IOWA CITY, Ia. — One time after his youth basketball team went to an Applebee’s to celebrate winning a tournament, Peter Jok ordered a steak.
The server asked him how he’d like it prepared.
Confused, Jok answered the only way he knew how. Honestly.
It’s since become a running joke for Jok and those closest to him.
Yet it’s also a reminder that his incredible journey from war-ravaged Sudan to college basketball star at the University of Iowa has been marked with innocence, mistakes, food (yes, food) and, most of all, growth.
From never seeing a basketball until age 9 to having one of the smoothest shooting strokes in America, Jok’s well-told story — last year featured on an extended Big Ten Network piece — is inspirational.
But this is a version you haven’t seen before. Exclusive interviews with Jok and those inside his tight circle reveal his path from boy to man and the tender heart within.
Jok was 3 when his father was murdered. He doesn’t have any memory of that horrific time. But it only magnified the bond he already shared with his mother.
After the bloodied body of Dut Jok, a respected commander in the Sudan People's Liberation Army, was brought home wrapped in a bedsheet, things would never be the same.
Family members ultimately fled to Uganda, and then to the United States. They chose Des Moines because of its large Sudanese population, arriving Dec. 9, 2003, when Peter was 9.
To Peter’s amazement and disappointment, there was snow everywhere — hardly the familiar, stiflingly hot climate that they left behind.
“My first impression was it was too cold here,” he says, “and I wanted to go back.”
At first, he didn’t know there were seasons here; he thought it would be cold all the time. He would get asked about whether his family owned or killed lions. The slow process of learning American English kept him in his shy shell.
The one constant comfort, though, was his mother, Amelia Ring Bol.
Well, that and the sugary drinks.
Dau Jok, his older brother, remembers Peter's insatiable craving for soda when they lived in Africa. Their mom would tell Peter: If one day they made it to America, he could drink all the soda he could ever want.
“Sure enough,” Dau says, “when he came … he drank a lot of soda.”
From their days back in Africa, Peter and his mother were closely attached. When she traveled, Peter was usually the one who got to go with her.
“He’s always been a mama’s boy,” says Dau, who accepted a father-figure role for his three younger siblings (brothers Peter and JoJo, and sister Alek) after Dut’s death. “My mom maybe has a soft spot for him more than any of the boys. He would get in trouble, then he would beg his way out of it. And my mom would just let him go. For me, that was never the case.”
As the years passed, though, Mom’s trips back to Sudan became more frequent. Starting in 2008, she would be gone for six months at a time. Peter struggled emotionally during those stretches.
“I was sad,” Jok said, “but I knew what she was doing was best for us.”
Peter Jok talks about his long distance relationship with his mother, who won't be at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for senior day but will be there for his graduation ceremony.
Amelia is a representative of the National Legislative Assembly (think Parliament) in the Republic of South Sudan, currently dealing with a bloody civil war, reported ethnic cleansing and a declaration of famine.
She has only seen Peter play basketball a handful of times, and she won’t be in Carver-Hawkeye Arena for her son’s Senior Day game Sunday against Penn State.
“I’d rather have her trying to work back home and try to get everything right over there … with the war and all that stuff,” Peter Jok says, “than her being here at my games. I try not to be selfish about it. I try to be positive.”
To hear Jok, who turns 23 later this month, express that kind of measured maturity is a sign of immeasurable growth from his early days in America.
A second family
Peter Jok’s first memory of playing basketball was grabbing a rebound, sprinting down the floor without dribbling and chucking a shot off the backboard.
“I was terrible,” Jok says, with his boyish laugh. “You should ask Mike about it.”
Jok didn’t like basketball, and Mike Nixon had an idea why. The first time Nixon watched Jok play, he saw a tall, rangy kid who didn’t know what he was doing and never got the ball.
“I felt like it was too hard,” Jok says. “All I wanted to do was play soccer and play video games.”
Nixon at that time coached his son (also named Peter, who had just finished fourth grade) on a youth team that lacked size. So Nixon invited Jok to join the team. After getting nudged by his mother to pursue the opportunity, Jok accepted.
Nixon, a real-estate businessman in Des Moines, could have never pictured the dominoes that one invitation would knock over.
You may know this part of the story by now.
Boy doesn’t like basketball. Boy gets to go to McDonald’s after practices. Boy keeps playing basketball so he can eat more Chicken McNuggets.
And by Jok’s freshman year at Roosevelt High School, Division I scholarship offers were pouring in. One recruiting service ranked him the No. 1 player for his age in the country.
Jok gets asked often: How did you develop such a pure shooting stroke so quickly?
He gives Nixon, who started on Des Moines Lincoln’s 1975 state championship team, a lot of credit. Nixon had a simple approach — the same one he was taught — and one rule.
“He didn’t let me go outside the 3-point line until my form was good,” Jok says. “It was frustrating. I wanted to go out there. Like a lot of kids just want to shoot 3s these days. I just tried to shoot the same routine every time I shot the ball.”
Jok would spend more and more time at the Nixon home. Not only was Peter Nixon his best friend, the Nixons had air conditioning in the hot summers, unlike all but one room of his crowded house on the corner of University Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.
Over time, Jok’s mother trusted Nixon enough to grant him power-of-attorney rights for her three boys, in the event medical issues arose, as she was in Africa so often. (The sister, Alek, stayed with the Joks’ grandmother in Des Moines.)
Peter Jok looks back at getting into basketball with help from his brother.
Nixon, who at age 10 coped with his own father’s death, became a much-needed male figure in the Jok boys’ lives. He stressed the importance of responsibility and education. While the two families didn’t live together, they essentially became one cooperative unit.
Nixon goes to every Hawkeye game, both home and away. Sunday, he’ll settle into his second-row, aisle seat in Section KK at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the last time — after joining Dau at midcourt for Peter’s pregame Senior Day ceremony.
“What started out to be a relationship just to help a young boy play basketball,” Nixon says, “... I had no idea it would become what it has. It just kind of evolved.”
Jail time: A wake-up call
The relationships Jok formed in America would soon rescue him.
While Dau Jok left Iowa behind for an Ivy League education and a college basketball career in Pennsylvania, Peter’s life found turmoil.
A torn patellar tendon in his left knee that required surgery after his sophomore year in high school had college suitors backing away. That was hard.
His name was at the front of a public debate over the intent of the state’s Open Enrollment Act after he and Peter Nixon transferred to West Des Moines Valley, where former Hawkeye Jeff Horner was the coach, to seek a fresh basketball start.
Jok certainly wasn’t immediately settled in as an 18-year-old freshman at Iowa. His diet was more suited for a rec league than Division I. He still ate McDonald’s, he drank alcohol, and he would often go to bed at 3 a.m.
“I was wild my freshman year,” Jok says now. “I was immature. … I didn’t really take stuff serious.”
Former Hawkeye teammate Anthony Clemmons, now playing professionally in Vienna, Austria, remembers Jok's affinity for Mountain Dew.
“Sugar, Doritos, fried food,” Clemmons says — and he can laugh about it now. “Everything you’re not supposed to eat, he was eating.”
Jok would talk back to coaches. He admits that he was quick to anger. He was internally frustrated at limited playing time.
“I wasn’t used to not playing a lot,” Jok says. “It was a lot to take in.”
In Jok, Clemmons saw a unique talent who looked alone — the lone member of a one-player recruiting class for coach Fran McCaffery. He tried to help Jok through the struggles and encouraged him to keep his head up when McCaffery would yell at him.
But maybe Jok needed to hit rock bottom first. And after two 2014 arrests, he did just that.
In April after his freshman season, he got a 2:43 a.m. OWI while driving his moped. A few months later, he was again arrested for driving the moped with a suspended license.
Jok was sentenced to four days in Johnson County Jail.
And though McCaffery suspended him indefinitely from the basketball team, he stuck with Jok — just like he did after his high-school knee injury.
“I really needed that in my life — to just wake me up,” Jok says, “and focus on why I’m here and what I need to do.
“After the second time, I was, like, 'You need to get your (stuff) together.'”
In the UI’s Code of Conduct policy, Jok had two strikes. One more, and he was out.
“He could’ve hung 'em up and probably went somewhere else,” Clemmons says, “or just held his head.”
While in jail, a familiar feeling set in for Jok: loneliness.
But Clemmons stressed to Jok that he was getting a third chance; other programs might not have given him a second one.
“He took that as, ‘I’m really wanted. I’m really needed. This is another opportunity; this is another blessing — to be able to continue to play in the Big Ten,'” Clemmons says. “I think that’s what sparked him, really.
“After that point, he was a lot more focused than he ever was. The thing that kept him out of trouble and away from all the distractions was being in the gym.”
To sharpen his focus, Jok eliminated distractions. He deleted his Twitter account so he wouldn't dwell on mean things people said about him.
After only a slight statistical uptick as a sophomore (his scoring average went up from 4.4 as a freshman to 7.0), he decided to invoke more drastic changes going into his junior year.
Inspired by watching older teammates like Gabe Olaseni, Aaron White and Mike Gesell, he overhauled his diet. He cut out fast food and soda — one of the original allures of America. Instead of McNuggets, he would order salmon.
He also changed his number, from No. 3 to No. 14.
“Mostly trying to get a fresh start,” Jok says. “I didn’t want No. 3 anyway when I first came.”
He made a list of five personal goals, which remain private and posted in his room as a daily reminder.
“I only achieved one of them last year,” he says. “I’ll tell you (the list) after my last game.”
His body went from soft to lean. Asthma problems that plagued him mostly went away. His knee felt as good as it had since before the high-school injury.
All those things translated to breakthrough production.
Jok averaged 16.2 points a game as a junior for a Hawkeye team that rose as high as a No. 3 in the national rankings. He was named second-team all-Big Ten.
After testing the NBA waters and opting to return to Iowa, he made another change — his phone number — to shrink his inner circle to a select few.
“I feel like you can’t trust too many people these days,” Jok says. “Too many people had my number.”
Still, there was one more major area of growth that McCaffery challenged Jok to refine: leadership.
With Iowa losing four starting seniors, Jok would be the unquestioned star. But could he lead a young team? Back at Valley, he was more of a me-first player.
Dau Jok, a proven leader who created the Dut Jok Youth Foundation (aimed at empowering Sudanese youth to become leaders through sports and education) and is now in the U.S. Army Reserve based in Des Moines, reminded his brother that if he was there first for his teammates off the floor, they would be there for him on it.
When a back injury this season forced Peter to miss two games, Dau was reassured in watching how his younger brother responded while wearing slacks and a sport coat on the Hawkeyes' bench.
Instead of pouting at another setback, he was cheering on his teammates.
“Him being the first one to throw his hands up and encourage his guys or talking to them during timeouts, that’s what it’s about,” Dau says. “That’s the brotherhood. Those are the moments that define you, as a man.”
Nixon has noticed personal growth, too.
The once-shy Peter now strikes up conversations with strangers, something he would never have done a few years ago. The once-selfish Peter brought — and even wrapped — Christmas presents to everyone in his Iowa family this year for the first time.
Jok has even begun sharing his heart with a woman besides his mother: He has a girlfriend, and they’ve been dating for about a year.
“That’s a big sign,” Dau says, “of him opening up.”
On a path to history
Until back and right (shooting) shoulder injuries sidetracked his season, Jok was on pace to top John Johnson’s 1970 Iowa school record of 699 points in a season.
The last game before his back flared up was a magnificent 29-point, eight-assist performance in Iowa’s Jan. 12 upset of Big Ten champion Purdue. At that point, he was averaging 22.9 points; no Big Ten player in the last 13 seasons has averaged more than 21.
There have been times that Jok’s pure shooting stroke has been unstoppable.
He’s scored at least 25 points in 14 different games the last two seasons, including five games of 30-plus this year. Most memorably, perhaps, was a 42-point explosion against Memphis on Nov. 26 — the most points by any Hawkeye in 40 years.
Considering he faces hounding pressure by multiple defenders as Iowa’s primary scoring threat every game, to still be at 20.1 points a game is impressive. With one game left, he’s all but clinched becoming just Iowa's third Big Ten scoring champion in the last 65 seasons (Andre Woolridge in 1997 and Adam Haluska in 2007 are the others).
“You don’t average 20 points a game getting defended the way he gets defended,” assistant coach Andrew Francis says. “That’s not easy.
“What he did against Memphis was pretty impressive. Because they threw everyone at him. It didn’t matter what they did, he just kept making shots.”
Jok has 564 points, within striking distance of becoming the 11th Hawkeye to reach 600 in a season.
At 1,436 career points, he’s got a good chance to crack the top 15 (Horner, his high school coach at Valley, is 15th at 1,502).
With 203 career 3-pointers, he’s No. 6 all-time.
But where Jok has made a more historic impression is at the free-throw line.
He is on pace to become the Big Ten's record-holder for free-throw percentage for a season. He has sunk 145 of 157 attempts, a 92.4-percent clip. The Big Ten record is held by former Iowa coach Steve Alford (92.1 percent for Indiana in 1984-85).
His career free-throw rate of 88.5 percent would rank third all-time in the Big Ten. Iowa's records are held by Matt Gatens (90.4, season) and Luke Recker (87.3, career).
Jok's routine is the same, every time. One dribble, dip, cock, shoot. ... And — usually — swish.
He doesn’t even practice them anymore because, as he puts it, “it’s all mental.”
He’s had multiple cracks at breaking the late Chris Street’s school record of 34 consecutive free throws made. He’s had separate streaks of 25, 26, 27 and 28 makes in a row. His current streak is 15.
“I want to be remembered,” Jok says, “as the best shooter to come out of Iowa.”
"I feel like I am."
That pure stroke could become the focal point of his profession.
He certainly has the skill, the size (at 6-foot-6, and 205 pounds) and now the lifestyle to make money playing basketball somewhere.
“I do think he has an NBA skill — he’s a shooter, and he’s a big shooter,” Francis says. “There’s room in the NBA for guys that can make shots at that level. The thing that will dictate what his NBA look is, is his ability and willingness to guard a little better.
“Pete has to find his niche, and he’s got to be willing to excel at that.”
He's got a lot of people in his corner.
Not just Hawkeye fans and fellow Iowans.
And not just his family, which is quite large — Dau puts it in perspective by saying he and Peter are two of 150 grandkids. The late Manute Bol, the tallest player in NBA history, was an uncle.
The Sudanese people are following him. In December, Dau went to Australia, which has a large Sudanese population, and says, “Even though they’re not related to him, they’re watching him. … Everybody there knows Peter Jok.”
Peter adds that at a recent family reunion, "they told me they call me, ‘The Hope.’ They say, 'We want you to make it. Just keep working hard.'"
“I don’t really look at it as pressure. I don’t ever put any pressure on myself," Jok says. "I’m just trying to play the game I love, the best I can.”
The game I love.
Jok laughed once that was repeated back to him — considering it’s a game he never wanted to try.
“Exactly,” he says. “It’s weird.”
Peter Jok discusses how he has grown since freshman year, including his two arrests in 2014.
In May, after basketball has wrapped for the season, he’ll become the second member of his immediate family to graduate from college; Dau was the first. His mother and grandmother plan to be back here for that moment.
“I’d rather them be there at graduation than Senior Day anyway,” Peter Jok says. “That’s the most important thing in our family — to graduate.”
The latest chapter in his long and improbable journey is almost complete.
“He took it in the gut,” Clemmons says. “He fought. He worked for everything he got.”
Along the way, he grew up.
“He’s a totally different person than the 18-year-old that I dropped off in Iowa City four years ago,” Nixon says. “Completely different.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.