How South Sudan basketball continues to stun Africa under Luol Deng
JUBA (South Sudan) - When Luol Deng brought his South Sudan team to their first continental outing in Nairobi in 2020, he would not have imagined what joy this would bring across the continent and the world at large.
Just over two years after he ascended to the helm of South Sudan Basketball Federation, the impact he has created has been big and the performance of the team hugely satisfying.
After being elected unopposed as a federation boss in 2019, Deng said, "I'm very proud, exited and thankful to be the president of our new federation. I am humbled to join not only the federation but also what is going on in Africa."
This was a gesture of respect from the basketball fraternity at home as they looked to start building a basketball dynasty.
"I am not looking at it as let me just go and take the national team to the promised land," he said after being elected.
The incoming secretary Marier Anyuat had a lot of praise for the two-time NBA All-Star who represented Great Britain at the 2012 London Olympics.
"Deng coming home is a great move for the whole of South Sudan. Basketball is just a small part of what we can do, however, the sky is no limit for us," he said then.
With a wealth of experience gained playing in the NBA for 15 years, Deng hit the ground running. He has played a big role in the rise of South Sudan basketball.
His involvement with the team has completely turned around things for their nation. He knows how to motivate and get the best out of his players.
"We are learning so much from him. He treats us very well and wants us to give our very best," noted Kuany Kuany who is one of the team's mainstays explained.
Deng, born in Wau, a city in northwestern South Sudan, is using basketball to change lives back home. His involvement with the team has completely turned around things for their nation.
"To have Luol Deng as our head coach is very important and a vital part of our success. Not only because of the great basketball wealth and knowledge he brings to the table but also belief and confidence he instills on the team through team preparations,” noted Kuany.
Many believe the South Sudan fairytale has just begun and that it is only a matter of time before the Bright Stars can stamp their authority in Africa.
This was manifested in Nairobi in January 2020 during the FIBA AfroBasket 2021 Pre-Qualifying Tournament. This is where the South Sudan Cinderella story started.
It was their first continental outing and they did not disappoint. Throughout the six team championships, Deng was always with his team before and after the games.
Going into their decisive game against Kenya, South Sudan were unscathed. They announced their arrival in style dismantling every opposition with ease.
Roared on by their many fans, they made instant mark posting century points in all their opening five games before going down 74-68 to the host before a jam packed Nyayo gymnasium.
While they didn't get a direct ticket to the continental showcase, another opportunity presented itself when FIBA organized an Invitational Tournament involving Chad and Cape Verde in Cameroon.
Cape Verde won and joined Egypt, Morocco and Uganda. But again luck came smiling their way as they replaced Algeria who could not compete in the Qualifiers.
They secured wins over Mali and Rwanda before completing the double against the West Africans to make it to the continental festival.
South Sudan was among the 16 teams that paraded in Kigali, Rwanda for the continental festival and the Bright Stars under tutelage of Royal Ivey sparkled all the way to an impressive seventh position.
Playing in Group D, they started on a 20-0 note against Cameroon, crushing to a humiliating 104-75 loss at the hands of Senegal before pipping Uganda 88-86.
Their opponents in the Qualification Round to Quarter-Finals was Kenya. They squeezed a 60-58 victory to avenge the Nairobi loss before going on to bow out in the quarters losing 80-65 to eventual winners Tunisia.
Next step was the FIBA Basketball World Cup African Qualifiers in Dakar, Senegal. It is here that South Sudan made a huge statement.
Playing in Group B, they stunned back-to-back Africa champions Tunisia 72-64, humbled Rwanda 68-56 and Cameroon 74-68 joining Cote d'Ivoire as the only unbeaten teams in their groups.
South Sudan are on a rollercoaster run going into Window Three of the African Qualifiers. The morale is sky high and with the confidence they are exhibiting, rule them out at your own peril.
With thousands of players across the world to pick from, Africa hasn't seen anything yet. Like a rumbling volcano, South Sudan is just about to explode and when they eventually do, all remember one man: Luol Deng.