Courage and talent pay off for YG

Yuot Gai after graduating at Abilene Christian University.

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

As a teen, Dandenong-based basketballer Yuot Gai took a giant leap to grab a full scholarship at South Plains College in Texas, USA.

Four years later, Gai – also known as YG – has come out the other side with a comms and media degree at Abilene Christian University.

Standing tall at 211 centimetres, he’s on the brink of the next step with dreams of the NBA. And later he hopes to get into business and to help people.

Now begins the “real world”, as he puts it.

“The job is not done.”

Gai admits there’s been tough times, missing his family and close friends back at home. Now he hopes to forge a better life for his family by going pro.

“I’ve just been trying to keep my mind focused, accepting that I’m not going to go home.

“Now there’s bigger things to come. I want to keep getting better and going places.

“I’ve made my family proud and I want to make them prouder.”

Gai acknowledges his own parents’ quest for a better life when they fled with him, his siblings and first cousins from war in South Sudan.

They sheltered in a refugee camp in Kenya and then migrated to Australia when he was 5.

“We couldn’t fly out of our own country because the airports were not safe. We had to first get to another country nearby.

“My grandparents stayed back in South Sudan because they said it was better to take the kids to live a life.

“My first cousins’ parents also sacrificed for them to make space for their kids.”

They settled in Ringwood, among the first intake of South Sudanese refugees. They felt like ‘the Lost Boys’ in this strange new land.

After playing some footy and soccer, Gai followed his brother into basketball. A trip to Frankston to watch a South Sudanese tournament lit the fire within.

“That’s when I really connected – seeing other people like me and the great things they were doing.

“It was all age groups, professionals, people coming from overseas. I thought that could be me as well.

“I saw the friendships, people having a great time – you meet your best friends though basketball – at that point, I fell in love with it.”

Gai rose through the underage ranks at Heathmont Hornets, and the youth and mens teams at Ringwood Hawks.

Mentors like mens head coach Ken Harrington told the high-scoring forward and guard that he could be a player.

The versatile player was more agile and athletic than most at his height.

They told him to “keep dreaming big and remember NBA is the goal if you want it,” Gai recalls.

At 18, he was recruited by the high-ranked South Plains College in Texas off the back of a sensational highlights video featuring his dunks and skills that “most seven-footers don’t really do”.

With study paid for and an appetite for travel, Gai was excited to get started.

“People always say the basketball is better over here. I want to be the best I can be so why not play with the best?”

He was part of an all-conquering South Plains team crowned Fiesta Bowl Junior College Shootout Champions in 2019, and the No.1 ranked ‘jun co’ team in the US in 2020.

At Ablilene Christian University, Gai went up to division 1 college level. After a decent first year, his stats were down and he didn’t play as often as he’d have liked in his Senior season.

“I don’t really want to look at that negatively – things don’t always fall your way but God will help me find a way and has kept me strong,” he says.

In the meantime, his faith got more profound.

“I’m competing at the highest level, made great friends and I’ve got closer to God. It’s been one of the greatest decisions I’ve made (to come to Abilene).

“My game is more for the professional side than for college. There’s more space and I can show more of my game – it’s not as congested and quick as college basketball.

“I know I’m capable of playing anywhere and I believe in myself and that I’m going to get opportunities to play somewhere.”

James Kerr, his coach and mentor at Dandenong-based Red Roo Sport, has been urging Gai and other young talent to aim high and head overseas.

He says Gai is a great role-model for not only his basketball but applying himself to his education.

“There are no easy roads especially on the road to success”.

Gai regards Kerr as like a “guardian”, who’s always given him time, advice and held him to account.

“Words can’t describe what he’s done for us. He’s kept us away from the negative things out there, and on the right path. He’s made sure I’m focused doing school and basketball.

“He’s helped me be the best person and the best basketballer I could be.

“For all of that I’m grateful. He’s helped me get to where I am today.”

Oyiti Amum was one of the friends who inspired Gai to join Red Roo.

Amum, a supremely talented young leader, also gained a US college scholarship, but his journey was derailed during Covid lockdowns.

In 2021, he returned to Australia, his mental health suffered and he took his own life.

“He was like my brother. I loved him, man.

“I couldn’t believe it. In 2021 I’m in juco (junior college) and in the middle of the night I hear a phone call and heard that he was gone.”

Stranded in the US, Gai said it was hard to take that he couldn’t be there for his friend and be there at his funeral.

The depths of Covid were “scary times”. Gai worried for the health of his family at home, not knowing how “big” the virus was going to be.

At the same time, he made the most of his time on campus, learnt new skills like making a business web page and had a stellar basketball season.

“I decided the best thing I could do was to keep playing and grinding it out. That’s the least I could do.

“My parents would keep saying we’re fine. We’ve got family here, they can look after us.

“I’ve always seen myself as mentally strong with whatever is thrown at me.”

Gai’s tip for up-and-comers is to keep being willing to learn. He reels off a list of affirmations that give a clue to his mental resolve.

“Coaches love it when you’re asking questions because it shows you want to keep learning.

“Keep feeding off people who have more experience than you.

“If someone is doing something a bit better than you, put yourself out of your comfort zone and ask – just keep on improving.

“Stay focused. Things will come together if you keep your head down.

“Keep striving for the prize. Things don’t come easy otherwise everyone will do it.”

And the final one – “don’t let other people’s opinions decide your fate.”