Former Amphi basketball standout Jackson Ruai dies in automobile accident at age 21

Jackson Ruai always expressed himself on the basketball court with his flamboyant personality, which included wearing different colored shoes, engaging in good-natured trash talking and celebrating openly after scoring.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to ask Ruai about enjoying himself on the court, always flashing his familiar smile, after Amphi’s pivotal win over region rival Palo Verde as a senior in 2018-19.

“I just try to have fun with it,” Ruai said. “At the end of the day, one time, the ball is going to stop bouncing, so I just try to have as much fun as I can.”

Tragically, the ball has stopped bouncing for Jackson Joseph Ruai. His family, the Amphi community and Southern Arizona basketball circles are shaken by it.

The difficult news surfaced Sunday that Ruai died in an automobile accident in El Paso on Saturday night.

The Class of 2019 standout was only 21.

Ruai was raised in Tucson after he was born in South Sudan. According to the South Sudan Basketball Association web site, Ruai wanted to use his college education toward creating medical advancement opportunities throughout the South Sudan.

He recently entered his name in the transfer portal following his sophomore year at NAIA school Oakland City (Ind.).

He played his freshman season in 2019-20 with the College of Southern Idaho, a junior college in Twin Falls, Idaho.

He signed with Oakland City after not playing for a college in 2020-21. He still had three years of eligibility remaining because he did not play in a game for the Mighty Oaks in 2021-22.

The first time I met Ruai was six years ago at a Boys & Girls Club gymnasium in Las Vegas during the summer when he and other members of the Arizona-based Powerhouse Hoops 15U team were trying to make a name for themselves in front of potential college recruiters.

I recall how incredulous he was that I wanted to interview him and other members of that team that included Majok Deng (a refugee from Kenya who grew up in Sudan) and Evan Nelson — both of whom later were standouts at Salpointe — and Grant Ward, who ended up being a 1,000-point career scorer at Buena.

Ruai was only 15 at the time, going into his freshman season at Cholla.

The last time I interviewed him was about four months before he was set to graduate in 2019 at Amphi (he transferred to the school as a sophomore). It was after Amphi’s loss to Palo Verde in the MLK Classic at McKale Center. He had 17 points and an electrifying breakaway dunk in that game while wearing red sneakers on one foot and black on the other.

“I like to be different and mismatch shoes,” Ruai said with a laugh.

As much of a scorer he was, Ruai prided himself most with his defense.

“I’m an energy player. Athletic,” he said.

Ben Hurley, who coached Ruai after the 6-foot-4 guard transferred from Cholla, once mentioned to me in a 2019 interview that “Jackson is a leader on the floor who does a lot of little things that sometimes don’t always show up in the statbook.”

“He gets his hand on the ball, defending the other team’s best player … With Jackson, there’s a lot of talking on the floor — talking to his teammates. He’s that leader on the floor. He sets the tone at the defensive end.”

The family is planning funeral services in Tucson and his burial in Sudan.

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