SAN DIEGO — For many, the San Diego State University men’s basketball team’s season was nothing short of miraculous.
“God has been with us and stuck with us through it all,” Aztecs forward Aguek “A.G.” Arop acknowledged, reflecting on a historic season that saw the team make it to the NCAA Men’s Tournament national championship game for the first time.
During those heady days, the 23-year-old’s faith kept him grounded.
“It’s the number-one thing in my life,” said Arop, who will earn a master’s in Homeland Security this December. “If it wasn’t for my Catholic faith, I don’t know where I’d be.”
But it wasn’t always that way.
Born in South Sudan, Arop was 1 year old when his family fled their war-torn homeland. After three years in Egypt, they were granted asylum in the United States. They settled first in Houston, Texas, before relocating to Omaha, Neb.
Arop’s parents, both converts from Islam, instilled the Catholic faith in their children.
As a fourth-grader, Arop was enrolled at a Catholic elementary school, something that he credits with having “laid the foundation for my faith.”
By high school, however, basketball had displaced church attendance as his priority and was taking up an increasing amount of his time. When he arrived at SDSU in the fall of 2018, he said, “I wasn’t active in my faith at all.”
At first, he excelled at collegiate basketball. But he was sidelined by a hip injury during his freshman year, which required surgery and a lengthy rehab. The next year, not long after making a full recovery, he injured his shoulder.
He coped with the disappointment by heading down “a dark path, mentally (and) spiritually,” embracing a hard-partying lifestyle that made him feel good at first but was “really killing my soul.”
Arop reconnected with his faith in early 2020, after accepting a fellow Catholic’s invitation to Mass and Eucharistic adoration. He had “a big epiphany” at adoration, where he came to believe more deeply in Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist.
Only a few weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic led to lockdowns. But the period of social distancing turned out to be “a blessing” for Arop, who explained that it “took away all the distractions” and allowed him to focus on his faith.
“I grew a lot in the pandemic,” said Arop, who in March of that year developed the habit of praying a daily rosary.
In early 2021, he found his basketball career threatened by yet another health challenge: He was experiencing vertigo. Now, guided by his faith, he took his situation to prayer and discerned that God was asking him to give up basketball.
“It wasn’t easy, (but) I was really able to let go of basketball, give it to Him completely. Then, He gave it back,” Arop said, explaining that just prior to this historic season, he felt that it was God’s will for him to take up the sport again.
Looking back, he perceives the divine wisdom behind it all.
“My worth was too tied into (basketball),” he said, and God wanted “to reorder my life and make sure that He was first.”
Arop credits his successes during the recently concluded season to the fact that “everything was in its right place.”
“He thought basketball was over for him and then, eventually, realized that God just wanted him to put God first, family and friends second, and basketball third,” said Father Pedro Rivera, director of the SDSU Newman Center, who traveled to Houston to watch SDSU play in the national semifinals and national championship games April 1 and 3.
Jamie Cleaton, campus minister at the SDSU Newman Center, remembers “sitting, and praying, and talking” with Arop as he contemplated retiring from basketball two years ago.
“Aguek’s story is a lot like the (biblical) story of Abraham, where he was asked to put his most precious thing on the altar and had to be willing to sacrifice it,” he said. “But then, the Lord really showed His faithfulness and gave that back to him.”
And not only was basketball restored to him, Cleaton said, but Arop’s first season back on the court just happened to coincide with the team’s championship run. He said that “has the Lord’s fingerprints all over it.”
Arop hasn’t been as active at the Newman Center this year as he was last year, when he served as its co-president, but he continues to be a familiar face at daily Mass and adoration.
The involvement of one of their own made this year’s historic basketball season even more exciting for the Newman Center community, which held tailgate parties before some of the games. More than 20 members of the community, including Cleaton and Father Rivera, were in Houston for the championship game.
“Knowing A.G., and … the journey he’s been on, and to see this team make a run this year like they did,” said Cleaton, “we all just felt very grateful that we got to share in it and witness it.”
Father Rivera noted how, during his various media interviews, Arop “always thanks God and realizes that God is a big part of why he is where he is today, not just as a basketball player, but most especially as a man of faith.”
“He definitely wears his faith on the sleeve,” said Father Rivera, who shared that Arop’s teammates had affectionately nicknamed him “The Pope.”
“(One reason) that I’m glad that the season is over … is that now we see him more at adoration and daily Mass,” he said, “and it’s good for the younger students here at the Newman Center to see … that you can be quote-unquote famous like him and still be a good, practicing Catholic” who puts God first.
Arop said he is now “completely done with basketball” and has “no desire” to play at the professional level. As for what he’ll do in the future, he is currently trying to figure that out.
“I trust God will lead me where I am meant to be.”