It shouldn’t be a surprise that Buay Kuajian became an athlete.
Before he was even born he was part of a physical feat carried out under extreme pressure. Civil war consumed Sudan. His father, Tarjak Nyouch, serving in the army, decided it would best if his pregnant wife, Martha Duol, and their young son headed for a refugee camp operated by a Catholic charity in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
They walked. Nearly 600 miles.
“The situation is chaotic and corrupt,” said Kuajian, a sophomore forward at South Puget Sound Community College, of the conflict that appeared to end with the formation of the Republic of South Sudan in 2011, only to see the new nation erupt into civil war three years ago.
The family stayed in Ethiopia until Kuajian was 2. When Nyouch left the army, they moved to New York City, then Phoenix, and finally Utah, with the help of the same group that operated the camp in Ethiopia.
Kuajian knew early on that he was physically gifted, playing quarterback in youth football and skateboarding. During seventh grade, he noticed an advertisement online for an AAU team call Utah Dynasty. At the team’s tryouts he caught the basketball bug.
“There were a lot of kids who were better than me,” he remembers. “But I was taller and stronger, more aggressive.”
Playing for the Dynasty — with current SPSCC teammate A.J. Hodges — and later for his junior high school, Kuajian caught the eye of Kearns High School coach Dan Cosby. Kuajian and Clippers coach Aaron Landon credit Cosby with shaping the forward’s game and keeping him on the straight and narrow.
When Kuajian and his best friend, Bushmen Ebet, ran into off-the-court issues, they might have fallen by the basketball wayside if not for Cosby.
“I was struggling academically, didn’t even get to play the last half of my junior year,” the 6-foot-6 Kuajian recalls. “Coach Cosby told me, ‘If you don’t play basketball, if you don’t stick with this, your life is not going to be that good. It’s tough out there.’ ”
Kuajian and Ebet, among five boys of Sudanese descent on the Kearns roster, bounced back and were part of a Cougars team that reached the Utah Class 4A state championship game for the first time in 43 years, losing to Bountiful.
“I cherish that experience,” said Kuajian, who averaged 14 points and seven rebounds per game as a senior. “You only go to high school once. You might only get to the state tournament once.”
Landon was excited when Kuajian, who combines power forward height and guard skills, chose SPSCC last season. He averaged 11.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game for a Clippers team that finished 22-7.
“He can be such a special player in bursts,” Landon said. “He does stuff that gives you goose bumps. We put him at the top of our press and with his speed he does incredible stuff. If we put a sub in for him and don’t get the same results, we realize we’re asking them to do things that aren’t humanly possible.”
Kuajian hopes to move on to Division I basketball next season. Landon says Division I teams have inquired about Kuajian, who joins returning 21-point scorer Dez Stoudamire, College of Marin transfer Luke Chavez and local products Kobe Key (River Ridge), Nolan Black (Olympia) and Wes Reynolds (North Thurston) on this season’s Clippers roster.
After college, Kuajian would like to return to a homeland he’s never actually lived in.
“I want to go back to South Sudan and help out,” Kuajian said. “Innocent people are still dying. My mother’s brother was killed two months ago. There’s too much senseless violence over nothing.”