Via, a report on how South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, is set to play in the Paris Olympics this summer, thanks to a visionary two-time All-Star and refugee:

Last September, as the celebration picked up steam inside a cramped South Sudanese locker room in Araneta Coliseum in Manila, Luol Deng paused to reflect on surrealness of it all. How Deng, a 15-season NBA veteran, had come to spend the last four years in a new role: president of the South Sudan Basketball Federation. How South Sudan, which won its independence in 2011, had even fielded a national team. How the country—his country, the world’s youngest country—had punched its ticket to the Olympics. “Honestly, I didn’t think we would get here this quickly,” says Deng. “It’s kind of insane.” 

Here, or rather, there, is Paris, where South Sudan, after knocking off Angola to clinch its berth as the highest-finishing African team at the FIBA World Cup, will compete this summer. In 2019, Deng, still settling into retirement, got a call from his brother, Deng Deng. The government needs someone to run the basketball program. Would you be interested? Luol was born in what was then known as Sudan in 1985. When he was 5, with the country in the throes of a civil war, he and his family moved to Egypt, where he learned basketball from another Sudanese refugee, Manute Bol, who then in the midst of a 13-year NBA career. Five years later, Deng landed in London, then the U.S., where he developed into an elite high school prospect.

In 2012, Deng represented Great Britain in the Olympics—but only because South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan a year earlier, had no team. “I’m very grateful for everything Great Britain provided,” says Deng. “But if South Sudan had a team, I would have been on it.” After speaking to his brother, Deng accepted the offer, though the challenges were quickly apparent. There was a team … sort of. But there was no infrastructure. No facilities. No funding. “I had to pay myself,” says Deng. The country wasn’t against the idea of a national basketball team as much as it was indifferent to it—understandable given the situation. “A lot of people didn’t see what the point was,” says Deng. “They didn’t see the vision of it. Changing people’s mind on how things have been done in the past and making people believe that this could be something special was difficult. To be honest, most of the people I spoke with didn’t see how this was a good thing to get into.”

Deng’s vision was simple. African basketball is divided into zones. Perform well in your zone, you compete in AfroBasket, a continent-wide tournament, and you are entered into the FIBA World Cup Africa Qualifiers. Perform well there and the world’s youngest nation would be off to Paris. 

Deng got to work, quickly. He needed a coach. Not long after moving to the U.S. in 1999, Deng enrolled at Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J. One of the first people he met was Royal Ivey, a lanky 6’ 3″ guard. The two became fast friends. Ivey gave Deng his first pair of basketball sneakers. Deng would often celebrate the holidays with Ivey’s family. After coaching the South Sudan team himself his first year, Deng called Ivey, then an assistant with the Nets. He offered Ivey the job. The nonpaying job. Ivey, eager to build his NBA head coaching résumé, accepted.

Recruiting was next. There is a talent pool of players with South Sudan ties. Many, like Deng, possessed dual citizenship. The challenge, says Deng, was to get players to forego opportunities to play for more established national teams and commit to his fledgling one. “Every player was different,” says Deng. “There were some who right away wanted to be a part of it. There were some that took a little bit of convincing and a little bit of back and forth.” Deng was convincing. Wenyen Gabriel, a five-year NBA veteran, signed on. Carlik Jones, who played parts of two seasons with three NBA teams, joined too. Majok Deng, Luol’s cousin, is on the roster. “I convinced them that this is what our plan is and this is what we’re trying to do,” says Deng. “And they committed to it.”

There were rocky moments. Plenty of them. Moments where Deng wondered if any of this was going to work. In 2020, South Sudan competed in an African qualifying tournament in Cameroon. When the team arrived, four players—and Deng—tested positive for COVID-19, forcing them out of the tournament. South Sudan went 1–1, losing a spot in the AfroBasket qualifier to Cape Verde. Says Deng, “Our dreams were shattered.” 

Not long after, Deng’s phone rang. It was a FIBA official. Algeria, one of the teams in AfroBasket, was withdrawing, citing COVID-related issues. “They weren’t allowed outside the country,” says Deng. Could South Sudan throw together a team? “It was a no-brainer,” says Deng. After scrambling to assemble all the available players in less than a month, South Sudan entered the qualifier … and kept on playing well enough to reach the World Cup. There it earned its Olympic bid with a 23-point win over 11-time African champion Angola to become the lowest-ranked team to qualify for an Olympics since 2004. 

Deng is thrilled with the program’s progress. But satisfied? “We still have a long way to go,” he says. There are no indoor basketball courts in South Sudan. None. Deng is building an indoor facility in the state of Juba. The goal is to eventually build nine more. 

When he signed on to run the federation, Deng effectively bankrolled it. The team’s recent run has gotten the money flowing. MTN, Africa’s largest mobile network operator, signed on as a sponsor. Peak Sports, a Chinese clothing company, offered a merchandise deal. Deng organized an exhibition game against the U.S. team in July, which he hopes will increase visibility. “We have an opportunity to really change the narrative of South Sudan,” says Deng, “but also to have a community that’s beyond basketball.” Indeed, the team has brought the war-torn country together. “There’s two occasions that people have cele-

brated in South Sudan,” says Deng. “One was our Independence Day. And the other was when we qualified for the Olympics and came back home.”

In time, Deng believes there will be more. As his team celebrated its Olympic bid, Deng shouted from the back of the room. Where we going? yelled Deng. Paris, the players replied, and the chant repeated.

“Basketball is the biggest thing going in South Sudan,” says Deng. “There’s a lot of pride being the top team in Africa. And it’s just the beginning.”


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