25 August, 2023
10 September
Luol Ajou Deng (SSD)
to read

Luol Deng: The heart and soul of South Sudan's success

MANILA (Philippines) - South Sudan have captured the hearts and minds of fans at the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023. But the sport’s youngest country would not be making their global debut without its heart and soul - Luol Deng.

South Sudan made history on August 28 at the World Cup, beating China 89-69 for their first-ever win on the global stage.


"It means everything. I know it’s basketball but it's a sport that we love and want to grow. We are a new country and we have been through a lot, but this World Cup is a place where we are there with everyone else and we can call it our own and celebrate it," said Deng, who is serving as an assistant coach for South Sudan in Manila.

Deng is one of the biggest basketball names to come out of South Sudan - along with former NBA star Manute Bol, whose likeness is included in the logo for the South Sudanese federation. Deng himself had a long NBA career, playing 15 years for 5 NBA teams and also playing for Great Britain internationally.


Deng competed at the 2012 Olympics as well as two FIBA EuroBaskets for the British team, for whom he had a passport because his family settled in London after fleeing war in then Sudan when he was 5 and heading to Egypt.

But after South Sudan received their independence on July 9, 2011 and then became a FIBA member on November 24, 2013, Deng began to get involved. Deng eventually would be elected SSBF president in November 2019.

"Deng coming home is a great move for the whole of South Sudan," the federation's newly elected secretary general Marier Anyuat was quoted by insidethegames.biz after Deng's unanimous election. "Basketball is just a small part of what we can do, however, the sky is no limit for us."

Deng and the people around him believed they could build up South Sudan through sport.

"We committed to an ambitious vision of nation building through sport, from representing South Sudan abroad to locally developing the sport nationwide. In many ways, our journey has reflected the obstacles and challenges that come with pursuing any higher purpose in life," Deng said in the SSBF's "More Than Basketball" report from July 2023.

Deng used his basketball connections to bring together like-minded people willing to push his vision.

Royal Ivey

"Luol Deng is the heart and soul of all of this. He is the president. Without Luol, I wouldn't be sitting here right now. He had a great vision. I entrusted in his vision and it all came together. I'm in awe that I am sitting here right now at the World Cup," South Sudan head coach Royal Ivey said after his country’s first ever World Cup victory.

"He is changing the trajectory of his country. He's using basketball to spread hope. It's humbling to be part of this rise and see what is happening back in South Sudan with the success of our team," assistant head coach Joe Mategna added.

Joe Mategna (left) coached Royal Ivey (middle) in high school

Mategna is a major connection in this South Sudan coaching staff. The American is a long-time head coach at Blair Academy high school in New Jersey. Both Deng and the Harlem, New York native Ivey played for Mategna in New Jersey.

Deng's contributions to South Sudan's World Cup run were not just behind the scenes though. He also coached the Bright Stars in two of the four windows of the African Qualifiers since Ivey was unavailable because he was an NBA assistant coach. Deng had previously coached South Sudan in the FIBA AfroBasket 2021 Qualifiers as well.

Luol Deng coaching during the African Qualifiers

Under Deng's leadership, South Sudan not only went from playing outdoors in Zone V AfroBasket Qualifers to reaching the Quarter-Finals of their first FIBA AfroBasket in 2021 to becoming the first nation to qualify for the World Cup in their first attempt. The team has also been able to bring in NBA level talent - such as Weynen Gabriel and naturalized Carlik Jones. And there are many, many more high level players with connections to South Sudan.

Deng and co. still have a big game against Serbia on Wednesday August 30 to possibly reach the Second Round. But the federation president believes the team is destined for great things.

"We want to keep building. We are very happy where we are at. We are very excited about what we are building. I really believe we can be on the stage with the rest of the world with basketball. We have a lot of talent. We have even more guys who are coming up and more talent in South Sudan. It's just about organization and putting it together," Deng said.

"This is the first step. I really believe this is a sport where we are naturally gifted and built for it and we have the determination. The problem has been the organization of it. But I really believe in our guys and what we are doing."

Spoken like a true heart and soul of a movement.