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Luol Deng relishes South Sudan Olympic chance

MIES (Switzerland) - The Bright Stars is the nickname of Olympic-bound South Sudan, a national team that has captured the imagination the past few years with a rapid rise in international basketball.

But hoops legend Luol Deng revealed on Monday night at the Draw for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments 2024 another name that's probably going to stick.

"Literally, we call each other the Giants of the Nile," he said. "And finally, we can back that up by going to the Word Cup and going to the Olympics."

Deng, a two-time NBA All-Star and 2012 Olympian with Great Britain who now serves as president of the South Sudan Basketball Federation, was the star attraction at the Draw. And it wasn't just because of the sensational career he had on the court. It's because of what he has accomplished with South Sudan since retiring as a player, from his duties as president and also, when needed, as a coach.

Shortly before Monday's Draw, he spoke of his relief to fiba.basketball that South Sudan already had their place in the Olympic tournament.

"We went into the World Cup with a mindset that we didn't want to go through that qualification system," he said, talking about the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments 2024.

"I know how difficult it is. There are only four spots left. It's going to be very, very difficult for any other African team to make it."


Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Egypt, Angola and Cameroon, who won the FIBA Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournament in Nigeria, are all in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments 2024.

"I would love to see any other African team make it, but if I was to pick one, I would probably say Ivory Coast."

Deng said that before Les Elefantes were drawn in the tournament hosted by Puerto Rico, which also has Mexico, Lithuania, Italy and Bahrain.

Again, Deng is more than happy that the Bright Stars, or the "Giants of the Nile" as he put it, already have a spot in the Olympic tournament field with Germany, Serbia, Canada, USA, Australia, Japan and hosts France. They punched their ticket with a victory over Angola at the World Cup in their final game.

"I'm excited," he said. "We're at a place where, when I said we had a chance to make the Olympics three years ago, that's insane. Nobody believed us.

"But we're here. It's a historic day for us and for our teams to be one that is called out as one of the teams already to be qualified. I'm just grateful, and thankful, that we've reached this far so far."

Getting to the Summer Games is one thing and winning games there is something else. African teams have not had success at Olympics.

"We need to get better," Deng said. "We know that we did well at the World Cup. We know where we belong level wise. But it also allowed us to be close to seeing how teams kind of prepare and how they get ready for tournaments like that.

"I spent time with a lot of coaches at the World Cup and a lot of federation officials, or presidents, and just tried to learn from them because a lot of times, everyone just thinks that everything is done on the court. But there is an art to preparation that we would love to keep learning."

South Sudan rose 32 places to No. 31 in the FIBA World Ranking Men, presented by Nike, after their World Cup performance.  Six of the other teams already in the Olympic field are in the top 10 while Japan are No. 26.

How ambitious can South Sudan be?

"First of all, being able to raise our flag is No. 1. For everyone to see that and to be a topic in a positive way. But the goal is to compete to that level and see where it takes us.

"As happy as we are to be there, we really want to compete. I really want people to watch some beautiful basketball. I don't people watching us and thinking that we just go there. I want people to see us and see the direction of where I'm trying to take the sport."

Deng played for Great Britain at the Olympics 11 years ago and has good memories from the experience.

 Deng played at the 2012 Olympics for Great Britain

"Everything comes to a stop for the Olympics." Deng remembers being a part of the center of the attention of the sports world, the camaraderie with other athletes and seeing how they worked. He also remembers the Opening Ceremony.

"Walking out is such a historic moment," he said. "It's an event that has been going on for so long and there have been so many participants that gave so much to be there," he said. "There are so many that gave so much that didn't get there, so I remember appreciating the fact that I'm there."

Deng knows exactly what he'll say to the players who make the Olympic team: "Take it in. Really soak it in and enjoy the moment. Be prepared, do everything you have to do to be at your best, but at the same time, take some time to appreciate being a part of such an event, a historic event."

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Making this experience sweeter for Deng is that it wasn't that long ago that no one was talking about South Sudan. Yet he knew, long before he became president of the federation, that the national team had possibilities.

"I knew the amount of talent that we have in South Sudan," he said. "I've always been involved throughout my career doing basketball camps. I started my (Luol Deng) foundation in 2004, when I got drafted in the NBA. And I’ve been doing camps ever since, all over the continent.

"I've done camps all over Europe and Africa. But my love of the game and giving back has always been through camps and organized events. I don’t believe in just showing up and leaving. I try and get involved with the players. Try to help them, try to mentor some of them.

"When the opportunity came for basketball, I knew that we have a lot of struggles at home, back in South Sudan, that will take time to fix. But I knew the number one thing I could do was allow people to believe that sports could be used as a tool not just to unify us but to bring positive images. And also to really believe that through sports, you can change many lives.

"I knew that by winning, either by sponsors or the government itself, anyone that's interested in basketball would be willing to be part of what we are building. Now it's helped us tremendously in improving the game. The vision was always to be so good as a national team that from what you get from that will be able to shape basketball internally, inside South Sudan."

Deng's experience made him the perfect person to become president of the federation.

Wenyen Gabriel at the World Cup

"I didn't know that I was going to be president of the federation but I just knew that I was going to develop basketball in South Sudan somehow," he said. "I knew that I was going to be building courts and holding camps and helping kids get scholarships and so on. But I never knew that I would be in charge of putting national teams together, being on the phone with FIBA trying to register players on the Management & Administration Platform and competing and so on."

The team heading to the Olympics gets all the attention, yet Deng and the federation are doing a lot more for the sport in the country.

"Well, we started a women's league, which is the first time we've had such a competition", he said. "Now we have teams. We've been able to travel with various players to local tournaments nearby. We also have our own league in South Sudan.

"Through the federation, we were able to build seven basketball courts in seven different states. Our goal is to cover all 13 states. Once we do that, we’d like to follow it with some indoor courts. So it’s a long-term vision. But in order to be able to build basketball within South Sudan, we really have to focus on improving our facilities first.

"Besides that, it's just the league and tournaments. We want to improve on the coach's clinics and referee's clinics, the technical side of the game. That's also important. Those are the types of things we want to focus on internally, but the biggest focus is increasing facilities for the ability of the people not just in the capital but all across South Sudan, for the youth to be able to have access to that consistently."

The Olympics is front and center for South Sudan's national team. They will enter the tournament as one of the big underdogs.

But when South Sudan play at FIBA AfroBasket 2025?

"I think we will be the favorite," Deng said. "I don’t know if I like that position. I always like being the underdog. But honestly, it depends on what our team is.

"One thing I will say is that we’ve been able to do is to allow other African national teams to take a step forward.

Royal Ivey coached South Sudan AfroBasket 2021

"I think with our national team, we try to put our players in the best situation to succeed, whether that means getting the right coaches, the right staff, the right trainers, eating the right way, how we travel, how we're organized.

"I think those are things that in the past, a lot of national teams have lacked and a lot of players have complained and maybe not played for their national team.

"Since we've done that, it created a buzz within the continent, especially East Africa. Everyone would like to compete with South Sudan so we have become the favorite."

Every country will now be gunning for South Sudan.

"We are now the team that, if you beat South Sudan, you’ll celebrate," Deng said. "I think when we first came in, excuses were made like 'it's just our first time, our first tournament.' But now being the team that is number one and carrying the flag and going to the Olympics, I think everybody would love to play South Sudan."

Before the AfroBasket, however, will be the AfroBasket 2025 Qualifiers and those get underway in February. So even before the Olympics, South Sudan will have competitive basketball.

While Royal Ivey coached the team at AfroBasket 2021 and at the World Cup, Deng has filled in as head coach since Ivey is an NBA assistant coach.

There's a good chance Deng will be pacing in front of the South Sudan bench come February.

"It always depends on the head coach, Royal, with his schedule," Deng said. "The reason I coach when he’s not there is the players want me to. And we try to keep the same system. So if that happens, I most likely will be coaching.

"To be honest with you, I do enjoy coaching but the preparation part and watching videos and so on, you just get so into it. But when you are an assistant coach, you focus on your assignment and not every single aspect of it."

So when Ivey does come back, Deng will still help coach as an assistant.

"Yeah, I do the defense for the team," he said.

South Sudan's victory over Angola at the World Cup clinched a spot in the Olympics for Deng's country

Deng, meanwhile, is also excited about the Basketball Africa League, a joint project between FIBA and the NBA.

"BAL is great," he said. "It’s great for the continent, great seeing that there’s a role being played by FIBA and the NBA to take the game to the next level.

"Even with what we've done with the national team, you can tell what potential is there.

"Our players are excited that there are teams on the continent that are looking for them or trying to sign them. I think that the relationship that we have, the two giants coming together to power this, it's a very low chance of failing.

"And the ceiling is so low at this point, it's added on and will continue to get better. And the talent will continue to pour in. And as you see with basketball, there are so many talented players all over the world, it just gives them another outlet, another channel, to enjoy the game and play on the continent and hopefully earn a living and hopefully keep taking steps forward.

"But I’m very excited about it because it allows me to work with great minds in developing the game and also get great help in terms of things I want to do on the continent."