Tonight at the University of Iowa, two brothers will play against each other in a Division I college basketball game.
On its own, this is an achievement few families can match.
Now throw in the fact that another one of their brothers will be playing for a high school state football championship just a couple of hours away, and it becomes even more surreal.
And when you consider that just 10 years ago the Jok family -- among them Penn senior guard Dau Jok and Iowa freshman swingman Peter Jok -- escaped from war-torn Southern Sudan after their father, a general in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, was murdered … well, tonight’s athletic festivities in Iowa can be described only as a remarkable testament of courage and determination.
“It’s incredible,” said Dau, shaking his head in disbelief, shortly before departing for Iowa with his Penn teammates. “It’s a blessing, man.”
“It’s crazy,” Peter told reporters in Iowa. “I never thought I would get to play him. But it is a great opportunity at the end of the day, so I’m just looking to take advantage of that.”
While the youngest brother, Jo Jo Jok, a defensive end at Dowling Catholic in West Des Moines, will be playing in a title game at the University of Northern Iowa, the main event will be in Iowa City, where the Joks expect at least 40 family members to be in attendance for the Iowa-Penn hoops clash at Carver-Hawkeye Arena (7 p.m., Big Ten Network).
For Dau, this is an especially meaningful game as it marks a long-awaited return to Iowa, the state where his mother brought the family in 2003 after they fled Sudan and made pit stops in Rumbek and Uganda.
Dau didn’t know anything about basketball when they first settled in Des Moines but began to play the game at a local YMCA to avoid the gang life that plagued some other Sudanese refugees. And when he learned basketball could be a path to an education, he started to take the sport more seriously -- and very nearly accepted an offer on the spot from former Penn head coach Glen Miller.
“We came here for a better life,” Dau said. “And that better life is through education.”
Dau has yet to become a true impact player in college, having played in a reserve capacity during his first three seasons, as well as in the first three games of his senior year. But his impact at Penn has been measured in other ways -- as a campus leader who devours all aspects of academia and recently applied for a Fulbright Scholarship, as an activist who began his own foundation for Southern Sudanese children and as a basketball captain who’s always the first one off the bench to greet his teammates during timeouts.
Why does he care so much about Penn basketball when he doesn’t play that much and has so many other big things happening in his life?
“Freshman year when I wasn’t playing, I had to decide: You can be really mad on the bench and be a cancer, but what does that do?” Jok said. “That doesn’t change the coach’s position. That doesn’t make him play you more. So I was like, ‘If I’m here, I’m going to try to have an impact and cheer on the guys who are playing. It’s not their decision I’m not playing.’”
As for tonight’s game, Jok said, “Whether I play 30 seconds or 10 minutes, Coach [Jerome] Allen knows I’m going to go out there and bust my butt.” He’d do that for any game, of course. But he has a lot riding on this one after dishing out some friendly trash talk with his brother.
“It started in the summer and I was like, ‘We’re going to give you guys one of your few non-conference losses,” Dau said. “That was the extent. To be honest with you, there’s no need for it. I don’t think they’re going to be ready for us. Their first four games have been blowouts. So I don’t think they’re going to be prepared for us.
“I need the W. The rest of my life, I’m going to be able to call him and just say, ‘We beat you guys.’”
The competitive streak between the two brothers goes back a long way. Dau has broken game systems when he plays video games with Peter. And he still boasts that he has a winning record against him playing one-on-one.
But Dau will also be the first to tell you that Peter has long since surpassed him on the basketball court, where he was once one of the nation’s top high school players and is already averaging 9.8 points per game through four games at a Big Ten school.
“I’m the least athletic in my family,” Dau said. “I like to joke about that.”
But even though Peter is the better player and the Hawkeyes -- coached by former Penn guard Fran McCaffery -- the better team, Dau is confident that the big brother will prevail in this one. He also plans to make sure his family members will be pulling for the underdogs from Philly. Although when asked if Penn can pull the upset, Dau said, “I wouldn’t call it an upset.”
“I’m telling people if they’re going to sit on my side, they’ll have to wear something Penn,” Dau laughed. “They can cheer for individuals. But when it comes to teams, they better cheer for Penn. After all, we’re the better school.”
But no matter who wins, when the final horn sounds, Dau will shake hands with Peter, walk back into the visitors’ locker room and think about their old lives in a different world, when thousands of spectators cheering them on in a college basketball game was not even tangible enough to be considered a dream.
“It’s crazy where we were and where we are now,” Dau said. “Every once in a while, I’m reminded how far our journeys have taken us.”