EDMONTON (Canada) - There’s always a gregarious smile on Adut Bulgak’s face when she reminisces the hardships she’s had to overcome and what she’s accomplished playing the sport she loves.
The 27-year-old is the first and lone South Sudanese to be drafted into the prestigious USA Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) after being selected as a first round pick by the New York Liberty in the 2016.
I PLAYED AGAINST NEARLY THEIR ENTIRE ROSTER DURING MY COLLEGE CAREER AND EVEN THOUGH THEY [NIGERIA] ARE TALENTED, I WOULD LOVE TO BE ABLE TO MATCH UP WITH THEM IN THE NEAR FUTURE AS AFROBASKET CONTENDERS
Bulgak is still in awe in what she’s accomplished cognizant of the topsy-turvy childhood she had.
Her parents were forced to flee Sudan due to armed conflicts before a brief stopover in Ethiopia and later Kenya where she was born.
Bulgak first saw the light of day at the Kakuma refugee camp, a settlement for displaced persons run by the United Nations refugee agency in the north west of Kenya. While she doesn't remember a lot about growing up in the refugee camp, Bulgak believes it nurtured the foundation of resilience in her.
"It wasn't easy but I think when you grow up in a such a set up, you learn to be strong from a very young age," Bulgak said smiling to FIBA.basketball.
Her three older brothers, ardent sport lovers were key in igniting the forward’s spark for sports and volleyball was the first discipline that caught her attention.
"I started off playing volleyball at fifth grade and I played for eight years. I was pretty good at it and I had a lot of fun doing it," Bulgak recalled.
"I spent a lot of time with my brothers and we were very close. Being close to them brought me closer to sport. They were fun being around as they'll always play a sport when they could. Being around them helped me develop my love for sports."
The former San Antonio Silver Stars player’s attachment to her older brothers and cousins was key in honing her appetite and aptitude to play basketball.
"I got into basketball because all of my cousins played, and one day they just put a ball in my hand. I was terrible of course but very competitive so I stuck with it and just worked on getting better.
"I learned to play ball from my some family friends, they would take me to the park and just have me shoot around and watch as they played.
"I used to look up to Sunday & Riak Chuang, Athiey Lwal, Andrew Parker and Jermaine Bucknor. These guys were all big time hoopers in our city and watching them play made me fall in love with the game.
"Later in high school, I started hearing the name Lisa Elsie. I watched her videos and marvelled at what she did. Eventually she became my female inspiration."
The 1.95m (6’4”) drive to emulate Lisa Leslie, three-time WNBA MVP and four-time Olympic gold medallist consumed her and served as her motivation worming through tribulations and adapting to a sport which she started practicing late.
Eventually Bulgak’s resilience and endless hours fine-tuning her skills bore spinoffs as she thrilled while playing for Florida State University and landing in the WNBA.
The former Archbishop O’Leary high school star who’s been fascinating fans in Israel with her athleticism and swagger has been relishing the admiration that comes with performing in one of the best leagues across the planet and lately she’s become an internet sensation amongst several young South Sudanese.
"My inboxes on social media have been flooding mainly from younger girls who tell me that I’m their role model as well as how proud they are of me.
"There are days when I read the messages and I discover tears just down rolling down my cheeks," Bulgak stated with teary eyes, adding "I couldn’t believe I could have such an impact and I’ve never really seen myself as anything more than a player drafted into the team.
"That’s why I’ve made a promise to myself that no matter what stage my career is in, I want to always be an available resource for guidance for these young girls."
Bulgak who averaged 17 points and 12.7 rebounds this season for Israel’s top tier side Maccabi Ramat Hen understands she can only continue having an impact and inspiring South Sudan’s next generation of stars only if she continues excelling on the court.
Eligible to play for three countries-South Sudan, Kenya and Canada, Bulgak believes her influence will be felt more in her nation of origin that’s produced some scintillating basketball greats such as Manute Bol and Luol Deng.
"I tried out with Canada’s junior and senior basketball teams but things never seemed to work out right."
"My friends - the Plouffe Twins who were olympians for Canada basketball called me last spring and asked to join their roster for the country’s 3x3 team. Unfortunately I was out of the country and things never worked out.
"I love Canada very much but I feel that I will have a greater impact playing for South Sudan. You can feel the growing enthusiasm for basketball there.
"I messaged Achiel Tac and told him we needed to start a South Sudanese 3x3 team because we didn’t have enough parts for a solid 12-man roster. Unfortunately we couldn’t make this work.
"For me there will be no other perfect way to finish my career than having played for South Sudan."
Anyone who talks with Bulgak can easily decipher how confident she is that South Sudan will emerge as an African giant in the years ahead with proper policies and efficient management.
The East-Central African nation is endowed with a physically imposing population and with roughly half of the country’s inhabitants below 18, the former Chicago Sky player is upbeat South Sudan can pull up trees on the continent and across the globe.
"We have one of the tallest people worldwide and height is an advantage. But apart from our height, naturally we are extremely athletic and hardworking. If we can properly harness these qualities then we will work magic.
"We have a culture that doesn’t really support women in sports but if we are given the right opportunity, we’ll shock many.
"We have the potential to rival sides like Nigeria who are powerhouses. I played against nearly the entire roster during my college career and even though they are talented, I would love to be able to match up with them in the near future as AfroBasket contenders.
"We have a lot of young girls in the states playing ball so right now there’s the talent.
"The South Sudanese Basketball Federation is in great hands with Luol Deng. Now it’s about having the right support and giving us the opportunity. It’s time to push the agenda."
Bulgak understands that she could be a key cog in changing the narrative around women’s sports in South Sudan and attracting unprecedented interest.
As a young girl she was keen on becoming a volleyball star but she’s now taken up the toga of a mentor, leading a crusade to inspire and empower young South Sudanese and Africans around a sport which she thinks can foster socio-economic development in the world’s youngest nation.
"I’ve already stepped into the leadership role of grooming the next crop of players. I feel like representation is important.
"I will continue inspiring through the game and I’m becoming more active on social media to motivate all those who love the sport.
"We currently have a trailblazer group chat that was started by Arek Deng which has connected some South Sudanese ballers.
"I would like to go back home in the near future to be able to connect with those playing there or have a mini clinic there with kids. We can’t afford to fail the younger generation," Bulgak concluded.
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