Paul Afeaki is far from home. Far from a place where the Pacific Ocean was his back yard. Far from a place where he picked his breakfast from trees while walking to school and his feet never met a pair of shoes. Far from his native Tonga and the large family he left behind years ago. Instead of mild, tropical nights and laid-back sunny days, Afeaki's life these days is big cities, crowds, basketball courts and long, cold winters. It's the pressures of school and athletics and a family to support.
"I'd give anything to go home now," he says, shaking his head earnestly.Afeaki's life has followed a strange road - a road that began with a supposedly life-threatening childhood illness and a trip to the United States that has lasted 16 years, if not a lifetime.
He has never returned home.
Somehow the road - and a body that refused to remain within, well, Polynesian dimensions - brought Afeaki (Ah-fee-AH-kee) to the University of Utah, where he plays basketball for the 12th-ranked Utes. His performance this season has been as surprising as the play of his 19-1 team. After a year's layoff, Afeaki, a spare 6-foot-10, 220-pound junior with a wispy moustache, has averaged a modest seven points and four rebounds per game, but those numbers don't tell the story.
A backup center, Afeaki plays an average ofonly 14.5 minutes per game, splitting time with senior Walter Watts. In that limited time, Afeaki has dazzled crowds and opponents with spectacular blocked shots and dunks, soft, graceful turn-around jumpers and half-hooks - all courtesy of his explosive leaping ability - and tenacious defense.
In one week, the tag team of Afeaki and Watts shut down two future NBA players. They held New Mexico's 7-foot-2 Luc Longley to 11 points and seven rebounds and forced him to commit six turnovers. They held Wyoming's Reggie Slater to six points and five rebounds. In that game, Afeaki had 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting, five rebounds and two blocked shots (one of them Slater's) in just 21 minutes of play.
"Paul has good athletic ability," says Utah Coach Rick Majeus. "He'd be terrific in a track meet. He's just got to learn how to play basketball."
Ute opponents will be disheartened to learn that Afeaki is still a raw basketball player. He has played the sport for just four years. He didn't play at all last year. Instead, he drove a forklift for Utah Barrel Inc. by day and attended Salt Lake Tech by night, trying to earn enough credit hours to gain admission to Utah. He rarely has played basketball during the off-season, and last fall he missed Utah's entire month-long preseason training camp with a pulled hamstring.
"When you think that he missed the most important part of our season, you have to be really encouraged by how well he's done," says Majerus. "We can't win without him. We need his 15 to 20 minutes a game. He can run, defend the floor and get points in a variety of ways."
Afeaki, meanwhile, has made a stir as much with his heritage as with his play. He is an an oddity on the basketball court. Polynesians have made vast inroads in football, a sport more suited to their hefty builds, but basketball is new ground. As Afeaki says, "There aren't many 6-10 Polynesians. I'm considered an abnormal Polynesian. I have a brother who is 6-10, but he weighs 285 pounds. My 18-year-old brother is 230. I don't know of another Tongan who plays Division 1 basketball."
When Afeaki attends Tongan socials, his countrymen assume he's an outsider because of his height. "Who's the big black guy?" he has overheard them saying to one another in Tongan. Afeaki replies, in the same language, "I'm Tongan."
It is Afeaki's height of course that brought him to basketball. He was 6-foot-4 as a sophomore at South San Francisco High School; a year later he was 6-9. That convinced him to try out for the school basketball team as a junior, but all didn't go smoothly. In the third game of his life, Afeaki rebounded an opponent's missed free throw and scored - for the other guys. Oops, wrong basket. The official scoring box credited him with minus-2 points.
"I made a head fake, no one moved, and I thought, `This is easy,' so I put it in," he says.
That summer Afeaki attended a big-man's basketball camp in Los Angeles, and he was never the same player again. As a senior he averaged 25 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks and two assists per game. And still, he was an unrefined talent.
"What has always helped me is my jumping ability," says Afeaki, who has a 31-inch vertical leap and once high jumped 6-8 in high school. "I had no shot. I just outjumped everyone. The rim was right there. I just put it in. I never shot outside."
Still, Afeaki's performance attracted the attention of recruiters (most notably those from Iowa State), although he was still more heavily recruited for football (Wyoming wanted him as a receiver).
But it was all for naught. For reasons that he still can't quite explain, Afeaki didn't take the SAT or ACT tests, as required for university admission. He wound up at Snow College, where he averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds and totaled 89 rebounds during his sophomore season, and this time Seton Hall, Syracuse, Florida State and BYU came calling. He was set to attend BYU until Coach Ladell Andersen resigned.
None of it mattered anyway. Most of Afeaki's class hours couldn't be transferred to a university, leaving him a whopping 56 credits short of graduation.
After three years of working and waiting, Afeaki finally reached the major college level this year, as a student (the grades are good) and a player (he could use more weight). Afeaki vows to gain weight and lift weight during the off-season, having had to deal with mostly heavier rivals. He has been knocked down on occasion, though he has never backed down (after all, he has traded elbows with the likes of Slater).
"He's just got to make basketball a high priority," says Majerus. "But he's married and has a kid and he's got school. It's tough."
Majerus says Afeaki has a long way to go, but in many ways he already has come far. Afeaki spent the first seven years of his life in Nukualofa, Tonga, a set of islands set in the South Pacific, northeast of New Zealand. David and Finau Afeaki reared eight children - in order, Kamaeli, Akesa, Papa, Paul, Faiva, Nita, Wayne and Anna. They lived in a modern house, backed up against the Pacific, but lived an otherwise rustic life. For breakfast, the children picked mangos, bananas, papayas and tangerines as they walked to school. Paul never wore a pair of shoes until he was 7, and then only because of an event that would change his life completely.
When he was 6 years old, Afeaki slipped into a coma for two weeks. Doctors said he had a hole in his heart and that he had less than one year to live. They told him he must seek medical treatment in the U.S. Paul was 7 when he and his mother traveled to her parents' home in San Francisco. Doctors there pronounced him healthy - there was no hole in his heart and the coma was probably induced by a high fever. Because of better educational opportunities available in the U.S., Paul remained with his grandparents in San Francisco (his mother returned to Tonga five years later).
"It was hard," recalls Afeaki. "I had to get used to the food. The first time I ate a hamburger I threw up. And I had to learn the language. All my friends had different backgrounds. But what I missed most was having a dad. I was jealous of my friends who had a dad."
It wasn't until 1989 - 13 years after he left home - that Paul saw his father and his siblings again (and met Anna for the first time). By then Paul was starting his own family - he and his wife, Nicole, have a child, David - and preparing for a career in law enforcement.
"Mom and Dad like the slow life (of Tonga)," he says. "But they're going to come to Utah next year and stay for the basketball season."
Still, he'd rather meet them in the islands. Thinking of his home, Afeaki smiles. "I miss the air, the people, the environment," he says. "Everything about it."