Awak Kuier has always stood out – even when she didn’t want to.
Born to South Sudanese parents in Cairo, Egypt, the basketball star was just two years old when her family settled as refugees in Kotka, a sleepy, port town east of Helsinki.
Her parents and four brothers left Khartoum in 2001 to flee the civil war and eventually landed in Finland with other refugees as part of the government’s resettlement quota.
The Kuiers, though pleased to have found safety, sensed their presence in the town was immediately noticed:
“It was pretty rough at first because we couldn’t speak the language and we didn’t have any relatives,” reflected Kuier in a video for Basketball without Borders (BWB).
“For me, when I came in to a country where no one looked like me it was really because I was always the only one that looked different.”
She recalls that as her classmates assembled to play basketball between lessons she would often find herself last-picked or unchosen because of her skin colour: “I would just be left out.”
Awak Kuier in action with the Dallas Wings
Picture by USA TODAY Sports
Kuier’s early experience of racism, however, did not stop her burgeoning basketball talent.
The court quickly became somewhere she found acceptance. All the things that had made her anomalous: her height, her athleticism, helped her flourish. And it wasn’t long before she was noticed.
Within just three years of playing organised hoops the Finnish-Egyptian dual national went viral online for her one-handed slam dunks.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Chicago Bulls international scout Vanja Cernivic said recalling the first time she saw Kuier dunking at a BWB camp in Finland.
“She did it again, she did it again and of course, I took my phone out and filmed it. And I just ran out and wanted to show it to all the staff and the coaches.”
Shortly after her 16th birthday Kuier moved to Helsinki to join the Helsinki Basketball Academy (HBA) – the leading development space in the country.
And over the course of three years the raw potential she had flashed during her teenage years was gradually tamed.
Her skills on the floor began to match her already formidable talents around the post, and the 193cm-tall forward began to hit the gym to help build her lower body strength. It wasn’t long before her infamous dunks were looking at the slicker as the jumping heights she was reaching began to soar.
Awak Kuier: deciding between college or draft
In 2019 the prodigious Kuier finally got the call-up for her FIBA contest and she led Finland to glory in some time.
The Nordic nation defeated European powerhouse Greece in the final to take the U18B Women’s European Championship and Kuier topped the tournament in points (18.8) and rebounds (12.2) to leave with the mantle of Most Valuable Player.
Later that year, she was part of the Finnish side that finished as runners-up at the U20B FIBA European Championships. The forward was named to the tournament’s All-Star five proving her international worth for a second time.
As her court craft grew so did interest in the young Finn with colleges in the States beginning to reach out and coax her across the Atlantic.
But with her eyes firmly fixed on the WNBA the basketball talent opted to turn professional by joining Sicilian team Passsalacqua Ragusaa franchise in an Italian league frequented by other WNBA players.
It was a decision that paid dividends for her stock. A year of pro-ball under her belt, as well as her stealthy athleticism, meant that when the 2021 WNBA Draft came around Kuier’s name was being uttered as a sure-fire top-five pick.
When the Finn was later selected No 2 by the Dallas Wings it was as if her promise was verified.
In that moment Kuier became the sixth ever international player to be selected in the first five of the Draft – a feat not seen since Australia’s Liz Campage was taken second back in 2011.
She also became the first Finnish hooper to take to court in the WNBA – standing out in a spotlight, that this time she was ready to embrace:
“For me to be second pick – especially for the Europeans but also to be the first Finnish basketball player to have made it to the WNBA and actually play in the WNBA – I think its really cool,” Kuier continued to Basketball without Borders.
“This has been my dream for such a long time. It’s amazing to do something that you love and actually get paid for it. It’s the best thing in the world.”
Awak Kuier: Still dunking up a storm
Now in her second season with the Wings Kuier is still finding her feet in America’s premier basketball league.
Like many drafted imports to the WNBA the Finn has a lot of catching up to do particularly when it comes to banking consistent court time.
But if there are any doubts as to her potential star-power and her capacity for greatness then the Dallas forward’s recent form hints at what is to come.
Just last night (19 June) Kuier, revelling in her reputation, slammed a two-handed hanging dunk in the pregame warmup against the Los Angeles Sparks.
While it is not uncommon to see her slamming a one-handed dunk or two in the warm-up, that it was two-handed – and there was a rim hang – shows her continuing progress.
Not least because last week she had US Olympic greats and Seattle Storm stars Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart eating her dust as she intercepted a pass to slam home her first in-game dunk.
From Egypt to Finland then to Italy and now the USA, Kuier knows her better than most that her story until now is far from normal.
But whereas once, that might have held her back now, she’s embracing her difference and that can only mean the best is yet to come.
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