Abu Kigab drives for a layup in NCAA action for Boise State, where the Sudanese-Canadian stars. Photo courtesy of Boise State

Basketball star mines father’s drive to be best he can be

By 
  • June 18, 2021

Basketball standout Abu Kigab’s tenacious drive to be the best athlete he can may be proof that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

The 22-year-old Sudanese-Canadian forward at Boise State University in Idaho is the son of former professional marathon swimmer Sultan Kigab, who represented his native Sudan at events throughout Europe and North America in the 1970s and ’80s. The gruelling open water competition defined by distances of at least 10 kilometres is by no means for the faint of heart. On Father’s Day and every day, Kigab is grateful to have inherited that heart from his dad.

With his plans to enter the NBA draft deferred for another year due to a shoulder injury, Kigab’s attitude remains as positive as ever. He will be back at Boise for a fifth season with the free year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to COVID-19. Feeling he has “unfinished business,” Kigab didn’t want to leave without giving his team an opportunity to compete for a tournament title.

“It’s been hard mentally, but you know, it’s basketball and I’m a competitor,” he said. “I just want to get after it and having another shot at that is a blessing, so you take advantage of it.”

Born in Khartoum, Sudan, Kigab fell in love with the game when he immigrated to Canada at age nine with his family and touched a basketball for the first time at school in St. Catharines, Ont. At first Sultan was coaching his son to become a swimmer but after seeing his obvious talent on the court, he too was won over by the sport his son was practising daily for hours on end.

Kigab would go on to become a key component of the basketball team at St. Francis Catholic Secondary School, and later part of a history-making Canadian team. After just 10 years in his new homeland, Kigab found himself in Cairo, Egypt, draped in the maple leaf as part of the Canadian FIBA Under-19 World Cup team that won a historic gold medal in 2017 — the country’s first title in the sport at any world event.

“One week after he started learning to play basketball, I could see a big difference,” said Sultan, who would take him to the YMCA to practice. “I told him, ‘Abu, I think one day you’re going to do something special for Canada.’ ”

Doing something great for Canada was always very important for Sultan. Grateful for the opportunities the nation has afforded him, his wife, Mashair El Gaide, and their four children, he wanted to give back to the sport culture. As a swimmer, Sultan in the early 1970s fulfilled a dream of coming to Canada when after a competition in Quebec he was granted landed immigrant status as Canada’s newly adopted multiculturalism policy opened the doors in a larger way to immigration for people from outside of Europe. 

“I was crazy about Canada at that time and it was my dream every day for two years to come here,” said Sultan. “Sudan gave me permission to come here to compete. When I got here, I stayed in Montreal and after I finished my race, they (offered) me landed immigrant (status) to live in Canada. On the 19th of July 1977 I got my Canadian passport.”

Sultan worked as a coach in Montreal before following a job opportunity in Saudi Arabia and eventually moving back to Sudan. While there he met and married Abu’s mother. But Sultan longed to be back in Canada to create greater opportunities for their children, and in 2008 the Kigabs moved to Ontario.

As a Muslim family, Kigab says he found community and acceptance through sport and the coaching staff at St. Francis. Staff at the school, which has close to a 10-per-cent Muslim student body, work to foster a culture of openness and acceptance regardless of race or religion. Through his education at St. Francis, Kigab says he was introduced to the Catholic faith and other religions which helped to shape his understanding of the people and world around him. Given recent violence and hate against Muslims and other faiths around the world, he believes in the power of education to dispel ignorance and shift mindsets.

“Going to a Catholic school was definitely a different experience for me coming from the background I came from,” said Kigab. “I liked it because I got educated about people who are different than me and that just gave me perspective. It was just a really good learning experience. If I could do it again I would do it all the same way. I’d go to Catholic school all over again.” 

Through education, Kigab says, society can learn to treat people with basic decency and respect despite differences.

The younger Kigabs have followed their eldest sibling’s path and also attended St. Francis, including a brother lined up to start Grade 9 in September. Coach Patrick Sullivan, who worked with Kigab on the school team, says it’s been a pleasure to have the Kigab family as part of the school community. He looks forward to continuing to follow and support Kigab’s career in any way he can.

“We’re just incredibly proud of what he has accomplished and incredibly proud of who he has become as a person,” said Sullivan. “He’s become a bit of an ambassador for the school and the program. He’s special, not just to myself, but a lot of the students and staff he made an impact on outside of basketball with his enthusiasm, dedication and drive. It means a lot to us that Abu is very proud of our school too. He’s moved on to what many people would say are bigger and maybe better things, but the fact that he always reflects on how special his time was with us means an incredible amount to myself and to everyone.”

Kigab is majoring in communications at Boise and hopes to continue in his father’s legacy spreading the winning mentality on his college team and beyond. He hopes to become a coach one day to give back to young athletes in the way that his family and other trainers and mentors along the way have poured into him.

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