PHOENIX – Those close to Lök Wur describe him as being a joy to be around, exhibiting an infectious personality and always looking to offer an assist, on and off the basketball court. As a first-generation American, Wur cherishes his South Sudanese heritage and takes pride in helping his ancestral land. He has even jokingly said he would like to someday be president of his mother’s homeland.
In the meantime, he has his sights on something more plausible. Wur, a 6-foot-9 forward who in May transferred from Oregon to Grand Canyon University, plans on making an impact on a winning culture and he may have found it in Phoenix with Bryce Drew’s program.
Lök Wur (pronounced Luke War) didn’t play on his first organized basketball team until the seventh grade. That didn’t stop him from becoming a Division I prospect and receiving north of 30 offers out of Papillion La Vista South High School in Nebraska.
“Man, definitely came a long way. I just had to grow a lot and just keep evolving what I was doing,” Wur said during Grand Canyon’s recent media availability.
“Heading into high school, I noticed how much potential I had and how much different I was compared to other players where I grew up. Ultimately, it changed my life.”
Joel Hueser, Wur’s varsity basketball coach at Papillion La Vista South, still raves about his former player who averaged 20.8 points and 10 rebounds per game his senior year. Emboldened by a strong support network anchored by Hueser and another coach, Jim Simpson, Wur’s morale surged.
“This is a young man that has high potential, one of the really good ones,” Hueser said. “One of the great ones to play here.”
Wur’s mother, Elizabeth Gatkuoth, is a native of South Sudan who journeyed from Sudan to Ethiopia to South Africa to North Omaha, Nebraska, where a large number of South Sudanese refugees have relocated and started new lives.
The first vote for establishing South Sudan’s independence from Sudan during the end of the country’s civil war took place in January 2011. Due to the large population of Sudanese refugees residing in Omaha, the U.S. city was designated as one of the voting sites.
Omaha is home to The Southern Sudanese Community Association, which provides training and education for refugees from a nation that has experienced ethnic violence and rampant human rights violations. Even though South Sudan became its own country more than a decade ago, it still suffers from armed conflict between rival forces of the Sudanese military government, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and the militia Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
Ranked last in the Human Development Index of 191 nations that considers health, education, income and living conditions, South Sudan is both one of the least developed countries in the world and, as of 2022, also the poorest country by GDP per capita, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Nonetheless, the war-torn country qualified as the top African basketball team at the FIBA World Cup in September and earned a spot in the 2024 Paris Olympics, the nation’s first Olympic berth in any sport. Defeating Angola 101-78, the South Sudanese team that was stocked with refugees and refugees’ children made history as one of sport’s most heart-warming stories.
Former NBA All-Star Luol Deng, who launched the South Sudan program three years ago with his significant personal financial support, aggressively recruited players with South Sudanese heritage.
“This past summer, it was really rewarding for the national team to be able to make the World Cup,” Wur said with a big smile on his face as he sat chatting at the scorer’s table. “We got our independence in 2011. To be at the FIBA World Cup and see them qualify for the Olympics was unbelievably exciting for our country, and unifying for our people.”
Entering Wur’s junior year at Papillion La Vista South, he made a decision that altered his life by moving in full-time with the family of Jim Simpson, one of his high school coaches, to help shorten his daily travel schedule from North Omaha.
“I think it was really courageous of him because his mom (worked) nights,” said Tasha Simpson, who is a part of Wur’s support system. “He didn’t hesitate as far as accepting that knowing that’s what’s best for his future. It was a big leap of faith.”
Wur’s second family helped him navigate structure in his life and reach his full potential.
“We all treat him like he’s our own even though he’s not officially adopted,” Jim Simpson said. “He’s our son and brother to our kids.”
During Wur’s adjustment period moving away from his mom and three younger siblings, he found peace spending hours in the gym. On some nights, he’d be on the Papillion LV South court until midnight or beyond, working on his shot creation skills.
“It’s a dual role with the two families,” said Jim Simpson, who teaches and serves as the assistant basketball coach at Papillion LV South. “Trying to support Lök as much as we can. And help Lök with him being away from his family and his siblings. His family is really important to him.”
Wur first received interest from Creighton University, a private Nebraska school with a strong basketball heritage.
He decided to commit to Oregon to create his own path away from home and, after three seasons with the Ducks (and a political science degree), his journey eventually led him to Grand Canyon University.
“He’s been even better than statistically what he showed at Oregon,” said Drew, the ‘Lopes coach. “We saw a lot of film. I brought him in for a workout and he’s been tremendous. We could bring a transfer (in) and you can tell if he’s really been coached well, and what he does well.
“Lök was coached extremely well and he picks things up very fast on the court.”
Wur continued to gain confidence that he could play at the power-five level when he got his opportunity during the 2022-23 regular season after key Oregon players were injured just before the Pac-12 tournament. Wur started in every National Invitational Tournament for the Ducks and played in a total of 28 games.
“I’m a unique player,” Wur said.
With a 7-foot-1 wingspan and an offensive role that should highlight his flexibility, Wur, a graduate transfer with two years of eligibility remaining, adds a dimension the ‘Lopes covet.
“We like how versatile he is and that he can play multiple positions,” Drew said. “On offense and defend virtually every position on the court.”
GCU expects to attack the rim better this season and use its length to get easy buckets in transition after relying heavily on the 3-point shot last season.
Wur graduated from Oregon with a degree in Political Science and International Studies before moving to Phoenix this summer.
In the future, Wur said he plans to use his degree to assist countries in solving their problems peacefully and reach lasting agreements through communication and mutual understanding.
“He always joked that he was going to be the president of his country,” Jim Simpson said. “He has a lot of pride in the South Sudanese country.”
Wur has always had a smile that could light up the room, it’s part of his personality.
“Not only does (Lök) have that magnetic appeal,” Hueser said, “but he just has a way of making you feel like he’s everybody’s best friend.”
Grand Canyon’s roster this season consists of nine transfers, including Wur. There was a prevailing sentiment inside GCU Arena during the team’s Media Day, “a connected community” theme that excites Wur.
“The culture here, it feels like it’s a real connected community,” Wur said. “And I felt like it’d be a great place for me to thrive, be more connected with the team and the university as a whole. I felt like Grand Canyon University had all those tools. I was really excited and blessed for this opportunity.”
In Wur’s circumstance, a breakout season may be in store.
“The vision is getting clear, in terms of what I want to do with my game,” Wur said.