Before her first game as a professional athlete, before the Liberty tips off its WNBA preseason at Chicago on Sunday, Adut Bulgak will uncap a marker and carefully print the name of her two dead brothers on her sneakers.
The Liberty’s 6-4 rookie does this not only to honor her family and the role they played in getting her to the pinnacle of her profession. She also, in a way, does this to remind herself what she did to get here, how she put one foot in front of another and pushed through the pain of having one brother murdered and another die in a car accident.
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“It’s not something you can ever get over, but it’s something you can get through,” Bulgak said last week. “You have to just keep pushing.”
Bulgak’s journey to the WNBA was more of an obstacle course than a defined path.
Bulgak, who is South Sudanese, was born in Kenya. With a civil war tearing parts of Africa apart, her family fled to Canada as refugees in 1999. They lived in Manitoba, Winnipeg and Saskatchewan before the parents and their six children settled in Edmonton when Bulgak was 10 and her oldest brother, Deng, was 18.
“We moved to Canada for a better life,” said Bulgak, 23.
Both her parents worked long hours. The two oldest brothers, Deng and Bul, took care of the family. Bulgak likened it to having extra parents and said her brothers helped instill a lot of her values and encouraged her love of sports.
Life was peaceful until May 15, 2007, when the family returned to their duplex one evening to find Deng, 22, shot to death in the backyard as part of a double homicide that remains unsolved.
“I brought here for safety, and it turned now to tragedy for me,” Atem Bulgak, her father, told the Edmonton Journal at the time. “The bullet that we fled back home is the one that took him in Canada.”
Two and a half years later, on Sept. 14, 2009, Bul died when his vehicle flipped over on the highway.
Bulgak, who was in high school when Bul died, said there were times she didn’t know if she would get through it all. She said she was helped by the fact that Bul had an infant son, Isiah, and they needed to be strong for the child.
Sports also helped her keep going. Bulgak initially thought she was going to attend North Carolina but ended up heading to junior college in Trinity Valley in Texas. There she won two national titles in 2013 and 2014. She also was named the NJCAA Division I player of the year in 2014.
A number of schools, including Baylor and Texas, wanted Bulgak. She said she picked Florida State because she felt a sisterhood with the players and coach Sue Semrau.
In her first year at Florida State, the team came three minutes from going to the 2015 Final Four, losing a tight game to South Carolina. Last year, she led Florida State in blocks and rebounds and ranked second in scoring with 12.7 points per game.
“She’s quite a remarkable young woman,” Semrau said last week. “She’s really beyond her years in maturity as a result of the fortitude she gained from going through adversity. We have a special relationship because of her level of maturity. The things she’s had to go through? How many people have dealt with something like that?”
Bulgak, who long had made it a goal to play overseas, didn’t consider the WNBA a real possibility until she started hearing her name a month or so before the April draft. The Liberty selected her with the final pick of the first round, No. 12 overall.
“We got her because she’s a very fine perimeter shooter,” Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer said. “She runs very well. She’s really got a gear in her to get up and down the floor. She’s long. She does go and attack rebounds. Not an overbearing rebounder but does go after them
“Is she a project? No. Well, maybe one, so to speak. She has to learn the physicality of this league and we have to get her to use her skills — her speed and shooting. She sets great screens. We use her to complement the rest of what we have.”
What the Liberty has is a team stocked with talent and big names. Bulgak said the array of history at Liberty practices is so mind-boggling that after one of the team’s first sessions, she called a friend and just started ticking off the famous names such as Laimbeer and 15-year veteran Swin Cash and director of player development Theresa Weatherspoon.
“I could go on and on. Our trainer, Rosemary Ragle, is from UConn and worked on players on 10 national championship teams,” Bulgak said.
Bulgak is thrilled to be a part of it all and start the next chapter of her life. It was quite a crazy weekend for her. On Thursday, she practiced with the team and took her last final exam. On Saturday, she flew down to Florida State to walk in her graduation ceremony. And on Sunday, she could play in her first game.
A big chunk of her family — including her mother, a younger brother, her nephew Isiah and an aunt and uncle — were there to see her graduate with a degree in social sciences.
Unfortunately, her two oldest brothers were not. It’s a painful fact that she knows she can never change. But what she can do by sharing her story is help others out there facing losses.
“You have to just keep pushing, because there are a lot of people out there in the same position who have suffered loss,” she said. “I know. I’m the story. I made it through. I’m still here. I’m chasing my dream and accomplishing things.”
One step at a time.