BUTTE – Raised by his brother during the South Sudanese civil war, John Dhuol’s search for education, basketball and peace took him to five countries on two different continents. He now finds himself in Butte playing basketball for the Orediggers and pursuing an engineering degree.
After years of conflict between Sudanese groups, South Sudan became an independent country in 2011. During this time, Dhuol and his brothers did their best to create a successful livelihood for their family, as their environment created a unrest in the town of Rumbek.
“I was young and I was rather well protected by my relatives. Where I was, attacks were not that common,” Dhuol said. “But for the others, it was much worse. It was one of the longest civil wars in Africa.
While Dhuol did not often fear violence in or around his home in South Sudan, leaving for school was a constant concern. With the help of his older brother, Dhuol attended the equivalent of a college in neighboring Uganda.
Dhuol, who was playing football at the time, had found a peaceful environment to receive a basic education and could return home quite easily for the holidays. But he described his school experience as ‘bouncing’, as he went through each stage without his parents.
“There was a war going on and it’s not a situation where no one can grow up and go to school at the same time,” Dhuol said. “I was not living with my parents so I moved from family to family in Uganda. The one who really always supported me was my older brother.
Although not ideal, his time in Uganda was much less stressful than his life in South Sudan. Dhuol even took the opportunity to visit his family in Nairobi, Kenya, where he learned about the sport that would one day help him achieve his college education goal.
Dhuol visited his brother’s family during his trip to Kenya, but noticed children playing basketball outside. It was his first exposure to basketball, but he found the game so interesting that he knew he wanted to pursue the sport rather than football.
“I saw guys dribbling basketballs and it was interesting. I wanted to try it and as soon as I did I said, ‘Okay, I’m not going back to football “Dhuol said. “I liked that you could work on your skills without anyone else. You just need a hoop, ball and shoes to work on it. I liked that you could have fun even if no one was there.
Luckily for Dhuol, a former NBA player was hosting a camp during his visit to Kenya. Dhuol happily attended and honed his skills before returning to Uganda to complete his studies.
With a newfound love for basketball, a stable school and family environment spread across the continent, Dhuol found himself in a calm situation at 16. But one day he received a call from his brother, who presented a new challenge for the budding basketball star.
“My brother called me and told me there was no money to continue paying for school in Uganda, so I went back to South Sudan,” Dhuol said. “I was frantically looking for scholarships and places to go. Luckily, a basketball camp guard liked my game and helped me find a spot. That’s how I ended up in Canada.
Dhuol traveled to Toronto where he finished high school and played basketball at the Athlete Institute. He flew alongside his cousin who currently lives in Utah. Upon arriving in Canada, Dhuol noticed what he called “immediate culture shock.”
Clothing and food were major differences he noticed, but the cold Canadian weather was the hardest to adjust to. Dhuol said he never wore a winter coat before moving to Canada.
“It was easy to get used to the people and the everyday differences. The people up there look a lot like those in Montana. Their pride is based on kindness,” Dhuol said. “But the weather, man, I don’t know. It was very difficult to get used to it.
As his high school career drew to a close, Dhuol considered college. Fortunately, his high school coach knew Montana Tech coach Adam Hiatt and sent him a letter informing him of Dhuol’s potential.
After seeing a movie again, Hiatt and Dhuol struck up a friendship via text messages and phone calls for several months. Hiatt then traveled to Toronto to meet Dhuol, who signed with Tech even before visiting campus.
“I watched his movie and we built a friendship over the phone,” Hiatt said. “I liked a lot of his qualities. He had a lot of advantages and loved engineering. John just knew it was the right place for him, so he signed right there, got a visa and here we are.
“He is an excellent ambassador for the program. He’s only played since he was 16, but he’s on his way to becoming a major impact player. We are so happy to have him here.
After a few years in Butte, Dhuol said he was hanging out with friends more and seeing what the town had to offer. He described his entire experience at Montana Tech as “magnificent.”
Dhuol wore a red shirt last season and has seen little playing time this season. But he said his goal was to help his team any way he could and he wanted to constantly improve his game while pursuing an engineering degree.
“I don’t think I had a bad experience, either in Canada or here,” Dhuol said. “Everyone has been very receptive. I have never been discriminated against or anything like that. It was just a nice ride.
“I think the most important thing I’ve learned here is time management, how to balance school and basketball. They both take time. Cooking for yourself too. I’m getting better at all of that, but therein lies the challenge.