the car and took the first uncertain step toward his new life.
“Scared,” Mabor remembers. “Just so scared.”
It was cold that first day. April in Indiana, 50 degrees tops, and Mabor Majak was shivering in his skinny jeans and button-down shirt, the nicest clothes he owned, pretty much the only clothes he owned.
He was leaving behind a horror movie in South Sudan for a postcard in the suburbs: mom, dad, two boys. Mike and Lisa Fox are the parents. The boys are Dillon (17) and Oscar (10), and Oscar kept staring up at Mabor like he was a celebrity. It was Oscar who coaxed Mabor out of his room that first day, took him to the basement.
When Lisa went to the basement a few hours later, Mabor was playing video games and curled up, all 7 feet of him, inside a blanket.
* * *
Two years later, he’s a freshman at Hamilton Southeastern. Mabor Majak is standing at midcourt, waiting for the opening tap of HSE’s junior varsity game against New Castle. The kid opposite Mabor is looking around with a wry smile. The kid from New Castle is 6-3, but he’s about to lose this tap, and he’s about to lose it big.
In the crowd, Lisa Fox is telling me about Costco. That’s where she buys her groceries, because that’s where they sell Smucker’s Uncrustables, those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in 18-count boxes. Every week she buys two boxes. That’s 36 sandwiches.
Those are for Mabor.
She and Michael had been talking about taking in a child from overseas when a family friend sent them a picture in 2015: Mabor standing near an outdoor court in South Sudan, built like a walking stick, wearing a faded Kevin Garnett jersey from the Boston Celtics. Behind him, a net hangs by one thread from a rim attached to a wood backboard. He’s holding a basketball, palming it away from his body. He’s wearing red Adidas high-tops.
“I knew we had to have him,” Lisa says. “But Michael …”
Michael Fox wasn’t sure. He’s co-director of Indiana Elite, an AAU program whose alumni include Cody Zeller, Yogi Ferrell and 2016 IndyStar Mr. Basketball Kyle Guy. The Fox family takes in a 7-footer? He knew how it would look.
“You only brought him over because he’s 7 feet tall,” Fox says, imagining the criticism he faced in 2015.
The family friend was Bil Duany, a Sudanese native whose family moved to Bloomington in 1984. All three Duany boys – Duany, Kueth and Bil — became Indiana All-Stars at Bloomington North. When they go back to South Sudan, they keep an eye out for someone like they were, a boy who can use basketball to get out. Over the years, they’ve sent nearly 20 kids to America.
Bil Duany was coaching at Southport at the time, and working with Fox at Indiana Elite. The families were close. Last time he was in South Sudan, Duany visited that outdoor court with the net hanging from the rim. Majak didn’t like basketball, not yet, but his friends were playing so he was playing. He never touched the ball, wouldn’t have known what to do with it, but he could run all day in the 100-degree humidity.
Bil Duany took a picture and sent it to Lisa Fox, who told her husband she wanted to take in this kid. No, Michael said. Find another refugee, one who isn’t 7 feet tall.
But Lisa, she wanted this kid — and she was willing to play dirty. She showed the photo to Dillon and Oscar, and they were enthusiastic. They approached Michael.
“I told them no,” he says, then raises his eyebrows, because …
“We outvoted him!” Lisa yelps happily.
And then Michael Fox tells me something that won’t make sense until later.
“I don’t care what anyone says,” Fox tells me. “I know what Mabor’s done for my family.”
* * *
The bathroom was outside. But so were the tanks. So was the gunfire. So were the bodies stacked up on the road, totems of a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands in South Sudan, displaced close to 2 million and threatens to starve half of this country’s population of 12 million.
Mabor Majak grabbed a knife from the kitchen and went outside, crawling to the outhouse, then crawling back home. Entire days would pass where the family wouldn’t stand up, not even inside, because bullets kept hitting the house.
Some of the bullets pierced the walls. One pierced Mabor’s aunt. She died on the sidewalk. Never got inside the hospital. It was overcrowded.
Bil Duany knew the Majak family — he’s a distant relative — and when he asked Mabor’s mother for permission to send him to the United States, she signed the papers.
Mabor arrived two years ago, carrying a small bag with one change of clothes. He was wearing red adidas, his only shoes. Lisa and Michael bought him an extra-long bed, but Mabor is so tall he has to sleep diagonally. Sometimes Lisa finds him on the floor. That’s where he slept in South Sudan.
South Sudan’s education system is primitive and English isn’t his first language — his native tongue is Dinka — and so HSE has not been easy for Mabor. His first U.S. history quiz was about the states, and he failed it. He could name three. Lisa got him a placemat with a map of America. Mabor knows all the states now.
On one of his first mornings with the family, Mabor was talking with Lisa as she made pancakes and eggs. She heard something in his voice and looked up. He was crying.
“Mom,” he said, “this is better than anything I could have dreamed of.”
* * *
He’ll play college basketball some day.
Mabor Majak is 7-1½ and still growing, and has surprising coordination and agility for someone so tall and young. He’s a novice, but his left-handed shooting motion is smooth. He dunks twice and makes seven of eight free throws against New Castle. A dead ball rolls his way and Mabor flicks it into the air with his foot, then again, then catches it and hands it to a referee.
Mabor has gained 40 pounds to 205, and while he’s weaker, slower than other JV players, he’s in love with basketball. It’s helped him build a core of friends, a group of 11 boys who went to HSE’s homecoming dance and invited Mabor, who said his date would be orange and round. Pictures from that night show 12 boys and 11 girls surrounding Mabor’s date — a basketball.
He knows what this sport can do for him, and others. Mabor and Oscar talk about starting a foundation some day to help save other kids in South Sudan.
“I want to take basketball to the next level,” Mabor is telling me on the empty bleachers at HSE after the New Castle game. “College, maybe the NBA.”
He’s willing to work for it. It’s almost 10 p.m. when we leave the HSE gym, but there are weights and a slab of hardwood in the Fox basement, and he’s thinking about going down there tonight. If not, he’ll wake up at 5 a.m. and work out. He’s willing to work for everything, including extra schoolwork with a tutor. Mabor recently won a bet — a jug of apple juice — after acing a biology test. He sent his tutor a picture of the A.
His brothers are paying attention. Dillon and Oscar have told their parents that they’re closer, more appreciative of life in Fishers because of Mabor’s influence. Dillon recently wrote a school paper about Mabor’s work ethic and the influence it has had. This is what Mike Fox meant when he told me: “I know what Mabor’s done for my family.”
And Mabor isn’t going anywhere. He intends to graduate from HSE in 2020, and the politics around immigration have ruled out a return to South Sudan. What if he goes home and can’t come back?
“We’re not taking any chances,” Michael Fox is telling me in the parking lot outside the HSE gym. “He’s our family.”
I’m thinking of two text messages Mabor has sent Lisa Fox, texts she has saved in her phone — “I love you” and “Can you pick me up Mom?” — as we watch Mabor walk toward the family car. Now Michael is sharing a fear he couldn’t even have imagined three years ago.
“Look, he can’t go home,” Michael says. “If he tried to go back after living in the States, they’d kill him.”
Does Mabor know that?
“He does,” Michael says, then moves to a happier thought. “He’s brought the whole world into our living room. To have somebody from another place that gives your children a better perspective of what they have, and to see the bond between brothers …”
Off in the distance Mabor has reached the car, towering above it. Michael presses a button on his keychain. Lights flash, the doors unlock and Mabor folds himself inside. He is alone in the dark, but not for long. Michael is walking that way, through the mist, toward the 7-1½ boy who calls him Dad.