It was a Sunday afternoon in front of a packed Madison Square Garden crowd. One of the nation's best college basketball teams, the Florida Gators, were facing off against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite Eight of the 2017 NCAA Tournament. The Gators had just come off an incredible one-point overtime victory over a No. 8-seeded Wisconsin team and could taste a trip to the Final Four for the first time since 2014. They held a solid seven-point lead when the buzzer sounded for halftime.
By the end of the game, their season was over. They lost 77-70.
That result was a major disappointment for a Gators team that had harbored true championship aspirations, but their tournament run gave Australian Gorjok Gak a taste of what he had always wanted: an opportunity to compete on the biggest stage in college basketball. Despite the fact that Gak played only 32 minutes in the team's four games, those 10 days were worth more than anything else he had achieved in his basketball career. Now a sophomore, Gak hopes last season's success doesn't prove to be the pinnacle of his college basketball career. His goal over the next two-and-a half years, more than anything else, is to win a National Championship. Playing for Mike White and the University of Florida will give him the best opportunity to achieve that goal.
Gak was born in Egypt in 1996 to South Sudanese refugees, but his family soon decided to leave the country and move to Sydney, where he discovered his love for the game of basketball. He began participating in the annual South Sudanese Australian National Classic, Australia's largest multicultural basketball tournament and one of the most important events for the South Sudanese-Australian community. He didn't take long to separate himself as one of the better players of the tournament, with his obvious talent and freakish athleticism, and the opportunity to play basketball in the U.S., something on which he was incredibly focused, began to seem like a real possibility. He struck up a friendship with another aspiring college player, Melbourne-based Deng Adel, who acted as a "big brother" to Gak over the next couple of years. So much did their relationship develop that Adel convinced Gak to follow when he began playing high school basketball in the U.S. for Victory Rock Prep. It took some time for Gak's parents to allow him to make the move to South Bradenton, Florida, but they finally agreed.
Gak tells ESPN that his time under coach Loren Jackson at Victory Rock Prep was "like playing in college already", and he did enough -- averaging 13.9 points and 9.3 rebounds -- to spark the interest of a number of schools, including Missouri, Nebraska, OSU and, of course, the University of Florida.
Gak committed to Oklahoma State to play for Travis Ford, but he was released from his letter-of-intent after the coach was fired at the end of the 2015-16 season. The decision, then, to attend the University of Florida was easy to make. Not only was Florida a program that enjoyed consistent success in the SEC and likely would give him the opportunity to play postseason basketball, but Gak also felt drawn to Mike White and his coaching staff. Florida assistant coach Dusty May, who describes Gak as a "caring" person with a "big heart," says the feeling was very much mutual.
"We just loved his size, length [and] athleticism, [as well as his ability to] block shots and rebound," May told ESPN. "He was a great teammate. He was always encouraging his teammates even when he wasn't in the game. He's got a lot of the intangibles."
Having seen firsthand how hard Gak has worked in his one-and-a-half seasons with the team, May says the Gators have a special player on their hands.
"He's just so talented and so skilled, the sky is really the limit," he said. "He's as talented as anyone else on our roster. We want so much more out of him."
May notes that this season, Gak has "been banged up, so his practice time has been limited," and "he has had some swelling in his feet, so he hasn't been able to put in the work that he put in last year."
Besides injuries, the only issue May still has with the 6-foot-11 center is that he is too unselfish. "He over-passes a lot in games. Sometimes we just need him to score more."
The Gators' love and affection for Gak have been palpable since he first stepped foot on campus, which is why the school fought so hard for him after he was ruled ineligible by the NCAA at the beginning of his rookie season, due to questions about the number of games he played at Victory Rock Prep after arriving from Australia.
"A lot of the time, if a player is ineligible, they don't feel like they're a part of the team," May told ESPN. "We knew that if we helped Gorjok become eligible, he would have had more incentive to work hard and continue his development. A lot of big men don't play a lot of time as freshman, [but] we thought he could be an immediate contributor."
Eventually, the NCAA reviewed the appeal and approved the waiver, restoring Gak's eligibility in full. He was once again free to play, and Gak can't wait to repay the school's faith in and support for him as a person and player.
Now, through 14 games as a sophomore, Gak has more than doubled his minutes-per-game (5.3 to 10.3) as well as his points-per-game (1.5 to 3.1) while shooting at an impressive 69 percent clip. Slowly but surely, the potential that Coach May spoke about is coming to fruition. The more that Gak works and the more selfish he learns to become, the more likely he will turn himself into, at the very worst, a starting-caliber player and, at best, a legitimate NBA prospect. Gak is aware of the changes he needs to overcome if he wants to one day play in the NBA, and he's happy to put in as much work as he needs to get there.
That Sunday afternoon in March against South Carolina might hurt now, but Gak will continue to use that pain through the rest of his career to push himself and his teammates to the heights that he and Coach May know the Gators are able to achieve.