It seems almost impossible.
How could a country that barely existed a decade ago, that’s endured a cycle of war, whose players grew up in places as far away as Canberra and Anchorage, be on the verge of qualifying for the FIBA Basketball World Cup?
Led by acting coach and federation president Luol Deng, a two-time NBA All-Star in his playing career, the South Sudan men’s national team has defied any rational expectations and marched through their World Cup 2023 African qualifying group, including two upsets against two-time defending Afrobasket champion Tunisia.
This weekend, they’ll play their final three qualifying matches in Alexandria, Egypt.
If they win any of the three, they’ll book their spot in this year’s World Cup, jointly held in Japan, Philippines and Indonesia.
The first match-up is against Senegal on Friday, February 24. They will then play Democratic Republic of Congo (February 25) and Egypt a day later (February 26).
“We all know how important these games are,” the team’s Australian-raised captain, Kuany Kuany told the City Review, a South Sudanese website. “We need to keep winning, that’s what we expect.”
He understands what a win would mean to his teammates, but also to the people South Sudan, dozens of whom will be cheering from the stands this weekend. Because they know what a remarkable journey this has been; a journey that’s never been easy.
South Sudan has a rich basketball history
When South Sudan became the newest country in the world on July 9th, 2011, it led to rapturous celebrations in the capital, Juba. After decades of a divisive civil war that left an estimated two and half million dead and millions more displaced, independence from Sudan brought with it a chance to determine a new future.
As the country took shape, one of the first initiatives was the founding of a basketball federation.
South Sudan is home to Manute Bol, the first NBA player from the continent, and passion for the sport runs deep. Powered entirely by pride, the new team played their first unofficial game just days after independence.
But trying to build a competitive team proved nearly impossible. There was no basketball infrastructure, while South Sudan’s top players didn’t live in the country, their families had been forced to flee during the fight for independence and were now scattered all over the world.
Luol Deng has a similar story. Born in South Sudan, his family escaped to Alexandria, Egypt after his father, a governmental minister, was beaten and imprisoned during a coup.
In Egypt, Deng first picked up a basketball and was introduced to Manute Bol, who ran clinics for refugees, and would later become Deng’s mentor. After five difficult years, Deng’s family were granted asylum in the U.K. Eventually Deng moved to America to chase his basketball dreams.
By the time South Sudan gained independence, Deng was one of the best basketball players in the world. An NBA All-Star in 2012 and 2013 with the Chicago Bulls, he also led Great Britain to the 2012 Olympics, but even as his reputation continued to rise around the world, he admits something was gnawing at him.
“South Sudan was always in the back of my mind,” he told Bulls Talk podcast in 2021.
Making of the South Sudan Basketball Federation
Just after his NBA career ended, Luol Deng decided put his name forward to be the South Sudan basketball federation president in 2019.
Under his new role, he sought to construct a sustainable basketball culture in the country. He dove head first into the project. He saw South Sudan as a future international basketball powerhouse “To him it means everything,” assistant coach and lifelong friend Dzaflo Larkai said.
But with little money coming in, he had to fund his own dream. There was also no basketball arena in South Sudan, so every game the team has played has been on the road, which made putting a team together difficult.
“We couldn’t get players in the beginning to commit, to see the bigger picture,” he said.
When the Bright Stars, as they’re known, started slowly in their Afrobasket 2021 qualification campaign, he decided to take over as head coach. He didn’t have any experience but quickly took to the role.
The players were eager to learn and bonded quickly despite growing up thousands of miles apart.
Led by captain Kuany, Jackson Makoi, an Egyptian-born, Australian-raised, Missouri-schooled point guard currently playing club ball in the Australian Basketball League, and top scorer Nuni Omot, who was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, grew up in Minnesota, and now plays for the New York Knicks G-League affiliate, results improved, but they still fell short of qualifying for Afrobasket.
Then, South Sudan finally got a bit of luck.
Algeria pulled out of Afrobasket 2021 for Covid-related reasons and suddenly the Bright Stars found themselves in Rwanda for Africa’s biggest basketball tournament.
“It was a classic example of preparation meets opportunity,” Larkai says.
In the round of 16, they shocked the continent by beating Kenya and advancing to the quarter-finals. They would ultimately lose to Tunisia, who would win the tournament, but South Sudan had announced themselves to the basketball world.
As a way to celebrate and connect with their homeland, the federation organized a trip for the team to Juba.
Since independence, the country has been embroiled in fierce internal conflict between various ethnic groups, which has fractured the country and led to a series of bloody battles.
As a result, some of the players born abroad had never been to South Sudan, while others hadn’t returned since they were children. One player was going to meet his father for the first time. Another, would finally see his mom after years of separation.
When the team arrived at Juba airport in August 2022, they looked out at across the tarmac and couldn’t believe their eyes — hundreds, if not thousands of people were holding signs, singing their names, and waving flags.
“It was incredible,” Larkai says. “This game of basketball is the great unifier for the country. It will stop conflicts and arguing; it doesn’t matter what group you’re from, what dialect you speak, everyone comes together for basketball.”
South Sudan’s strongest team in the country’s history
In 2022, Deng stepped down from his active coaching role to allow his old high school teammate and current assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets, Royal Ivey to take over.
The team also added proven guard Sunday Dech and Bol Kuol from Australia. It seemed the pieces were coming together. With more success, more players from the diaspora wanted to join up.
With the strongest team in the country’s history, they approached World Cup 2023 Qualifying matches with a sense of optimism, but it wasn’t until February 2022, when they upset Tunisia in Dakar, then beat them again four months later, that the team really began to believe.
During a press conference, after the second Tunisia victory, Nuni Omot, who scored 15 points, was asked — “what’s the limit for South Sudan basketball?”
He smiled then answered: “Honestly, we don’t have a limit. We can shoot for the stars, aim for the moon.”
This “nothing to lose, everything to gain” attitude has been contagious. The women’s national team won their first ever Afrobasket game earlier this month. While basketball participation in South Sudan has skyrocketed, and the federation is making plans to start an under-17 and under-19 team.
There’s also optimism that if the team qualifies for the World Cup, NBA players JT Thor, Wenyen Gabriel will play, and maybe even Manute Bol’s son, Bol Bol, who’s starring for the Orlando Magic.
It could even lead to qualification for the Paris 2024 Olympics.
But for now, all focus will be on this weekend’s games.
For many, it’s a sort of full-circle moment. Deng will be coming back to the city where he was once a refugee kid searching for a home. Now, he returns as a South Sudanese hero.
With Royal Ivey committed to the Nets, Deng will once again take over on the bench and lead the Bright Stars.
As for the players, their long journeys have led them to Friday night’s game and the precipice of history.
They also understand the importance of the moment.
“This isn’t just for me, this is for all the generations behind us,” forward Mareng Gatkouth said.
When they line up for the opening introductions inside Al Ittihad Stadium, the players, along with the coaches and the traveling South Sudanese supporters, will certainly take a moment to look up and acknowledge the flag of South Sudan, and reflect on just how far they’ve all come, and how much more is to follow.