THE odds of survival in a country devastated by civil war are slim. The odds of making it overseas, away from a civil war, are even slimmer. The odds of making it into the best basketball league in the world as a native of South Sudan? Near impossible.
But defying the odds is what turns good teams into great ones. That is the inspirational story of Manute Bol, who survived the bombs and bullets of a war in South Sudan and made it into the US National Basketball Association (NBA), the biggest and richest league in the sport.
Bol, the first African player to play in the NBA, has long retired but his inspiration and legacy continue to be the drive behind the success of the South Sudan national basketball team.
South Sudan senior men’s basketball team has had many obstacles to overcome with the country only gaining independence in 2011. In January, the nation competed in their first continental competition, the AfroBasket, which is a qualifying event for the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). And there looks to be a formidable storm brewing under the leadership of former National Basketball Association (NBA) player Luol Deng.
Deng credits the first African NBA-player and political activist Bol for South Sudan’s progression into African competition.
South Sudan arrived on the international basketball scene as early as 1985 when Bol was picked by the Washington Bullets in the NBA draft. Bol began his career as a Sudanese American professional basketball player whilst alerting the world of the injustices back home. He would never live to see South Sudan gain independence in 2011 but had fought tirelessly for the nation to achieve what they have become.
Bol left behind a vision that has been acknowledged and driven forward by Deng, a former NBA Player and Basketball Africa League (BAL) ambassador. “My supervision legacy is to use basketball talent as a tool to rally young people to become agents of positive social change in South Sudan,” said the two-time NBA All-Star.
His 15-year NBA experience will be invaluable in the progress of South Sudan becoming competitive in regional and international competition.
Deng, who has serves as president of the South Sudan Basketball Federation since his election in November 2019, has been open about reaching out to seek support from the government to help involve them in improving basketball infrastructures in the world’s newest country.
“We are reaching out to organizations and also we would encourage the government in finding ways to make us work together”, Deng said. “We have a lot coming up.”
The national team capped off their introduction to continental AfroBasket competition with a 115 – 60 victory over Tanzania and a 68 -74 loss against hosts Kenya, but only looked positive in their debut tournament.
“As a national team we need to go out and compete with other countries in the region and globally and win games so that everybody back home can be happy and proud,” Deng said.
South Sudan men’s team is currently ranked 19th in Africa and have one more chance to qualify for the FIBA AfroBasket 2021 tournament with the last set of pre-qualifying games, with the winner progressing to the last stage of qualification.
Dates are unconfirmed due to COVID-19 concerns.