Basketball players who become coaches talk about a sometimes awkward transition from the court to the bench.
Aguek Arop doesn’t expect that.
“I was kind of a natural coach already as captain and being injured so much and on the sideline,” said Arop, the 6-foot-6 forward who ended his playing career at San Diego State last season. “I’ve already been in the role where I taught. The guys listen to me. It’s not weird. Being able to explain and teach them, it’s nothing new.
“It’s a natural transition.”
For him and for the program.
SDSU announced Thursday that Arop, one of its most popular players and a key intangible in the historic run to the Final Four, will be sticking around as director of player development. He replaces JD Pollock, who unexpectedly left to pursue business opportunities outside basketball in Fort Worth, Texas.
“It’s just staying within the family,” Dutcher said. “That’s what it is.”
“Above all,” Arop said, “I love Aztec basketball and the coaching staff and just the history here. … There’s only one place I wanted to coach, and it was here.”
Known around campus as “AG,” he never averaged more than 4.5 points or 16.1 minutes in a five-year career that was regularly interrupted by hip and shoulder surgeries, and then a nasty case of head-spinning vertigo that wiped out the back half of his junior season.
But his value went far beyond that, to hear the players and coaches tell it. He became the team’s glue, the team’s energy, the team’s heart and soul, the nightly leader in plus/minus stats despite modest minutes, the guy who talked during timeouts and the locker room at halftime, the guy who called a players-only meeting after an ugly loss at Nevada in late January.
The Aztecs won 15 of their next 16 games and found themselves in the national championship game at Houston’s NRG Stadium before a crowd of 72,423. Arop became the first player from Nebraska to appear in a Final Four since 1994.
A month later, euphoria turned to tragedy. Arop’s younger brother, Deng, was killed in a late-night car accident on Interstate 29 in rural Missouri when struck from behind by a truck. He immediately flew home to Omaha and spent much of the summer there, consoling his parents and contemplating his future.
A week later, a cousin died. In July, another cousin died.
Arop had planned to return to South Sudan this summer for the first time since his family was granted political asylum in the United States when he was 4. His parents have been, but he was never able to go because he hadn’t transitioned his refugee status to U.S. citizenship and didn’t have a passport – essentially meaning he was trapped inside the country, unable to leave over fears he wouldn’t be allowed back.
Arop finally got citizenship and a passport last summer. But then civil war flared up in neighboring Sudan in April and continued through the summer, making it too dangerous for travel.
“Man, life is a roller coaster,” Arop said. “You never know when tragedy can strike. Unfortunately, it was after an extreme high. There was a lot, back to back to back. But those are the cards I was dealt. How I respond, I think, is more important, just being grounded and taking things for what they are.”
The decision to leave Omaha was hard, he admits. But opportunity beckoned, and the salary allows him to help his parents financially.
So he left … for his other family.
The job description includes cutting film, organizing individual training sessions, scouting opponents, overseeing academics, supervising the student managers, working offseason camps. He also plans to play on the scout team during practice, since a new NCAA rule allows two additional staffers to conduct on-court coaching (previously, only the head coach and three designated assistants could).
“He’s been in the program, so that’s why I’m not worried,” Dutcher said. “He knows how we approach games, he knows how we scout, he knows how we cut tape. He has to learn how to do that now. He has to do it for us now, instead of us doing it for him.”
His role figures to go deeper, though.
“More of a big brother role,” Arop said. “I’ll still be coaching, but being as young as I am, I can have the same level of credibility and reliability that the players can rely on. It’s being able to contribute to the lives of young men. Coming into college, I was still a boy. Being away from family and being on your own is where I really found myself, and I want to have that kind of positive impact on people.
“I just didn’t think it was possible to get the opportunity right now. Obviously, things fell into place and I got the opportunity, and I couldn’t pass it up.”