SYDNEY Swans player Aliir Aliir never touched a Sherrin during his three years in Newcastle as a primary school student.
For the Sudanese refugee, it was all about soccer – and a bit of basketball – before he found AFL at 14 when living in Brisbane.
His love of soccer started in the Kakuma camp in Kenya, where he was born to parents who had fled the Sudanese civil war. As a child growing up at Kakuma, he would wrap a balloon with clothes to make a ball.
The passion for soccer continued when he moved to Australia with his mother and siblings at age eight and on to the strong African community in Newcastle after a short stint in Sydney.
“I didn’t spend a long time here but I did make some good friends and I do occasionally come back and see some who still live here,” the 23-year-old said during a Sydney Swans Community Camp session at Waratah Park on Monday.
“I was just a young kid and all I wanted to do was play sport. Coming over here with all my family, I’m from a big family with brothers and sisters you play with every day. A bit of soccer in he backyard with all the relatives around, I think made it a lot easier, but I definitely did enjoy my time living here in Newcastle and that’s why I do love coming back here.”
Aliir, who stands at 194 centimetres, was drafted to the Swans in 2014 and played 13 AFL matches in 2016 before injury stalled his 2017 run after three games. He was due to return in round seven but missed a training session after sleeping through an alarm and was stood down before playing out the season in reserves.
Now he looms as a replacement for the retired Kurt Tippett in the Swans’ squad and he was keen for a shot at redemption.
“As tough as it was, I learned a lot about myself and I learned how tough AFL is,” he said. “You need to do all the little things, get the body right and play consistently to make it in the top level. I’m having a big pre-season now so I’m just looking forward to the future.”
And he was able to laugh now about the biggest lesson.
“I learned that I need to set more than one alarm on,” he smiled. “It was just very unfortunate, and with the culture we have at the Swans, we hold very high standards and it was just one of those mistakes.
“I’ve been setting six or seven alarms, and I haven't missed training since.”
As for potentially replacing Tippett, the ruckman/forward said: “There’s always opportunity but you’ve got to do the work and it starts with pre-season.
“My pre-season has been a bit slow with my toe injury, so I was getting managed and I’m getting back to full training now.
“I’ve got that other string to my game, to be able to play a different position, playing up forward and in the ruck.
“With Kurt retiring, he was a great player for us and it’s unfortunate, but again it creates an opportunity.”
Hunter-raised Swan Isaac Heeney hoped Aliir could recapture his 2016 form.
“He had a bit of a toe niggle last year but ended up having a good season in reserves, so hopefully he can get going,” Heeney said.
“His intercept marking is huge for us and when he’s up and about, he’s a really good player.”
Aliir, a cousin of NBA player Thon Maker, has a connection to another rising Newcastle star in a different arena.
He is long-time friends with US college and former Australian junior basketball talent Kouat Noi.
The pair knew each other before coming to Australia and played basketball at Sudanese tournaments Down Under.
“I know Kouat and we actually grew up here, so to see how he’s going, I wish nothing but the best for him and I truly believe he can make it to the NBA,” he said