Both Gach is letting the slice of pizza in front of him get cold.
On the bottom floor of Utah’s basketball facility, where players spill into a massive lounge room at the conclusion of the first practice of 2019, the true freshman sits behind one of the many tables. His teammates mingle about, zipping playful zings at one another. On the far side of the room, a bowl game is showing on a flat-screen TV. A couple tables away, some members of the Utah women’s basketball team are relaxing.
There, amid all the noise, amid the aroma of lunchtime delivery, Both tells bits and pieces of his story. The 6-foot-7 wing grew up in a small town about two hours south of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area in Austin, Minn. There, he and his siblings spent most of their time in the gym at the local YMCA. Austin is a working class Midwest town, but it’s also a town where basketball reigns supreme. And for all the likely reasons, Both and his brothers became a part of the fabric of that town. But the Gach kids are also one of the reasons basketball is known in Austin, and why it’s still growing.
In that quiet, cozy town near the Iowa border is a sizable population of South Sudanese immigrants and first generation children. In fact, four of the five starters on this year’s Austin boys’ basketball team are of South Sudanese descent. So it should be no surprise that when Both talks about going home for Christmas break, he said once he set foot in his YMCA, he was mobbed by young kids from the community.
They saw him drop 22 at Kentucky, they said.
They saw him throw down some dunks on uploaded clips online, they said.
They’re seeing him do what so many always believed he could: become a catalyst for a Division I team and look good doing it. Both’s story has layers, as everyone’s does. And at the very top is family. Because without them, he wouldn’t be No. 11 in crimson red. He wouldn’t be a thorn in John Calipari’s side for 40 minutes. No, the sacrifices made to get Both and his siblings to where they are now are deep-rooted in a willingness to find the good amid the absolute worst.
UTAH’S BOTH GACH
Height » 6-foot-7
Weight » 195 pounds
Position » Guard/forward
Class » Freshman
Hometown » Austin, Minn.
Aiming high » Gach chose Utah over Oregon, Texas Tech and San Diego State. The freshman had a season-high 22 points in the loss at Kentucky earlier this year. Gach participated in a Sudanese youth basketball camp held by NBA forward Luol Deng when Gach was in high school.
Atrocities of war forced a life-altering change. Gach’s parents left home during what is called the Second Sudanese Civil War in 1996. They first moved to New York and eventually made it to southern Minnesota. That civil war lasted until 2005, resulting in the deaths of over two million Sudanese. Last month, South Sudan, which is considered the youngest country in the world, reached the five-year point of its own ongoing civil war.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said South Sudan is home to the largest refugee crisis in Africa. It’s the third largest in the world behind Syria and Afghanistan. Sixty-five percent of South Sudanese refugees worldwide are under 18. Such numbers are staggering, and nobody knows that more than Both and his family.
“We take it personally, we dwell on it. That’s why me and my brothers, we’re in the gym,” said Both’s older brother, Gach Gach, who plays basketball at West Texas A&M. “We’re just trying to make something out nothing. We’re trying to make our parents proud, coming to this country, trying to do anything to make ourselves successful. That’s something I preach to my brothers.”
Both and twin brother, Duoth who plays at North Dakota State College of Science, were born in 1999 and have only ever known the U.S. as home. There are seven kids in the Gach family in all. And while basketball has given several an avenue to chase dreams, an education and to keep playing basketball, there are sobering reminders that they’ve dealt with on a daily basis for years. Both said his mom, Martha Deng, is still trying to provide support to the extended family back in South Sudan as much as she can.
“Everything is just bad over there,” Both said. “There’s killings, the government is all corrupt, so like, you get the feeling you’re in the United States and all that, you get the feeling that you’re blessed. You always feel safe. You feel the balance.”
Austin is home to the Hormel Foods manufacturing plant. It’s where Both’s parents landed jobs when they first arrived. It’s where his mom still works. Austin High coach Kris Fadness has known the Gach kids since they were young. He’s coached Both, Duoth and Gach Gach. He’s seen first-hand the impact Martha Deng has had on their lives, often working shifts that go as late as 1 a.m. every day.
“It’s amazing to see how far they’ve all come,” Fadness said.
Utah fans see a lanky, rangy 6-foot-7 guard/forward who can pretty much do it all. And that’s what Both is now. He’s still growing, too, he says. But a few years ago, before a legit growth spurt, he was just a shy, barely 6-foot freshman who played on the varsity team in Austin during Gach Gach’s senior year.
“His body caught up with him, the athleticism caught up, too, and he started jumping out the gym and doing what he does now,” Gach Gach said.
During his sophomore season at Austin, Both propelled the Packers to a 29-3 record. The next season he led them to the Class 3A state title game in 2017. Both eventually enrolled at Arizona Compass prep where he averaged 24 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per game. The team went 24-4 that season. How Both got on Utah’s radar, however, was quite fortuitous.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak and assistant Tommy Connor were in Las Vegas in July 2017 near the end of the player evaluation period when they were taking in a game. They glanced behind them and saw Gach. Both immediately reminded the coaches of a former Ute star.
"Whenever you have a player the caliber of Delon Wright, the rest of your life you're always looking for that guy," Krystkowiak said, acknowledging the comparison is unfair to Gach.
Krystkowiak added that after Gach's prep school year in Arizona, Connor helped him through the admission process and Gach's recruitment, "blew up at the end of the [spring] when people realized he was going to be eligible.”
Both committed to and signed with Utah over Oregon, Texas Tech and San Diego State. He became part of a talented 2018 freshman class that is getting considerable playing time so far this season. So far, he’s averaging 7.7 points per game and has hit the double-digit mark four times, including his breakout, 22-point outing at Kentucky. Both called the recruiting process “a grind.” But he did what he’s always done on the court: he trusted his instincts. Those instincts led him to choose Salt Lake.
When he announced it was the Utes, he did it back home. In Austin. In his old gym. With his family and friends and coaches by his side. The student body showed out for him. And there, too, were a flurry of young South Sudanese kids, who look already look up to Both.
“There’s no question,” Fadness said, “they all want to be in Both’s shoes.”
Whether it be luck or fate or whatever you want to call it, Utah’s non-conference schedule featured a trip home to Minnesota this season. And when the Utes ran out onto the floor of Williams Arena, there were over 50 fans who made the two-hour drive on a weeknight to welcome Both back. During the Utes’ recent upset over Arizona State last week, Fadness and his staff went to the local bar and grill after a game in Austin in search of the Pac-12 Network.
No dice. No matter, though. They’re watching and rooting for Both, who like his brothers and other South Sudanese student-athletes in Minnesota, have become a shining light for young kids from families who fled such pain and strife in search of something better.
“We’re going to hold those guys up on a pedestal and say, ‘This is what you can do to achieve,’” Fadness said. “We want his dreams to come true for him.”
Gach Gach believes that all of the success they’ve had will help not only up-and-comers like they once were, but also change the perception that some might believe that reaching too high is a mistake. Basketball, he said, is their way to pay it forward.
“It changes their minds and their hearts and gives them confidence to do what they actually want to do and reach out for those goals,” he explained.
Both’s pride is growing, too. Yes, he’s an example to so many, but he’s also taking advantage of everything that was laid out for him when his family left their home and everything they knew for just a shot at providing more for their children.
“It’s really special because back home, all us kids, all our parents pretty much do the same thing — they work at the plants and they’re all like falling in love with sports and they all want to make it as far as they can in order to help their families, especially for our parents for all that they’ve been through,” Both said.
Salt Lake City, it just so happens, also has a growing Sudanese and South Sudanese population. Many are refugees. Both said he’s already made some friends around town, either on campus, at the mall or elsewhere. Some already know who he is. Those who don’t, Both walks up and introduces himself.
If all goes according to plan, a lot more folks around here will know his name sooner than later.
WASHINGTON STATE AT UTAH
At the Huntsman Center
Tipoff: Saturday, 6 p.m.
TV: Pac-12 Networks.
Radio: ESPN 700.
Records: WSU 7-8 (0-2 Pac-12); Utah 7-8 (1-2 Pac-12).
Series history: Utah leads, 23-4.
Last meeting: Utah 77, WSU 70 (2018).
About the Cougars: Leading scorer Robert Franks (22.1) has missed the last three games with a hip injury. He didn’t make the trip to Colorado for Thursday’s 92-60 loss, so he’s likely out for Saturday’s game. … The Cougars went 2 of 18 from 3-point range in Boulder and allowed the Buffaloes to shoot 54.7 percent from the field. … WSU has lost nine straight games to the Utes and is 2-10 vs. Utah in Pac-12 competition. ... WSU led Washington briefly in the second half of an 85-67 loss last Saturday in Seattle.
About the Utes: Utah had beaten Washington six straight games before losing 69-53 to the Huskies on Thursday. The Utes had scored only 20 points in the second half before Parker Van Dyke made an uncontested 3-pointer in the final seconds. Utah went 6 of 30 (.200) from 3-point range after shooting 27 of 51 (.529) in two games last week. … The Utes dropped from No. 30 to No. 40 in the kenpom.com offensive efficiency rankings after shooting 33 percent overall. … Center Jayce Johnson sustained a cut on his forehead late in the game; coach Larry Krystkowiak said Johnson likely would not be subject to concussion protocol, however.