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Wenyen Gabriel has had amazing journey to Kentucky

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Gabriel’s journey to Lexington has shaped him into the man he is today

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky Media Day Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Up until his junior year of high school, Wenyen Gabriel did not have a single Division I scholarship offer.

That all changed with a 4-5 inch growth spurt and an impressive summer showing. On the AAU circuit, Gabriel was the main story, as he picked up offers from the top powers, including Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, and others. Of course, he ended up choosing to be a Wildcat.

But Gabriel’s story started long before that, as he recently detailed in an excellent feature by Kentucky Sports Radio’s Tyler Thompson. It started in a small town in North Sudan called Khartoum. Gabriel was born there in March 1997, the fifth child born to Rebecca Gak.

Wenyen was born following the premature death of his older sister in infancy. He told KSR that his name means “wipe your tears” in Dinka, the primary language in his family’s native country of South Sudan.

“Before I was born, I had a sister that passed away,” Wenyen told KSR last week. “The doctor gave her the wrong medicine. We were in Africa, so it’s not always that good with healthcare. So, my parents had me and as a child afterwards, to say ‘wipe your tears.’ It’s kind of been unique to me because ‘wipe your tears’ — I feel like for my family, this is what I’ve always been trying to do for them.”

Shortly after his birth, the family made the approximately 1,400 mile journey to Cairo, Egypt where they spent three years in a refugee camp.

After three years, the family was finally able to be relocated to Manchester, NH. Manchester is home to a sizable Sudanese population, but the transition was still quite difficult for Wenyen and his family.

Wenyen’s parents struggled to adjust to a new culture, a new language, and a way of life. It was easier for the children, going to school where they were taught English and other American customs, traditions, and societal norms.

With all of the change and turmoil in Gabriel’s life, one of the constants was his family and his cousin and best friend, Bol. Wenyen and Bol went from Sudan to Egypt to the United States together and were inseparable growing up. The two boys played sports together, celebrated the holidays together, and were like “two peas in a pod, according to Wenyen’s brother, Komot.

That all changed in 2007, Wenyen told KSR, after Bol’s life was tragically cut short due to a drowning accident.

“When he was about 10 or 11, he went to go swimming, they were jumping off the bridge at the river. And the current got him,” Wenyen said quietly, staring at his lap. “I still wonder right now — he played basketball, he went to a different school than me because we lived a little far apart, but we never got a chance to play on the same team, and I just always wondered how that would have went... I was a kid, too, and that’s the first person I ever lost in my life. To have him be my best friend and cousin at the same time, it was really emotional. For the whole Sudanese community too. It was real tragic. I had never seen anything like that, so many grown people crying and it kind of felt like the end of the world. To move on from that, I feel like he’s always there with me.”

Wenyen said he wears the number 32 to honor his best friend, a tribute to a life tragically cut too short.

After his meteoric rise to being labeled as one of the top high school basketball recruits in the Class of 2016, Wenyen finds himself at the University of Kentucky. Just as many top high school players find, it is a process adjusting to the college game and the greatly-increased talent pool. However, Wenyen is finding his way on a team filled with hyped freshmen and returning players.

Wenyen has made his presence known in a variety of ways. He will not blow you away with stats. Ten games into the season, he is averaging 6.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, and a 53 percent shooting percentage from the floor.

However, Wenyen’s contributions have come from beyond the scope of a typical box score. His energy, effort, and consistent motor have won over the hearts of many fans. He still has defensive lapses and loses some rebounds, but fans have never questioned his effort on or off the court.

Even Jeff Goodman from ESPN has applauded Gabriel’s effort on the court.

Jon Rothstein from CBS Sports has also had high praise for Gabriel.

Basketball aside, Gabriel knows there’s more to life than basketball and already has ideas for what he wants to do in life. He wants to go back to Sudan and help the people he feels such a strong connection to.

“A lot of my family is back at home,” he told KSR. “This is our first generation here and you have a strong connection back at home. My dad is back there right now and I have a lot of family members I haven’t met yet. I feel like I have an obligation to go back one day.”

Wenyen remains hopeful that although war still rages in Sudan, change will come about if everyone pitches in.,

“I see a good future coming because a lot more people like myself and younger Sudanese people, growing up in different places like Australia, London, all over the United States. If we all go back, we can make a difference.”

As a freshman with a ton of raw talent and potential, Wenyen Gabriel will have his ups and downs. However, if there is anything we can learn from the incredible journey that has brought him from Khartoum, Sudan to Lexington, Kentucky, it is that he knows how to fight through adversity and come out successful.

Great things are in store for this young man.