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DULUTH — All through the high school basketball season, the Duluth East Greyhound boys' team closed its courtside huddles by yelling, "One, two, three, FAMILY!"
Perhaps no team member took more comfort from that declaration than 18-year-old center Akolda Manyang.
At 7 feet, the lanky Sudanese immigrant doesn't look vulnerable. But he admits there's a little boy inside him still trying to understand why his mom died, why his dad pretty much disappeared, and why he ended up in a home for troubled teens, accused of something that threatened to dash his dream of helping win a state tournament.
But Manyang said he refused to lose hope or to do anything dumb, and last week, a judge validated that resolve by making a pair of decisions that gave young Manyang another shot at his American dream.
Manyang and his two brothers left Sudan with their parents when he was small, staying with various relatives around the world. Finally, they settled in Rochester with his mother's sister.
The boy tried baseball and a couple of other sports before settling on basketball after undergoing two amazing growth spurts: 5 inches his freshman year and 4 the year after.
Then, when he was 15, a huge blow: His mother, who had high blood pressure, collapsed and died. Before long, Manyang was taking wrong turns.
"I was confused because I wanted answers, like why did my mom pass away, and dealing with all the stress of being a 15-year-old," Manyang said. "I was around bad people. I didn't have, like, structure in my life. I was making poor choices."
In 2009, authorities in Rochester charged him with felony theft, burglary and giving false information to a police officer. A year later, an Olmsted County juvenile court judge ordered him into the Woodland Hills residential treatment program in Duluth.
Antennas went up
During open gym at a community center, Manyang got in a pickup game and quickly caught the eye of Will Starks, the assistant coach at East.
"I was thinking, 'Wow, for a kid that tall, he's really got some talent,' '' Starks recalled. "He was agile. He was very athletic. He had all these tools you can't teach. Later, when I found out there was a chance he would attend East, the antennas really went up."
When Manyang joined the team part way into the season, it was 3-7. By the end of the season, they were 20-8.
A large part of why they did so well, both Manyang and Stark say, is that the team bonded so closely.
"I've never had this much love from teammates," Manyang said. "And it's not only on the court. We'd get together and talk about life. They listened to me and gave me good advice."
The Greyhounds felt nothing could stop them as they prepared for the Class 4A, Section 7 playoffs. But on the day they were to play in the quarterfinals, Woodland Hills informed East officials that Manyang was seen smoking a cigarette, a violation of Minnesota State High School League rules.
The school suspended Manyang from the team, effective immediately. Coach Starks said he smelled a rat.
"The kid's not a smoker," Starks said. "I'd been checking these guys all season, smelling their clothes. I'd know. And we'd told these guys, and they told each other, never to do anything that would reflect negatively on the team or themselves."
Starks said he'd collaborated with Woodland Hills all season, to the point where a counselor there suggested Starks become Manyang's foster father. But that collaboration faltered, Starks said, when he opposed the home's recommendation that Manyang graduate in 2012. True, he had the credits, but Starks felt he needed another year of maturity before trying to cope with college.
"Once I opposed them, everything changed," Starks said. "I was no longer considered an option for foster care. And then this allegation comes up? It just didn't add up."
Richard Quigley, executive director of Woodland Hills, said privacy laws prevent him from even acknowledging someone is a resident.
Gestures of support
To Manyang's dismay, the home required him to remain there while his team fought its way to a sectional championship. Five of his teammates refused to accept their championship medals to protest Manyang's suspension.
Meanwhile, Manyang, Starks and head coach Chuck Tolo appealed the suspension, which a committee heard March 19. But the committee had three days to decide, and East was to play its first state tournament game March 21.
The day came without a decision. The Greyhounds lost to Osseo 62-51.
"It would have been very different if I had been there," Manyang said.
Afterward, coaches Tolo and Starks lashed out publicly at administrators from the school and the home over how the allegation was handled. They said the school denied Manyang's offer to have a blood test for nicotine.
The school district issued a statement Friday saying it tries to "provide a fair and timely response to situations involving student athletes." Disclosing further information would violate student data-privacy rights, the statement said.
Manyang thought his high school hoop dream was gone forever. But two days after East's season-ending loss to Osseo, Olmsted County District Judge Kevin Lund issued a pair of decisions.
First, Lund discharged Manyang from state jurisdiction. Second, Lund decided that it was up to Manyang whether to graduate this year or not. Suddenly, with two flourishes of a pen, Manyang's life was in his own hands.
He knew what to do: First, he decided he would spend another year at East, battling for a state championship with his basketball family. Then he took Starks up on his offer to come live with him, his wife and daughter. He'll receive the private coaching he'll need to play for top-notch colleges and, eventually, for pro teams.
"This kid's got a future," Starks said. "Whatever obstacles we have to climb or overcome, this kid is ready for the battle."
Larry Oakes • 1-800-266-9648