Coaches often talk about teams and players overcoming adversity to succeed. They are usually referring to a game-changing mistake, a heartbreaking loss, or an injury to a key player.
But few coaches or players can even imagine the adversity that Charleston Southern basketball player Mathiang Muo has overcome.
Muo, a 24-year-old junior, was born in war-torn Sudan, escaped to Egypt in his youth, then moved to Australia and eventually landed in the United States.
Muo says he has persevered. A better word might be survived.
One of 10 children, Muo earned three dollars a day cleaning houses and doing various chores as a way to help his family survive in Sudan. He was 10 years old at the time.
"That's just the way it was then," said Muo. "My mother worked very hard to support us and I wanted to help. When we left Sudan for Egypt, I started to realize how hard life really was in Sudan."
In 1998, at the age of 11, Muo, along with six siblings and his mother, Elizabeth, escaped to Egypt as refugees. Life in the new country was far from easy but certainly safer than what the family had fled.
The family enrolled in a refugee lottery while in Egypt and waited two years to find a new destination. That new home would be Sydney, Australia.
Upon arrival in Sydney, Muo began formal education at the age of 13. He spent the first two years in extensive English training and enrolled in high school.
It was around the age of 14 that Muo was introduced to the game of basketball and that, he says, is when his life began to change.
"I was hanging out with some kids and they were playing basketball," he explains. "I had never seen a basketball, had no idea how to play, but I started messing around with them.
"The game kind of came naturally to me, and I immediately fell in love with basketball. It became my outlet outside of school and I found myself shooting baskets with every free moment that I had and I started getting better."
Muo's talents were recognized by a local basketball training center called Next Level Basketball. Muo was introduced to coach Edward Smith and his game began to take off.
"Coach Smith taught me so much, and the better I got, the more I loved it," Muo said. "Next Level was a great experience. It brought all the serious players together and the competition made everyone better."
A few years later, Next Level began taking one trip a year to showcase tournaments in the United States as a way to promote and expose the better players to college programs. It was a trip to Las Vegas when Muo was 18 that changed his life forever.
Muo's performance in Las Vegas drew plenty of attention and the 6-5 shooting forward began to realize great opportunities for a different future.
It was apparent early that academics would slow Muo's progress to the next level so he ended up at a prep school in America. The journey was only beginning.
Muo's first stop was at Florida Prep, which went bankrupt soon after his arrival. He moved on to Winchedon Prep in Massachusetts and spent about eight months there. It was at Winchedon where Muo met Rick Recore, who at the time was an assistant coach.
Recore and his wife, Naomi, served as a host family to another African player on the team, and Muo eventually began to tag along on visits with the family. The relationship grew and now Muo considers the Recores his family.
"He is like a father to me and Naomi is like a mother, and I am so thankful that God brought them into my life," said Muo.
Though he left Winchedon after eight months, the relationship continued and grew stronger. He completed his work for a diploma at Patterson Prep in North Carolina.
"He is a great human being," said Recore, who owns a construction company in Massachusetts. "We love him as our son, and our daughter knows him as her brother. Muo is so thankful for everything and is so grounded in reality.
"Much of his childhood was taken away from him and it's amazing that he still has the focus and drive to succeed. What he has endured would kill most people. Thank God that he found basketball because the game has given him the outlet and the gym has been his sanctuary."
Working on grades
Though he received a diploma, Muo did not qualify through the NCAA Clearinghouse and attended Quinnipiac University as an international student for one year. He improved his grades enough to qualify and accepted a basketball scholarship worth $60,000 with Northeastern University.
Academics, however, got the best of Muo once again and after one year his scholarship was rescinded. Muo headed off to Central Florida Community College.
"At Winchedon, he was as highly recruited as any player we had, but academics were always the question mark," said Recore. "People were scared of him and didn't think he would make it, but they didn't know Muo. People have questioned him all along but he just keeps defying the odds."
Muo played last season at Central Florida Community College and again was recruited by several schools. A meniscus tear in his left knee scared most schools off but Charleston Southern coach Barclay Radebaugh stuck with him.
"I knew 10 minutes into his official visit that he was a special human being," said Radebaugh. "There are very few young men in this world that have had to endure and overcome so much. He's a special, special young man. He treats everyday as a gift. He takes nothing for granted. In the classroom and on the court, he takes advantage of every single day."
Muo made an immediate impact on CSU. He is averaging 11 points per game for the Bucs and is among the leading 3-point shooters in the Big South Conference this season. During a recent three-game stretch, he connected on 15 of 24 attempts from beyond the arc. Muo has hit several clutch shots in tight games and with the shot clock winding down, seemingly oblivious to the pressure.
"After what he has been through, nothing he experiences on a basketball court or in a game is going to be pressure to him," said Radebaugh. "He has a tremendous work ethic, before practice, after practice, whenever he can do something to get better. He is as competitive a young man as I have ever coached He is truly a unique and amazing person."
Muo also does well in the classroom, though it requires a lot of extra study time and commitment. When teammates are headed to the movies or out for some food, Muo is usually hitting the books.
"Getting my degree is my No. 1 goal," he said. "I have an opportunity to do things in my future that can really help my family, and now I know how important academics are. I didn't understand it fully until recently, but I get it now."
'Old man' Muo
Radebaugh says Muo has become the "old man" on the team and can already see the impact he is making on the younger players on the team. His renewed commitment to academics is something he points to as a sign of maturity.
"He will graduate on time and he does well academically," said Radebaugh. "He has to work hard in the classroom because it doesn't come easy for him, but he's a fighter. He takes it very seriously because getting a degree is something that is very important to him. He has goals in life and things that he wants to achieve. He is no nonsense and is a great example for our younger players."
Muo prefers not to talk much about his life as a young boy and the hardships he has encountered in the first stage of his life. He is not embarrassed by his story, but says dwelling on things that happened in the past will prevent him from succeeding in the future. Three prep schools, a junior college and three Division I programs later, the future is all that matters.
"I have no ill feelings about my life before because I have come to believe that things happen for a reason and that God has a plan for me," said Muo. "I don't dwell on the past. I continue to look forward and I have goals to achieve. To some it seems like a hard journey, but I have learned so much about life and have experienced many things that help me become a man. So many people are responsible for giving me this opportunity and I am forever grateful.
"I will not disappoint those who believed in me."