Basketball High Schools

4 hours on the bus every day. Growing up in low-income housing. A murder in her family. Achol Akot cleared enormous hurdles to earn an NCAA basketball scholarship

By Dan Plouffe

Every school day for more than two years, Achol Akot took the train and the bus for over two hours from home in Ottawa’s west end to Cairine Wilson Secondary School in the east end.

When her school day was finished, she’d stay at school for another two hours and do her homework. There wasn’t enough time to get home before her 6 p.m. basketball practice with the Capital Courts Academy.

Akot would empty the tank training in pursuit of her dreams, and then it was another two hours to get back home. She’d arrive around 10 p.m.

“Going home is the hardest part,” says Akot. “Not even the morning, but going home after practice, I’m so drained.”

In winter, the schedule meant she’d get on the bus just as the sun would start to rise, and she’d be home about five hours after it set.

On the occasions when she’d have a morning practice, it was even more difficult.

“We have to be here for 7:45, so I have to wake up at 4:30 and then leave at like 5:15 or 5:30,” details Akot, who would try to eat a lot the night before and get to sleep as early as she could. “Waking up on those days is so hard. My mom helps me with that stuff, but I don’t know how I do it.”

During her time in transit, Akot would listen to music or read, often for class, especially if it was something that touches on history, culture or politics. She also watched a lot of documentaries, especially Second Chance Season.

“I love that film,” Akot highlights. “I watch it like 24/7. It’s pretty long, so one time and I’m already at school.”

The documentary centres on Nick Young, who played in the NBA for over a decade and won a championship with the Golden State Warriors in 2018. The ESPN film’s description reads:

Second Chance Season explores the long-term, residual effects a senseless killing can have on a single family. This compelling documentary recounts one family’s desperate attempt to triumph over tragedy by placing all of its hopes in the basketball aspirations of its youngest son.

“Seventeen-year-old Nick is a two-time high school dropout who is given an eleventh hour reprieve by the school board and allowed to comeback for his senior year. Following the murder of his brother, Nick struggles to keep his family together, but his hoop dreams become a nearly unbearable burden as he realizes that only by succeeding both on and off the court will his family focus on the future and stop dwelling on its tragic past.”

Family driven

Achol Akot. Photos: Dan Plouffe

What drove Akot to make the long journey every day to Capital Courts is “where my family came from,” she explains.

With civil war raging in their native Sudan, Akot’s parents came to Canada in 2000. They first landed in Manitoba, then moved to Edmonton (where Akot was born) and finally Akot’s mom wanted a change and brought her six children to Ottawa.

“Seeing them do all that work to get here, I have to repay them. There has to be a way,” Akot underlines. “I feel like me getting to the next step in basketball is a way to repay them, getting a scholarship, going to school and getting an education.”

Akot’s family grew up in the Britannia Woods Ottawa Community Housing neighbourhood. Their mom was rarely able to work when they were young with so many kids to care for. Akot has an older sister and an older brother, two younger brothers and a younger sister, and “too many cousins to count.”

One set of cousins also grew up in Britannia Woods – another large family with similar circumstances. Many of Akot’s favourite childhood memories came on July 9s – South Sudan’s Independence Day – when everyone would gather for a big BBQ.

Her family is close, and they certainly lived in close quarters.

“No privacy,” Akot signals. “I would say that you have to have tough skin because people just say what’s on their mind at all times. And there’s not a lot of focus on you, it’s more like the whole family.”

As the middle sister, Akot first shared a room with her older sister, then with her younger one.

“I’m never gonna get my own room unless I move out,” she smiles.

Akot is closest in age to her younger brother Akot (who goes by Sam and is a standout basketball player himself for Canada TopFlight Academy).

Sam pretty much introduced his big sister to basketball. One morning, he woke her up early. His basketball team needed a girl to play with them for a tournament because someone else had dropped out. Akot had never played any organized basketball before, but eventually gave in to his begging.

“I was so scared,” Akot recounts. “He was like, ‘Just stand there. Put your arms out when someone comes by and try to steal the ball. Then when you get the ball, pass it to me.’

“I was like, ‘OK, that’s all I have to do.’ But I was good at it and I loved it and I wanted to continue.”

Nowadays, the siblings train together when they’re not with their teams at the Boys and Girls Club, the Y, or “wherever we can.”

Akot first started playing with a Britannia Woods program out of Dr. F.J. McDonald Catholic School.

“I didn’t take it as seriously, but I would say that that’s where my love of basketball started,” she reflects. “They introduced it to me. I didn’t even think girls could play basketball. I didn’t see any representation of people playing basketball. I didn’t know that WNBA was a thing. I didn’t know in high school girls play basketball, because I’d never seen that.

“For them to make a team, I was like, ‘Wow, girls play this sport too.’ I’d only seen my brothers playing, but I’m like, ‘OK, I’ll give it a try.'”

Lual Akot. File photo

Akot’s older brother Lual was the family’s first basketball star. He joined the Canada TopFlight Academy and went on to attend State Fair Community College in Missouri in pursuit of NCAA opportunities. She wound up modelling her game after her older brother’s.

“We both play really similar, and I admire how he plays,” notes Akot, who dressed for Ottawa Next Level and the CTA girls’ program before joining Capital Courts.

Akot laughs at the memory of working with Lual at a basketball camp with kids from the neighbourhood.

“We were playing bump, and usually when you’re the older person, you would let the kids win just for fun, but he was dunking, he was bumping the ball to the other side of the gym – he wasn’t even giving them a chance,” she recalls. “I was just there dying, like how can you do that to these kids? He demolished everyone and there was nothing I could do.”

Rich culture

Britannia Woods was always full of energy and vibrancy when Akot was growing up. There were always kids around to play with.

The best part was that “you’re around so many different cultures,” Akot highlights. “There’s a lot of Somali people, there’s Sudanese, there’s Arabs, there’s white people. You’re around so many different people, so you get to learn from so many different people.

“I remember I started speaking some Somali because I was around them so much. I think it helped me now because I got to see so many different cultures and appreciate them more. We can celebrate that and encourage each other.”

To her, Britannia Woods wasn’t the community that many people assume it is from news headlines about Ritchie Street and preconceptions about social housing residents.

“It was fun. It was hard sometimes, but when I look back at it, it was mostly fun,” Akot states. “I felt free, in a sense. Outside, some people might not feel safe, but I felt safe. I knew everyone. I knew how everybody was, so I knew I can just go outside and I can play with all these people.

“There were so many kids that I didn’t have to just play with my siblings. I could play with people that are the same age as me.

“That’s where basketball came to me. I’d play outside and see all these guys playing outside, and they would teach me some stuff. I got better there.”

Nevertheless, many of the problems stemming from poverty were present in the community too. There were several tragic incidents of violence over the years.

“It was kind of scary sometimes,” Akot indicates. “Because of course, you don’t want that to happen to your friends or family.”

Deadly shooting

Manny Akol. File photo

It didn’t take place in the neighbourhood itself, but what happened at an Airbnb rental house in Centretown on Jan. 8, 2020 shattered Britannia Woods just the same.

Early that morning, Akot’s 18-year-old cousin Manyok Akol was murdered in his sleep. Akol was a leader in the Britannia Woods community and was a rising rapper, FTG Metro.

The killer used a firearm with a silencer and shot three others as well. Akot’s brother Lual was one of them and nearly died too. The bullet went through his neck and shattered his teeth and jaw but missed his brain.

Last year, a youth who aided the shooter was convicted of first degree murder, but the shooter still hasn’t been brought to justice.

Six months after the murder, Akot’s cousins had to dodge bullets fired at their home. Eventually, both families’ long-standing request to be moved out of the Britannia Woods community for safety reasons was met.

Moving forward

The shootings are not something Akot talks about very often, even with some of the closest people in her life. She didn’t see a psychologist or receive help after, but she’s managed to move forward.

“During that time, I started reconnecting with my faith. That’s been the biggest thing that’s got me through everything,” says Akot, who worships at River Jordan Ministries. “Even now to keep pushing me and waking me up in the morning, I think God has helped me with that.”

Akot stopped playing with the CTA’s girls’ program out of Notre Dame Catholic High School after the incident, though she says the main reason was COVID, which hit a couple months after the shooting.

“I started hearing about the COVID stuff and I couldn’t get into the gym. Everything started shutting down,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what the future was gonna hold. I didn’t think we were going to go back to school. I didn’t think anything would open up.

“I wasn’t in the gym for three or four months and I couldn’t even go outside because it was cold, so I was just like, I don’t know if this is gonna be possible.”

Akot thought her basketball journey was probably finished.

“It was heartbreaking because I was like, ‘My high school career’s gonna be over, my high school experience’s gonna be over.’ I’m still a kid. I didn’t know how I’m gonna pick up from here,” she adds. “It was very frustrating. I didn’t think there was hope. There was; I’m here today. But I sure didn’t feel like there was at that time.”

Part of the trouble was that when difficult things were happening in Akot’s life, she’d turn to basketball as “a way to escape.”

“When I’m sad, I play basketball, and when I’m happy, I play basketball,” Akot notes. “It’s just a way to shift my mind to something else and I just love it.”

Basketball bounce-back

Deep down, Akot knew there was still a passion for the sport inside her, so when Capital Courts Academy founders Merrick Palmer and Fabienne Blizzard reached out to her, she decided to listen. Their program had an exemption to public health regulations and its high-performance athletes were allowed to train through COVID.

“When we met her, she was contemplating just quitting basketball totally,” recounts Palmer. “But after meeting with her and her mom, they decided to give us a chance.”

Akot now says Blizzard and Palmer are like a second mom and dad to her, though it wasn’t that way at first.

“We knew we had to build some trust with her. Trust is a very big thing for her. She didn’t trust us right away. She didn’t know us. We couldn’t just start going hardball on her saying trust us, trust us, trust us. We knew we had to develop a relationship,” Palmer details.

“We went very slowly with her. There were some absolutes that we couldn’t let slip, like you gotta come to practice. You can’t just miss practice for no reason. That’s how it was for everyone in the program, so she understood the requirements and she stuck with it.

“But more than anything, we had to let her know that we’re here for her. We don’t want anything from her. We just want the best for her.”

Blizzard is proud that Akot feels she’s like a second mom to her. That’s kind of Blizzard’s goal. She tells all her players they can call her any time.

“There’s no judgment. ‘What’s going on? What do you need to talk about?'” explains Blizzard, who tries to pass on some of the lessons she’s learned. “My mother always told me, I’m a double minority. Sometimes we have to work that much harder to get the things we want.

“Achol is someone who has tremendous character, who does not use anything as an excuse or a crutch.”

Capital Courts staff worked to ensure Akot could have the same chance at success as everyone else. Many people have quietly supported Akot, knowing she comes from a low-income family. “It takes a village,” Blizzard notes.

She remembers Palmer bringing Akot to the shoe store when he noticed hers were getting worn out. He wanted to buy her two pairs, but Akot said thank you, one is good.

Furious fire

Palmer says what Akot has been through in her life is reflected in her game on the court.

“There’s no quit,” he underlines. “When there’s a loose ball, it’s like life or death for her. Now, sometimes she just kind of throws caution to the wind to try to get it and collects fouls. But she just cannot stop herself from trying to get every single basketball, every single rebound.

“She’s hungrier than most players because of where she’s coming from. Most players have never felt hunger pain. They can just open the fridge and get stuff. When you have to go to bed hungry or when you have to sacrifice your meal so another family member can eat, it’s just a different level of understanding what’s important in your life.

“Most kids will drop their phone and break it, and then get a new phone the next day. So there’s no struggle, there’s no need. You want something, you’ll get it, there’s no, ‘OK, we can’t afford that, or we can’t do that.’ This is Ottawa, this is Orleans, people have the means to do a lot of things.

“But when you’ve come from nothing, and there’s an opportunity, you’re gonna go after it like a bat out of hell. So that’s reflected in her game. Her motor is on level 10 all the time. It’s just a different mindset.”

Akot’s dedication has paid off with several big prizes. In 2022, she helped Capital Courts win their first Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association championship and she was selected to play for Team Ontario at the Niagara 2022 Canada Summer Games, where she won a bronze medal. This year, CCA fell 67-63 in a hard-fought semi-final with eventual-champion Crestwood.

“They’re leaving a legacy,” Blizzard says of her graduating senior players. “And they’re doing so good with the young ones, showing them this is our culture and this is how it’s done. Achol has spearheaded that.”

NCAA calls

Along with Akot’s success came heavy interest from college basketball programs. The 6′ 1″ player didn’t know much about how to navigate the recruiting process, but by then, Palmer had gained her full trust.

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to be that close with another player. This was very unique,” Palmer signals. “We shared the same kind of upbringing. Lots of kids in the family – I’m the youngest of seven – grew up with no father, so my older brothers became my father.”

Palmer saw violence around him too, having grown up in social housing in Toronto, and in South Africa when he later played professional basketball.

“One of my best buddies was murdered. Because of things he shouldn’t be into,” he says. “It’s very easy to get caught up into that. Not her, but, you know, maybe people in their family can get caught up in that easily.

“That’s what’s around you in those types of neighbourhoods, and you just don’t know any better because you just get immersed in that culture and in those environments, so if you don’t have a healthy outlet, it’s so easy to get caught up.

“I had incredible mentors in my life, so I just wanted to be that for her.”

Palmer and Akot have had countless conversations about life, not just basketball. Leadership, discipline and work ethic are frequent themes. But the tragedy that struck Akot’s family is one thing they don’t really discuss.

“Not at all,” Palmer says. “What she shares with me is what I go on. I mean, I know all the details, and she knows I know all the details. But she’s a very private person.

“But she has a very, very strong faith. Religion is a big part of her life. She may be keeping it in with other people, but she expresses it to her family and she has a strong relationship with God. I know that she prays a lot.

“If she kept things in to a point where it is hurting her… I really don’t think that’s the case, because she wouldn’t be that successful if she did.

“Who knows, maybe long term it starts to really affect her, but I don’t think it’s affecting her at that level, just yet. I’m not a psychologist, I just know that she’s doing the best she can.

“Maybe when she’s off to university, she can deal with it a little bit better, or a bit more directly, but for now, we’re just going to take things in stride and support her when she asks for that support.”

Merrick Palmer. File photo

Palmer felt “honoured” to get the chance to join Akot as she visited universities on recruiting trips and provide some guidance.

His favourite memory came when they were at the University of Central Florida. They’d met all kids of staff members – faculty, advisors, deans, coaches, trainers and nutritionists. Last was the athletic director, who took them through the merits of the UCF Knights program and then asked if Akot had any questions.

“So she asked the athletic director, ‘When you hire a coach, what are the three qualities you look for?’” recounts Palmer, noting the director reacted with complete surprise. “He literally stood up and gave her a hug and said, ‘No one’s ever asked me that before.’

“You can just see the level of thought that she put into that question – understanding that the response will determine what type of coach she’d be getting, the person that she may commit to.

“I thought that was really, really thoughtful and he obviously did as well.”

It was also a sign of the personal development Akot has undergone in the past few years since she joined CCA. When Palmer and Blizzard first talked to her about joining CCA, Akot hardly said a word.

“It was us doing all the talking and them doing all the listening,” Palmer notes. “I think she was in a very different place then.”

Achol Akot and her mom on signing day. Photo: @achol_akot13 Instagram

Akot ultimately settled on UCF as her university destination, mostly because she got the sense that their coaching staff would take care of her much like CCA has. When she officially signed with the Knights, Akot made sure her mom could be there for the big moment.

“She took me to my practices when I first started in basketball, and now going to university, I think she’s really proud of me,” smiles Akot. “At first, I wasn’t really confident in my basketball skills, but she supported me and said, ‘Just go try it. What’s the worst that can happen?’ And she’s just been rooting me on ever since.”

Akot expects it will be hard moving away from family and being a long way away in Orlando. Her mom’s cooking might be what she’ll miss most, Akot laughs.

“I’m a really picky eater. I usually only eat from my mom. I don’t know how I’m gonna cook for myself,” she adds. “But it’s a new journey. And one day I’m gonna have to figure out these things, so perfect timing to do it while I’m playing basketball.”

Big ambitions

Akot plans to study psychology in university.

“Psychology is a good way for me to give back and help people,” she explains. “I really like the mind. I really like learning how it works, and why people think a certain way, and why people do certain things.”

Akot says she’d eventually like to work in a hospital setting, with all ages, but particularly with youth.

“I have so many younger siblings,” she notes. “I feel like I’d be good at that.”

Akot would also like to travel a lot, and see her family in Sudan, where she’d like to build a church and spread the gospel.

“My religion is my number one thing,” she highlights. “It’s the only thing that’s above basketball. It’s the one thing I can run back to if I need something. When I’m down, it’s the one thing I can rely on. It has a big impact on me. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have it.”

In basketball, Akot’s long-term goal is to play professionally overseas – in Spain preferably, she indicates.

The 18-year-old may get a chance to play there much sooner than expected. Akot was one of 15 players invited to a Team Canada training camp in Toronto from June 30-July 8 ahead of the July 15-23 FIBA U19 Women’s Basketball World Cup 2023 in Madrid.

Fellow CCA product Cassandre Prosper, who recently won bronze with the Canadian senior women’s team at the FIBA AmeriCup, will join the team there. Canada’s final 12-player roster has not yet been released.

“We’re all excited for her and for how far she’s come,” Palmer underlines. “It’s a blessing. She’s worked her butt off to get herself into a position to even earn a scholarship – physically, academically, emotionally, all of that.

“It’s a testament to her work ethic, and her resilience coming from where she’s coming from, to achieve the things that she has over the past three years.”

Earning an NCAA scholarship is a big accomplishment for anyone, Palmer adds, but it’s even bigger for someone who’s faced challenges like Akot has.

“It’s life changing. She has opportunity to change the trajectory of her entire family,” Palmer highlights. “She’s almost there, almost going to be stepping on campus. And that’s phenomenal from where she started.”

Akot remembers the first of countless trips she made crossing the city on public transit to get to Capital Courts.

“I didn’t really know how to travel from the west to the east,” she recalls. “I didn’t even know what Orleans was.”

When Akot announced her signing with UCF on Instagram, she shared the bible verse Lamentations 3:22-23, which is about feeling grateful.

“I wouldn’t be here if not for all the people at Capital Courts. I wanted to acknowledge that,” she signals. “My teammates, they teach me a lot. They made me better in so many different ways.

“There’s so many different characters and I’m gonna miss each and every one of them.”

Joining CCA felt “overwhelming” at first, but a warm welcome allowed her to fit in and excel, she adds.

“Coach Fab treats me as she would her daughter. When I go to her house, I feel like it’s my home. She is so welcoming.

“Merrick. I don’t know what to say about this man,” Akot says, pausing for a moment with emotion.

“When I’m hungry, he feeds me. When I need something, he’s always there. They just provide me with anything that I need.”

There are many others who have helped her too, and most were other individuals who also came from low-income backgrounds, she notes.

“They’re just trying to give back, and I just find that so inspiring,” Akot highlights. “And one day when I’m able to give back, I’m gonna do the same thing.”

Read More in our 2023 High School Best Series, presented by Louis-Riel Sports-Études, as we tip our caps to top local student-athletes at:

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