It is well documented that South Sudan has the tallest population in Africa and among the top 10 in the world. This is enough to cast a light on the world’s youngest nation’s ambitions to conquer the world of basketball. Manute Bol, who was born in Turalei, present day South Sudan is considered as the second tallest player to ever feature in the NBA standing at 2.29m (7ft6in) and where he came from is a long list of potential basketball players that can conquer the world. As South Sudan celebrated their ninth anniversary on July 8 since they received independence in 2011, focus turns on Luol Deng, the new South Sudan Basketball Federation president who is using basketball to change lives back home in the country of his ancestors.
Born in Wau, a city in northwestern South Sudan, Deng is one of nine siblings – the reason why he wore the jersey #9 in his NBA career. At the age of five, Deng and his family fled to neighbouring Egypt where they met Bol who taught his brothers and fundamentally Deng the game of basketball.
In an exclusive interview with FIBA.basketball, Deng said, “Manute is vital to our history. He is somebody that we all look up to. He is in our logo now – the federation logo. The reason for it is because we want all our youth going forward to understand what he has done for us. Me, being here and having this opportunity, Manute is part of it and for us, it is the history that we are proud of and always want to display it.”
“Going forward, we want to create an opportunity just like Manute did for me and many others that we can go ahead and create those opportunities for others and this is how you increase the numbers.”
The task at hand for Deng and his executive committee has been cut out for them but if their performance at the FIBA AfroBasket 2021 Pre-Qualifying Tournament in Kenya this January is anything to go by then South Sudan is a force to reckon with.
Coming together for the very first time, the men’s senior team brought together players of South Sudan origin from across the world and the vigour, passion and talent that they displayed during that competition is enough to send a warning to the rest of the continent.
“I am very excited and humbled to join not only the federation but also what is going on in Africa. I think it is time that we start coming back home and realising that we have potential to do these things at a greater level. I dedicated most of my life so far to basketball and to myself – to be the best that I could be and I learnt a lot through that process,” Deng said.
“I know the situation back home and what my people have been through for many years. I also see the talent and I know the potential and I wanted to come back and do something that I am very good at and something that I know very well. I saw the opportunity of bringing hope, excitement and bringing energy and also talent back to South Sudan.”
“We have a lot of kids that are abroad and their main dream has always been to do something for the country that they were forced out of and cannot be a part of. And also, at home, there is a lot of young kids who want the opportunity to get to the best level that they can so for me coming in, one thing that I really want to focus on is just improving the game.”
“I want people in South Sudan to be recognised so that the talent that we have does not just go to waste and also for South Sudanese to have something that they are proud of and have pride and look forward to something exciting whether it is a game or a tournament or whatever it is that we can do or even just going out to watch boys and girls play so for me it means a lot. You could tell that I am really excited.”
Deng revealed that he has been inspired to do all this by Toronto Raptors President of Basketball Operations and founder of Giants of Africa Masai Ujiri, NBA Africa Managing Director and Basketball Africa League President Amadou Gallo Fall as well as Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
“Africans are trying to change the dialogue. They are huge examples for us. It shows a different path when we come in early. We would not be doing this if they did not do it.”
“All the opportunities that they are creating is telling the youth that it is time for us to step forward. Africa has a nag and I am not downing anyone but we have a nag of allowing the oldest to run what we believe we can do. I am not necessarily saying that it is bad but the youth have to be involved. The youth have to have a voice and they have to connect.”
“Sometimes, whatever organisation it is, it is good to implement the youth and for me, I want to encourage people to understand that playing in the NBA for 15 years, I could have taken a lot of other jobs. I could have been in the US working with the team but I am very passionate and I believe in what I am doing. It is not just a game but it is changing courses and not just in my country but also for the continent.”
“It is for people to understand that I am happy to be here. I am happy to do this for my continent and inspire others so I am looking forward to it. We have kids that were forced out of their home and fighting the fact that they were not recognised from a certain country and they are very talented and want to make their country proud so bringing them together is bringing talent home.”
“There is things that we do not have to worry about and there are things that we are so behind on. Talent is talent. South Sudanese in general are very talented. We have so many tribes that we can almost have as many sports as possible in terms of athleticism. That is something that some countries might search for but that is something that we have.”
“The difficulty comes in realising that we are so behind than a lot of other countries in terms of facilities, resources, kids needing food, shoes, school material like we are coming in to almost run it like a foundation. I understand basketball is the objective but my main goal is just to improve lives.”
“And at the end of the day, people in South Sudan, for us it is all these kids having a better opportunity to do the best they can do. Us being on the map is not just the federation or the national team winning a championship. If we do our due diligence right, the talent is there. That would be a given but back home, what have we done to make a difference?”
“That is where I am so different in terms of when I come in and take this opportunity. I am not looking at it as let me just go and take the national team to the promised land. I am looking at it as how many kids can I bring into our program, the federation program to change. I travel a lot around Africa and I see certain countries might have a great team but it does not necessarily mean that they are doing stuff for the youth. I am not a federation that is coming in just to show what we can do at the national team.”
South Sudan have one more chance to qualify for the FIBA AfroBasket 2021 in Rwanda when they come up against Cape Verde, Chad and Ghana in the last set of the Pre-Qualifiers with the winner progressing to the last round of qualification.