Peter Jok goes up for a shot as the Northern Arizona Suns take on Greensboro on March 15, 2019, in Prescott Valley. (Matt Hinshaw/NAZ Suns, file)
PRESCOTT VALLEY – Peter Jok wasn’t like other kids his age the first time he saw snow. He had no memories of Christmases past, of presents opened, of snow days. Instead, Jok was just cold. Cold and confused.
The white powder falling from the sky in Des Moines, Iowa, was as unfamiliar as the community, Prescott Valley, he now calls home.
“I didn’t know what snow was,” Jok said. “When we got here there was snow everywhere and I didn’t know what was going on.”
It was a harsh reminder that Jok’s life had changed forever. The capital of Iowa is a long way from where his story began.
These days Jok is a 6-foot-6 guard for the Northern Arizona Suns, an NBA Gatorade League team and minor league affiliate of the Phoenix Suns. Even though the season is over, Jok is preparing to compete with Iowa United in The Basketball Tournament, a 64-team, single-elimination competition that begins in July with a winner-take-all prize of $2 million.
That’s a number Jok surely never imagined growing up.
BIG JOK, BIG MAC
Basketball wasn’t always a source of joy for Jok. The sharpshooting guard can trace his path in basketball not to a love of the game at first, but a love of McDonald’s.
“My guardian wanted me to play for his AAU team, and I didn’t want to because I didn’t like basketball.” Jok said laughing. “I went to a few practices and he would always take us to McDonald’s after and I just told (my mother) that I was going to keep going for McDonald’s and that’s the reason how I got into basketball.”
The golden arches served as incentive for Jok to continue playing. However, soon the meals weren’t necessary. He started to enjoy the game.
The budding romance would take Jok a long way. He rose to the highs of being the No. 1 rated high school player in his class in the state of Iowa, and the lows of a devastating knee injury which forced him to miss time. As a result, much of the top tier courtship stopped.
“I had every school in the nation (recruiting me) in ninth grade, so I could’ve went anywhere.” Jok said. “But as soon as I got hurt, a lot of schools disappeared.”
Ultimately, Jok showed the resilience that has become his calling card. After a successful four-year career at the University of Iowa, Jok capped off his career by winning the collegiate three-point shooting contest.
That elite skill landed him a spot with the Suns, where his coach, Bret Burchard, has applauded the strength that Jok has shown throughout his life.
“To me it’s unfathomable,” Burchard said. “Something so distant from what I’ve experienced. When you first hear those stories it’s like, ‘Is this true?’ To see where he’s at now having gone through that stuff is just remarkable, the strength of character and perseverance.”
That recognition doesn’t just come from his coaches. His teammates also realize what he’s gone through to get to this point, and how much he doesn’t outwardly portray his challenges.
“Even if it was a hard experience, I couldn’t tell because he doesn’t want anyone to treat him any differently,” said Eric Stuteville, Jok’s roommate and teammate.
Although playing professional basketball is a passion, it’s not the endgame for Jok.
THE NEXT STEP
He has already started to prepare for when his basketball career comes to an end.
Jok is on a mission to change both the perception of his home country and the day-to-day situation within its borders, from an ocean away.
Jok’s older brother, Dau, has a foundation established that sends sports equipment and books to their home country.
Peter wants to take it further and make an impact on the ground as well.
“My ultimate goal (is) trying to get to the NBA, make a lot of money, and then go back and help in South Sudan, (and) try and build a library or a school,” Jok said. “I feel like education is the key. If the kids get educated back home it’ll be a better place, because right now it’s not where we want it to be.”
Jok knows where he wants South Sudan to be. Since leaving as a child, he hasn’t returned to his birthplace due to the ongoing conflicts.
“When you think about South Sudan, you think negative,” Jok said. “I’m trying to be part of the reason we turn it to a positive for the future generations. I want people to have their kids go back to South Sudan, I want to have a home in South Sudan and spend my time there with my people.”
Jok insists he isn’t just blurting out empty promises and clichés, he means it. Just as he meant it when he said that he would bounce back from his knee injury, and as he meant it when he said he would play professional basketball. Joke possesses a drive that’s rooted in what he’s overcome to get to this point.
“If you go through things like he’s gone through, you’ll respond to adversity in different ways,” Burchard said. “I think it (his life experiences) shaped who he is and gave him a good perspective on what he’s doing here in Prescott Valley.”
Prescott Valley, the latest stop on a journey that in a perfect world for Jok, will start and end in the same place. A place he once called home, and a place he wants to help improve.
A place without snow.
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