Luol Deng, the former NBA superstar who wants to make South Sudan a basketball powerhouse
And the real hero was him: Luol Deng, former professional basketball player, retired NBA superstar since 2019 and who took the reins of the South Sudan Basketball Federation, after being elected president, the same year.
The former Chicago Bulls winger also took on the role of coach of the men’s national team, the very team that snatched two victories – against Mali and Rwanda – in Kigali. The South Sudanese are now holding their breath as they approach the last qualifying phase, which will take place from February 19 to 21, in view of the continental tournament scheduled for August in the Rwandan capital.
But the recent performances of the selection – yet the youngest and least experienced in the competition – give them hope. Already, its ranking has climbed nine places, settling South Sudan at 98and world rank, “in the FIBA top 100 [Fédération internationale de basket] »rejoiced on Twitter the South Sudanese Federation.
Among the greatest humans
Initially, the Bright Stars were not even supposed to go to Kigali, for lack of having passed the pre-qualifier stage. It was Algeria’s unexpected withdrawal that allowed them to return to the competition at the last minute. “When I got the call, it gave us five days to prepare and get to the tournament “recalls Luol Deng, met in Juba, the South Sudanese capital, at the end of January.
The country, which became independent in 2011, had never taken part in international championships, but is no stranger to basketball, far from it. “We want to become a basketball power and dominate the sport, not only in Africa but in the world. It’s like Jamaica with athletics, or Kenya and Ethiopia with long distance says Luol Deng. For basketball, if we do things right in terms of organization and facilities, we have our chance, because we have the talent. »Read also NBA: Pascal Siakam’s message of hope in Cameroon and Africa
There is this gift that nature has given to South Sudan and its Nilotic peoples, who are among the greatest humans on the planet. Like Manute Bol, NBA player who died in 2010, active in the field from 1985 to 1997. From his height of 2.31 m, he blocked opposing shots, but also chained three-point baskets.
It was this Dinka, born in Turalei, who introduced Luol Deng to basketball. He trained his big brother during his passages on the Egyptian coast, in Alexandria, “a very nice place that he also visited to support the Sudanese refugee community”, says Luol Deng, who was one of them. At the age of 5, he had fled his hometown of Wau, with his brothers and sisters. It was 1990, the civil war between southern and northern Sudan was raging and Omar Al-Bashir had just taken power in Khartoum. A few years later, the siblings moved to south London where Luol Deng’s father was granted political asylum.
“Building this federation”
Another renowned man in the world of sport will determine the rest of his career: Jimmy Rodgers, the coach of the Brixton Topcats, “discover” Luol Deng and urges him to go into basketball instead of football. What followed was an irresistible ascent to the heights: leaving for the United States at the age of 14 with a scholarship to play basketball (“My father was happy because I was leaving the neighborhood where I could have gone in the wrong direction. I was going to study well”, he recalls); the signing of the first contract with the Chicago Bulls in 2004, at barely 20 years old; then a professional basketball career of fifteen years at the highest level.
In 2015, he inaugurated the Manute Bol Court at the University of Juba, two basketball courts accompanied by training programs that allow hundreds of young people to practice the sport for free in the capital. He now hopes to be able “build this federation from the basics and extend the activities to the regions, because there is talent everywhere, not just in Juba”.
The Afro basket adventure gives him the opportunity to prove himself and attract new support to develop the sport in the country, where the facilities are almost non-existent and where even the federation does not have the necessary spaces to practice. The players of the national team come from the diaspora and from clubs and leagues mainly from the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, “because the players in the country work hard, without the infrastructure, it’s impossible to have the level “laments Deng.
Funded entirely out of pocket, will the participation of the Bright Stars in this competition lead to new victories? Luol Deng is aware that the next stage, in Tunisia, will be difficult, because “the teams have seen what we are capable of and they will be very well prepared”.
But in this young nation still marked by crises and violence, “It’s a positive story anyway that will give birth to other positive stories”, wants to believe Luol Deng. What might be possible, thanks to basketball, “change the way we talk about our country”.