WICHITA — When Silvio De Sousa attacks the rim he usually goes up with two hands, ferociously slamming the ball into the hoop with loads of force. He snatches the iron after releasing the ball, pulling down and creating reverberations that leave the backboard trembling — and crowd erupting — for several moments after the play is complete.
That type of youthful exuberance isn’t just how De Sousa dunks a basketball. It’s the way he learned to explore and understand life growing up as a youngster in Luanda, Angola.
“I was a bad kid, but a bad kid in a way that just loves to break every single thing,” De Sousa said. “If I had a PlayStation or something I would want to break it just to see what makes it work.”
De Sousa’s transition from breaking toys to becoming the newest one for Bill Self and the KU basketball team hasn’t been overnight.
The big man came to the United States some three-and-a-half years earlier without speaking any English. He was already playing basketball, but he was nowhere near the level he reached during the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, nor was he even close when he first stepped foot on KU’s campus in December.
De Sousa has kept one piece of his life with him, though — a piece that keeps him waking up at 5 a.m. just for the chance at the simplest of interactions.
“My mom used to get mad at me, but at some point she understood I was just a kid growing up,” De Sousa said. “It always makes my day to hear my mom say she loves me and she misses me.”
* * *
When Silvio De Sousa was nine, he began to play basketball. Looking at him a decade later it’s hard to imagine a more natural fit for his body.
Perhaps it may come as a surprise, then, that the plan wasn't originally for him to use basketball as a means of escape or career or even to get to America. It was simply to keep him busy.
“My life there was pretty much just like here: basketball, school and that’s it,” De Sousa said. “At first I didn’t want to do it.”
Fortunate for a depth-starved KU basketball frontcourt, the rambunctious and borderline-destructive De Sousa let basketball become his calling. And while it was his mother, Janina, who first put a ball in his hands, De Sousa repaid her by having the letters of her name inscribed on the inside of his right arm in black script lettering.
“When I got the one with her name on it, she liked it,” De Sousa said. “When I got the other ones, yeah she got a little pissed about it.”
The other ones, tattoos at least, carry different levels of meaning. On his left arm, De Sousa has the names of his sisters, Aline, 14, Luisa, 12, and Alicia, 6.
Each of the three have things that make their personality distinct. De Sousa left Angola when Alicia was still a toddler, but Luisa plays basketball like her brother while Aline has more of a focus on school.
"I’m their only brother," De Sousa said. "So I have to make sure I’m there for them."
Nowadays, that involves a lot of FaceTiming.
De Sousa tries to reach his sisters every morning, waking up at about 5 a.m. to catch them at 10 a.m., local time.
“I think family over everything. I always put my family first,” De Sousa said. “Like to have them on my body just makes me feel good and feel like they’re here with me.”
De Sousa’s roommate has, at least tangentially, become part of the tradition. Mitch Lightfoot, in his second full season with the Jayhawks, is now roommates with De Sousa, though the Angolan described their sleeping quarters as separated by a hallway.
Still, De Sousa acknowledged he might talk a little loud in the mornings, meaning it’s possible he's woken his fellow big man up from time to time. Lightfoot, on the other hand, said he’s been happy to learn about the newest member of the KU basketball team.
“It’s kind of hard on him being so far away from home. I can only imagine,” Lightfoot said. “He’s grown so much, in a positive way. He’s become one of my better friends.”
Lightfoot isn’t the only one who has taken a liking to De Sousa.
As the interview sessions wound to a close in the KU locker room on Friday and the players started to collect their belongings to return to the hotel, freshman Marcus Garrett stopped what he was doing to open up about his fellow freshman.
And he wasn’t even asked about him.
Sam Cunliffe, sitting to the right of Garrett, was asked about his relationship with De Sousa and if he’d had much of a chance to talk to him.
“Not much,” said Cunliffe.
“Not much,” Garrett repeated, “but I have.”
Garrett was first drawn to De Sousa because of what he does with his food. De Sousa, Garrett said, would do things like putting mayo on pasta or ketchup on steak, things he picked up back home.
“He just tries to get anything flavored,” Garrett said. “I wouldn’t even try it. It just don’t look good.”
But beyond the culinary connection, Garrett has engaged with De Sousa in deeper conversations, learning about his past life and the culture of where he’s from.
“He was just like, ‘It’s beautiful. It ain’t what people think,’” Garrett said. “Everybody misses back home.”
* * *
If the feelings of homesickness are prevalent, De Sousa does a good job of seeing the positive.
Asked about how much fun he’s having at KU, De Sousa gives a quick response and then flashes a toothy grin.
“A lot more fun than I had in high school,” says De Sousa, who adds a little chuckle before taking a breath.
Part of why he’s able to keep that smile is because his family is only ever a phone call — or FaceTime — away.
De Sousa has made several stops in America in his basketball journey, keeping in touch as pretty much “the only guy in my family” at every turn.
“It’s been hard. It’s been hard,” De Sousa said. “I have to be close to them. They all love me and I love all of them.”
And while De Sousa waits for his next chance to go back home and visit, likely the summer, the smile he’s become known for will appear over and over.
He only got into basketball to keep out of trouble. He came to America not knowing English and was still able to graduate early from IMG Academy.
Silvio De Sousa, by his own admission, is not supposed to be where he is right now.
“But I am,” De Sousa said. "I’m glad I made it here really early."