Among the pantheon of exceptional talents in international basketball, the name Awak Kuier stands tall and unmissable. Originating from Sudan, growing up in Finland, and now making waves in the United States, Awak, at the tender age of 21, has already redefined the landscape of women’s basketball with her phenomenal prowess and electrifying performances. From humble beginnings on Finnish courts to the harsh yet exhilarating spotlight of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), Awak’s journey paints a riveting portrait of passion, dedication, and unyielding resolve.
Recently, Kevin, the co-founder of AfroBallers, and myself, had the pleasure of engaging with the young AfroBaller in a candid and illuminating conversation. Her beaming smile, a symbol of her grace and humility in the face of rapid ascent in the sports world, lit up the screen as she delved into her experiences. From her time as an emerging talent in Finland to her established status in the WNBA, where she represents the Dallas Wings with pride, Awak shared her inspiring venture with heartfelt honesty.
With her impressive impact already felt, Awak’s future in the sport holds promise, teeming with thrilling possibilities.
ORIGINS & INTERNATIONAL JOURNEY
Her life voyage is as remarkable as it is inspiring. Born in Cairo, Egypt, to South Sudanese parents, she moved to Finland when she was merely two years old. It was in the frosty Finish climes where she discovered her passion for basketball.
The Nordic courts, bathed in her tireless efforts and determination, laid the groundwork for her future success in basketball. These early years shaped not only her game but also her character, teaching her valuable lessons of perseverance, and planting seeds for her unique and trailblazing path in the world of basketball. When asked about how her love for the game was born, Awak shares with Michael Jordan a similar family affair beginning:
I had four older brothers who all did sports before me. That’s how I kind of got into basketball and all the other sports. So I think it was because of my brothers, to be honest, like, I was super competitive with them. And they just always took me out to play with them and play all these sports. So that’s how I kind of fell in love with basketball and just started focusing on that one sport.”
From a young age, her prodigious talent was evident, and it didn’t take long for her skills to be noticed. Still in her teens (19), she found herself playing for a professional basketball team in the countryside of Italy, in Sicily. It was more than just an opportunity to play a game she loved – it was a chance to grow, to learn, and to explore her potential in a novel environment. This move symbolized the first of many leaps she would take across international borders and cultural barriers, challenging traditional norms and charting her unique journey.
Awak’s approach to the game reflects a deep and holistic understanding. From her early playing days, she was taught to value defense as much as offense. She believes that even on a night when her offensive game might not be firing on all cylinders, her defensive skills can still have a substantial impact. She is adamant: basketball isn’t just about scoring points; it’s a numbers game where defense and rebounding are as critical as putting the ball in the basket.
You have to participate in some way, especially in the WNBA. It’s like, everyone can score, everyone can be good on offense, but it’s the players who put a little bit more effort on defense that actually make a difference.”
Awak’s decision to play professionally in Sicily before moving to the WNBA was indeed a daring one, and only reinforces her will to be the best she can. According to her, this strategic move aimed to expose her to a more challenging brand of basketball, compelling her to elevate her game. Her time in Europe also offered the bonus of staying closer to her family, an essential aspect that influenced her decision.
From the very first time she competed in a basketball court to now playing against the best players in the world, family is front and center for Awak. The sentimental significance behind her jersey number 28 further underlines that. It marks the memory of her first professional game back in Finland – the first time her family watched her play professionally. Now, each glance at the number 28 on her jersey serves as a poignant reminder of her path and the milestones she’s achieved along the way.
This mindset, along with her inspiring trajectory, has helped Awak carve out an exceptional career in professional basketball, making her not only a formidable player but also a beacon of inspiration for many.
RACE & USA
Kuier’s basketball expedition has taken her across continents, exposing her to different cultures and playing environments. From the icy courts of Finland to the fervor of Italy and now in the high-energy arenas of America, she has navigated through these diverse settings with grace and tenacity. Her experience as a Black athlete in predominantly White spaces varied greatly between these locations. In America, she was welcomed into an environment of acceptance and diversity, making her feel instantly at home. It was a refreshing contrast to Finland, where opportunities for Black individuals in sports were harder to come by. Each leg of her path has enriched her experience and strengthened her resolve, shaping her into the outstanding athlete she is today.
When I went to America, everyone was super accepting. And it was an amazing experience for me, because I hadn’t seen so many black people before, in Italy or in Finland. I think that’s the first thing that I noticed when I came to America the first time and I was like, ‘wow I feel like I’m home’. I feel so comfortable here. ”
Off the court, Awak is deeply committed to social justice. She draws inspiration from her teammate Satou Sabally, who is extensively involved in various projects with the Players Association. Awak envisions herself becoming increasingly engaged in community activities and advocacy work in the future. She is eager to spend more time connecting with people, discussing important issues, and making her presence felt within the community. Awak is not just a basketball player; she is a burgeoning advocate, ready to use her platform to make a difference.
Awak’s narrative continues to unfold, each chapter more exciting than the last.
The transition from European to American basketball was an enlightening experience for Kuier. In Europe, she was accustomed to a fast-paced, high-energy style of play. Upon arriving in the WNBA, she found a contrasting rhythm, where patience and strategy took precedence. Although the shift was significant, Awak appreciates both styles, recognizing the unique qualities and challenges they present. Another significant adjustment was the change in her playing time. In Europe, she was used to being on the court for 20 to 30 minutes a game. However, in the WNBA, her playing time was initially limited to 8 to 12 minutes, pushing her to put in extra work before and after the games, in order to maintain her form and be ready whenever she was called upon.
Notably, Awak is the second Finnish woman ever to be drafted into the WNBA, but the first to actually set foot on the court in the league. Her draft night was an amalgam of emotions – fear of the unknown mingling with anticipation. She felt an indescribable sense of excitement tinged with nerves, unsure of when her name would be called. But when it was, she remembers that moment as the happiest of her life. A pivotal event that not only marked her personal milestone but also signaled a changing tide in women’s basketball – she was the first non-American player to be drafted in the top five in over a decade.
So first off, I had a game before that before my draft night. So I had to get ready in like, one hour, and everything was super hectic. You’re just nervous the whole time until you hear your name. So it was very nerve wracking for me. When my name was called I was super, super happy because I have my teammates there with me. It was a beautiful moment for me. I think that was a moment where I could actually be, like, proud of myself.”
Awak’s path in the WNBA has been remarkable. From being the first non-American player to be drafted in the top five in over a decade to becoming the eighth woman in WNBA history to dunk in a game, she has blazed an impressive trail. Yet, in spite of these milestones, she insists that she is only at the beginning of her journey. Her insatiable thirst for improvement is evident in the evolution of her game, as seen from her first to her second season in the WNBA. The increase in her three-point percentage is indicative of her maturation as a player, a development she attributes significantly to her growing confidence. Adaptability and commitment to constant improvement have also led her to work on her ball handling and physical strength. Inspired by versatile players like Candace Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo, she seeks to add a similar dimension of adaptability to her game.
Awak Kuier’s journey, from her multicultural upbringing to becoming an inspirational figure in the WNBA, is a testament to the universal appeal of basketball. Not only is she a multifaceted athlete with an insatiable desire to evolve, but she also holds a deep understanding of the responsibility she carries as a role model. Her goal goes beyond her personal ambitions; she dreams of creating a platform that encourages young girls to pursue basketball, providing them with the representation she felt was lacking in her early years.
Originally from South Sudan and now a shining star in the WNBA, Awak envisions contributing to the growth of basketball in Africa. She has expressed keen interest in the blossoming Basketball Africa League, harboring aspirations to create a women’s league on the continent. The prospect of offering African girls someone to look up to, someone who has walked in their shoes, is a goal close to her heart. This sense of purpose, of uplifting and giving back to her community, is a driving force for Awak both on and off the court.
I feel there hasn’t been as many African role models, or people that players from Africa can look up to, to see themselves in that position. When I was younger, I never saw anyone that looked like me, so I never felt that inspiration to become like them. I feel like I had to kind of find my own way. So I think it’s very important for kids to have that role model and I would love to be that for so many African girls. If I could be a part of something so great, like creating a women’s league in Africa, I would definitely love to be a part of that.”
Awak’s presence in the WNBA isn’t just a personal accomplishment but serves as a beacon of hope for young girls across Finland and Africa. Her story is one of relentless determination and resilience, demonstrating the transformative power of sports. As she continues to ascend in her career, her narrative serves as a tangible testament that, regardless of where one starts, dreams are always within reach. However, her path isn’t just about her skills on the court. Awak’s respect for basketball legends like Kobe Bryant extends beyond their sporting prowess; she values their ability to inspire and motivate people, a characteristic she wishes to emulate.
As Awak Kuier continues her journey in the WNBA, the entire basketball community watches with anticipation. Will she continue to break barriers and set new records? Only time will tell. But one thing’s for sure: the future of Awak Kuier in the WNBA promises to be as exciting as the player herself.