After Father Followed Manute Bol’s Advice, Marial Shayok Looks to Continue Family’s Journey to NBA
LAS VEGAS -- As far back as he can recall—in his mind, since he was born—Marial Shayok has been around basketball. Though hoops was hardly the most popular sport in his hometown (and Canada’s capital) of Ottawa, it was the most popular one played by the five kids in the Shayok household, thanks in large part to their father, Makur.
“He pretty much put the ball in my hands and taught me the game, and made sure that I was focused on the game throughout my whole childhood,” Marial tells CloseUp360 after a Philadelphia 76ers practice during NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
That crib-side indoctrination into the game has since led the 24-year-old to the pros. This past June, the Sixers selected Marial out of Iowa State with the No. 54 pick in the 2019 NBA draft before signing him to a two-way contract with their G League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats.
As much as Marial’s ongoing journey from Ottawa to the NBA is his own, it also comes as the continuation of a global odyssey that’s seen his family follow a bouncing ball from Sudan and the United States to Europe, Canada, South America and beyond.
By the time his youngest son was born, Makur Shayok had lived enough to fill multiple lifetimes.
At the age of 13, Makur started playing basketball in his native Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. At 19, he left the war-torn country (and an offer to attend the University of Juba in Sudan) to pursue his education and play basketball at Alvin Community College in Texas, after Manute Bol, the tallest player in NBA history at 7’7” and a fellow member of Sudan’s Dinka tribe, encouraged him to do so.
English, though, was a challenge for Makur, who didn’t speak the language at the time. More challenging, still, was the prospect of building a new life in a foreign country without his wife, Hellena, who was pregnant with their first child when he came to the United States in 1986.
But build a new life, he did.
During his four years in Texas, Makur played pickup against the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and performed well enough in the classroom and on the court to transfer to the University of Dayton, all the while fathering two more daughters with Hellena—to bring their total to three girls. By 1990, he had scrimped and saved enough to fly his family to the U.S., not long after Sudan’s controversial support of Iraq in its invasion of Kuwait came to light, and just before that led to the closure of the American embassy in Khartoum.
In 1992, Makur welcomed his first son with Hellena into the Shayok family. That same year, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in general studies, with an emphasis in marketing, as a 25-year-old father of four. The 6’9”, 230-pound forward then took his talents overseas to play professionally before he and his family settled in Ottawa where, in 1995, Marial was born.
Makur was hardly the only one in the family to draw his youngest son into his sport of choice. Nor was Marial—who started playing organized basketball at the age of seven, and dabbled in soccer and football along the way—the only one to find basketball through his father.
Marial’s two eldest sisters, Akuluel and Lau, both played basketball and volleyball at Hillcrest High School in Ottawa, though neither advanced beyond that level athletically. The third sister, Yar, also played at Hillcrest before competing in college at the University of Detroit Mercy. She spent some time playing professionally in France before pursuing her current career as a lawyer.
Marial’s strongest influence, though, was (and still is) his brother, Shayok.
“He's my best friend,” Marial says. “He's always been there for me.”
Like Shayok, Marial became a star at St. Patrick’s High School in Ottawa before transferring to an American prep school known for its basketball program (Shayok moved to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida; Marial went to Blair Academy in Blairstown, New Jersey). Where Shayok started at Bradley University and transferred to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Marial hopped from Marquette University to the University of Virginia before emerging as a standout at Iowa State in 2018-19.
Shayok was both practically his father’s size (6’9”, 225 pounds) and followed in his footsteps by pursuing playing opportunities overseas after going undrafted in 2016. He most recently played in Brazil before missing the most recent season in the wake of shoulder surgery.
Marial joined the Sixers organization as a second-round pick this year. That landed the 6’6”, 200-pound guard on Philly’s squad at Summer League in Las Vegas, where he averaged a team-high 14.5 points to go with 4.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists, while playing in front of Yar and Shayok.
“They're always hands-on with me and making sure I'm making the right decisions,” Marial says. “Right there the whole way through this journey. They're a big influence.”
In time, Marial hopes his journey will take him to his parents’ homeland in Sudan, which he’s heard is a “great place [with] great people.”
Before then, he will have the full support of his siblings and parents as he competes for a spot on Canada’s squad for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup in China. They’ll be behind him, too, when he returns to the U.S. to work his way from Delaware to Philadelphia.
And when the Sixers come together for training camp in the fall—and when (or if) Marial gets called up from the G League to the NBA—he will play for a coaching staff that includes, among others, Jim O’Brien, whose last stint as a college head coach came at Dayton, where his pupils included Makur Shayok.
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.