The Human Development Index is an indicator prepared annually by the United Nations that analyzes the health, education and income of a country’s inhabitants. It is influenced by life expectancy, infant mortality rate, the percentage of the literate population, per capita income… In the last two reports, South Sudan was at the bottom of the world ranking. Last year it was also competing with Burundi for not being the poorest country on the planet. However, in one of those miracles that sport sometimes offers has come along, it has just qualified for the basketball World Cup to be played in Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines between August 25 and September 10. A slice of glory amidst poverty.
South Sudan has won one of Africa’s five World Cup places. They topped their qualifying group with 11 wins in 12 games, leaving behind classic African teams such as Egypt, Tunisia and Senegal, whom they defeated 83-75. The win meant sealing their passport to the big event. The Shining Stars, as the national basketball team is known, had just pulled off a feat with positive ramifications for the life of the country.
Because South Sudan has had little positive news since its birth and basketball has just given it one of them. It is the youngest nation in the world. Its independence dates back to July 9, 2011, six years after a war with neighboring Sudan. But the separation did not bring peace. In a country with numerous ethnicities, a civil war of those that are not mentioned in the media began in 2013, but became the longest in Africa. It lasted until 2020, although some clashes are still being recorded to this day.
Four million refugees
As if the war was a minor drama, in 2017 the country suffered a severe famine. The mixture of both has meant that with just under 11 million inhabitants it has four million of them displaced. Knowing those social, political and economic issues, South Sudan‘s basketball milestone takes on an even greater dimension.
The great architect of it is Luol Deng, a 37-year-old former player who spent time with Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves throughout his 15 seasons in the NBA, where he played 902 games. In 2019, he was elected president of the Federation and is also the national coach. His assistant is Ajou Deng, one of his eight siblings. They all know well what it is like to be a refugee.
Fleeing the war, the patriarch sent the family to Egypt. There, Luol met Manute Bol, the Sudanese who, at 2.31 meters, became a world basketball icon and the tallest player in the history of the NBA, tied with Romania’s Gheorghe Muresan. It was the African giant who awakened his passion for basketball: he taught and mentored him.
The Deng family moved to London before, at the age of 14, Luol got a scholarship to play at an academy in New Jersey. He then entered Duke University and in 2004 was selected by the Bulls in the NBA draft. He would participate twice in the All-Star, would be part of the best defensive quintet of the 2011-12 season, would be an Olympian in the London Games with Great Britain and would leave a halo of professionalism and commitment in every place he went. But the greatest of them was always with the country he was forced to leave as a child.
The 2.06-meter forward never forgot his roots. In 2005 he created The Luol Deng Foundation and has been a faithful participant in the Basketball Without Borders campuses, which try to bring basketball to underprivileged places. He has always been involved in the reconstruction of South Sudan, providing homes and driving the country’s development. In 2008 he received an award from the United Nations Refugee Agency for his humanitarian work. Even Barack Obama, former U.S. president and Bulls fan, praised his work.
Peace through basketball
Now, Deng is trying to promote peace through basketball. The team’s success has apparently done that, as ethnic disputes have given way to celebrations. It has not been easy. He has paid for travel and travel costs himself. And a few of the internationals are playing in Australia, others in universities in the United States and some in Europe, including Kur Nyok Kuath, who plays for Ourense in the LEB.
The physicality of the players has helped the surprising qualification for the World Cup. In the last call-up, six of the 12 were over 2.05 meters tall and the shortest was 1.94 meters. Many of the internationals are from the Dinka ethnic group, one of the tallest peoples in the world. Manute Bol was one of them. Also his son Bol Bol (2.18), who plays for the Magic. And Wenyen Gabriel, (2,06), center of the Lakers. They are two of the players who could join the South Sudanese miracle at the World Cup.