EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the debut of a weekly sports column by Lori Nickel. She will delve beyond the play on the field to tell the stories of the athletes, trends and issues Wisconsin fans follow with so much passion. Read more here.
Roll with it. Make friends out of strangers. Say yes. Accept change. Take in the memories.
This is how Thon Maker lives his life.
And this is why: He’s lived in 11 different cities in five different countries on three different continents in his 21 years, escaping his war-torn homeland Africa as a refugee in Australia, only to then chase his basketball dreams throughout North America. The man who could blend in anywhere with no accent and an easy-going nature instead stands out everywhere he goes with that 7-1 frame.
So Maker puts on an inviting smile and assimilates, something he learned long before he excelled at basketball.
“It’s funny. Sometimes people ask me, where are you from?” said Maker. “I’ll be like, spin the globe, put a finger on it – that’s where I’m from.”
The Milwaukee Bucks picked up the option year on Maker in late October, meaning he’s under contract through next season, which will be his fourth in our city. It’s a sign of faith in him. But he’s also playing for his third NBA coach in nine months, meaning he must adjust to the changes of a new system under a new coaching staff.
Maker is undaunted. He keeps working. He remains positive. He believes his migrant youth trained him well for the future he wants so badly in the NBA.
“His circumstances, his moving around, his having to adapt to different environments, different communities, cultures, has made him mentally tough,” said teammate Malcolm Brogdon, who was drafted by the Bucks the same year as Maker, in 2016. “There’s nothing that really fazes him. New coach, he’s put on the bench, he’s in the starting lineup – he’s always ready for the moment.”
A full passport
Here’s the two-minute briefing on the well-traveled life of Maker, born Feb. 25, 1997 in Wau, Sudan:
He lived in what is now South Sudan – in the city of Rumbek, and then Juba, the capital – until the age of 6. Because of civil war there – South Sudan is the world’s newest country, established in 2011 – Maker and his family, including his mom and four siblings, left home.
They stayed in Uganda for a few months.
They then emigrated to Western Australia, where his family was accepted as refugees. Maker lived in Perth and then Sydney for awhile, until he turned 14.
He then moved to the U.S. to live with a coach and play basketball, first in Metairie and then Kenner, Louisiana, not far from New Orleans, for eighth grade.
When he turned 15, Maker moved again to Martinsville Va., to play basketball there his freshman and sophomore years of high school.
Maker moved again, this time to Orangeville, Ontario in Canada, where he played and trained for two years.
And then in 2016, at the age of 19, Maker finally arrived in Milwaukee as the 10th pick in the NBA draft.
This journey of different languages, customs, foods, personalities, religions, natural environments, climates, educational systems, politics and resources seemed to educate Maker more than it destabilized his development. It’s why he stands here – actually he leans down during this interview, considerate of trying to be a little shorter for a face-to-face conversation – completely at ease with the constant change of life in the NBA.
“In the NBA, as a play is going on in a game, you just have to know how to adapt,” said Maker. “If coach says someone is hurt, ‘I need you to play this spot’ – I’m ready to go. I think it’s a skill, really.
“I learned to make friends easily. I learned to adapt. It’s taught me to adjust to my situation. And surroundings. It’s really helpful in basketball.”
But who is Thon Maker?
The truth is, he’s adopted many characteristics from the places where he’s lived, but his strongest identity comes from his birth country.
Maker has a few, but not many, memories of South Sudan. He visited there once, in 2009, and it was the last time he’s seen his father. But he still follows the news from home when he looks up news on Google searches or communicates with his father.
The Milwaukee Bucks’ Thon Maker has lived many places in his young life, making him adaptable to live in the NBA.
Lori Nickel, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Every time I talk to my Dad or relatives from back home, they keep on saying, there’s been this many killings or this many deaths. I’ve been fortunate to be away from it,” said Maker.
But it is still a part of him.
“It is. I can’t really let it go. I’m from South Sudan, that is where my heart will always be,” said Maker. “Working hard – that’s South Sudan. We’re tall, dark skinned, beautiful – I’m always proud of that. I always encourage that. There’s a thing going on in Australia where they have makeup stuff that makes women get lighter. Bleaching. I’ve seen women use those. If I could just talk to them and say: be proud of who you are!
“And the way we treat people is South Sudan, we go about this saying in the Bible: ‘Treat others the way you want to be treated.’ Well that’s the way I treat people. That’s how I live. I help people out. If I was in a needy situation, I would want somebody to help me out as well.”
From there, Maker stayed briefly in nearby Uganda. It was only to get a Visa, but Maker remembers a large turnout to see him leave.
“The whole community was there, the elders, to wish us well,” said Maker. “It was very emotional for our parents.”
Maker felt welcome in Australia, so much so that it became a second home to him. In fact, it would later be suggested to Maker that he apply for citizenship in the U.S. or Canada when he was an emerging youth basketball phenomenon in North America, but he always knew that would not happen.
“I was like, nah, I’ve already made up my mind,” said Maker.
Maker is an Australian citizen, and when he played for the national basketball team last summer in the FIBA World Cup it was a way of declaring his gratitude to the country that adopted him and his family.
“I really wanted to do that,” said Maker. “For me it was like giving back to Australia. Just to say thank you for taking me and my family in. I had a great life when I was over there; my family still does.”
In those formative years, Maker also adopted some very distinctive characteristics he considers to be Australian.
“Australia is very nice; the people are nice,” said Maker. “‘Everybody gets a ‘fair go’ – that’s what they say. It’s more like: give it a try, whereas in the U.S., it’s like, ‘No, we’ve got to take everything. We’ve got to … dominate.’
“Sportsmanship! That’s Australia.”
Two stops in the USA
But Maker’s basketball dreams, he believed, were best pursued under the direction of an American coach he came to know and trust, Edward Smith, and that meant following his mentor to America, first to Louisiana for the eighth grade, and then Virginia for the first two years of high school.
In America, Maker quickly learned a harsh lesson, one that he still acknowledges as a way of life here.
“In America, life is harder compared to Australia or Canada,” said Maker. “You have to stay alert. It’s not the way life should be, like always looking over your shoulder. There’s a bit of distrust within people. You have to stay alert. You’re always on your toes in America. You see it on news. That’s America.”
For basketball reasons, Maker moved again, this time to Canada. He felt that better strength training facilities there and exposure to a pro team would further develop his skills, so at the age of 17, he headed to Orangeville, Ontario to complete his youth training.
He laughs now, because his first thought of what he got most out of Canada was a hearty appetite. Maker put on needed pounds when he discovered good food, like a “Ribfest” in July in Orangeville.
“I had a full rack of ribs and more like it was nothin’,” said Maker. “I started eating more ever since I moved to Canada. I gained 27 pounds in my two years in Canada. I went from 191 to 218. By the time I did my re-classifying I was 225. And lifted stronger.”
Life in the U.S.
Skipping college and heading straight for the NBA, Maker was drafted by the Bucks and arrived in Milwaukee in 2016. He has been here ever since, the 2 1/2 years one of his longest stints in one place in some time now.
But the traveling, of course, is endless in the NBA and Maker is almost always on the go in his offseason – like last summer. Maker has also been to the Dominican Republic, Italy, Philippines and Japan in his travels. His full passport has already been renewed twice.
“He’s moved around so many places,” said Brogdon. “He has family everywhere. He has the most interesting summers out of anybody because he has to hit all these spots where his family is.”
A different perspective
We tend to look at our life through our limited view. For Maker, that view is far from limited. He hasn’t just seen other places, he’s absorbed them.
Brogdon considers Maker a brother and is always asking about those experiences in far-off lands, where it doesn’t matter how well the Bucks are doing in the standings.
“He has a cultural perspective that is more broad than anybody I know,” said Brogdon. “But more than anything he has an inner peace about him. He knows things could be worse. He’s been to a lot of places. He’s seen a lot worse, so he has a peace about him that always gives me calm that gives me a clear mind to stay positive.”
And that’s why Maker is good right now. Bench. Starter. Key sub. He’s in his third year and he’s rolling with it. He’s driven and determined. But not rattled.
“The cool thing is? The people from my culture? We’re nomads. We travel,” said Maker.
“And in the NBA, we travel for a living. That’s pretty cool. I’m doing what I love to do. We’re throwing a balloon around for a living. Like little kids.
“And after I met basketball, there’s really no need to put an identity in where you’re from. Basketball can take you anywhere in the world. And that will be your home.”