‘We are one’: How five Aussies helped South Sudan go from concrete courts to the Olympics

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For South Sudan men’s basketball team, the road to the FIBA World Cup started on a concrete court.

Representing the world’s newest nation, the team practised outdoors with flood water lapping at their feet and eagles circling overhead. But on Saturday night in Manila, the team – which has five players on its roster who grew up in Australia – completed a fairytale rise by booking a place at next year’s Olympic Games in Paris.

South Sudan centre Deng Acuoth scores against Angola at the FIBA World Cup and celebrates his country’s progression to the Olympics.Credit: AP

It will be the first team from any sport to represent South Sudan at the Olympics, and will again find itself up against the highly paid powerhouse nations of world basketball, including, potentially, the USA.

South Sudan, an independent country since 2011, has a young population, widespread poverty and a history of civil unrest and conflict. It does not have one indoor basketball stadium, so the thought of it forming a team strong enough to play against the best in the world seemed implausible.

But Saturday’s 101-78 win over Angola at the World Cup game guaranteed South Sudan its spot at Paris 2024 as the highest-placed African team.

The chant of “Where we going? Paris” echoed through the team’s locker room post-match as captain Kuany Kuany – who was born in South Sudan but grew up in Melbourne – beamed about the prospect of leading the fledgling nation to the Olympics.

The win against Angola mean South Sudan will play at the Olympics in Paris next year.Credit: AP

“Three years ago when Luol Deng became the president of the South Sudan Basketball Federation, when we started [qualifying] playing, literally, on a concrete floor in Nairobi [Kenya] in zone five, I never thought we would be here,” Kuany said.

“This is definitely one of the best days ever and one of the best days for South Sudan.”

South Sudan’s coach Royal Ivey – a former NBA player whom Deng recruited to lead the team – said many of his players still had to cope with the difficulties of playing and training outdoors.

“A year ago we were practising outside with eagles flying around above us, and the court was flooded,” Ivey said.

South Sudan captain Kuany Kuany playing against China at the FIBA World Cup.Credit: Getty Images

“To go from that to playing in front of these fans in the Philippines – man, I’m on cloud-nine right now.”

Retired NBA All-Star, now South Sudan Basketball Federation president, Luol Deng was the mastermind of an astute recruiting drive that helped South Sudan realise its dream of qualifying for the Olympics.

Deng was a regular visitor to Australia during his career, often meeting with South Sudanese expatriate communities and hosting clinics for young people.

After his NBA career finished, Deng dedicated himself to forming the best possible South Sudanese team he could. With the World Cup and Olympics in mind, he scoured the world for players with South Sudanese roots, and Australia became one of his prime recruiting grounds.

Sunday Dech, Majok Deng, Junior Madut, Deng Acouth and Kuany Kuany were the Australians on the team’s World Cup roster, while Mangok Mathiang played in the lead-up games.

Bul Kuol and Jo Lual-Acuil jnr had to withdraw due to injury. All of them have played or still play in Australia’s NBL.

Those players regularly flew from their NBL teams in the past two years to play in African qualifying games. South Sudan’s lack of a stadium meant it had to play all those games as away fixtures, but it built an imposing record of 11 wins and one loss to earn its World Cup berth.

South Sudan’s links to Australia extend beyond the handful of players who have represented the country on the court. When the team played in a series of warm-up matches for the World Cup at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena last month, thousands of the nation’s expat community were in the stands.

Australian Boomers coach Brian Goorjian spoke about the team after his team had beaten them in one of those games.

“Can I finish with something on South Sudan?” Goorjian asked.

“I’ve been in this a long time and Angola always comes out of the Africa region [to qualify].

“So for them to do what they have done is incredible, and for our team, Australia, a lot of those guys needed to be cleared by Basketball Australia to play for South Sudan, and what every one of them said was moving. They want to play for their country, and you can see how they have played for their country.

“I feel good as an Australian that we have been a big part of their development and the NBL has too.

“Seeing Sunday, seeing Mangok out there and seeing a lot of those guys who have been around us and this NBL competition. To see the job they are doing for their country, I’m pumped for them. I’m really proud of them.”

Earlier in the World Cup, Kuany said South Sudan’s basketball team was playing for more than just on-court achievements.

On Saturday, teammate Majok Deng shared a picture of thousands of supporters watching the team at a live site in South Sudan.

South Sudan fans cheer on their nation at the FIBA World Cup.Credit: Getty Images

“For us as a country, the reason why this is so important and means a lot is because we have so much division [at home],” Kuany told a World Cup press conference.

“A lot of trouble and conflict is going on in our country, but whenever the basketball team plays is the one time everyone comes together.

“There are no tribes, not ‘I’m from so-and-so region’. Everyone is wearing the same flag.

“You look at our fans out there, and you can’t really identify that this person is from so-and-so region. We are literally one.

Australian-raised Majok Deng dunks for South Sudan at the FIBA World Cup.Credit: Getty Images

“That is what this team stands for. It stands for unity and a pathway for peace and development in the country. A way to change the narrative.”

Dech and the other Australians had to work with their families to prove their heritage and apply for passports.

In Dech’s case, he had to petition FIBA to allow him to make a rare switch in allegiances after playing for the Boomers in 2020.

“With South Sudan being the newest country in the world, they have to backtrack,” Dech, who grew up in Perth, told this masthead earlier this year.

South Sudan’s Sunday Dech playing in FIBA World Cup qualifying.Credit: FIBA.basketball

“So I sat down with mum and dad and went through old documents, where they were born, where their parents were born, so they could track my heritage.

“I’m grateful I did it as I’m so much more knowledgeable about my history, and it has allowed me to walk the same lands that my ancestors did.

“It’s very difficult to switch but with South Sudan not having an established federation at the time [I played for Australia], they allowed me to switch.”

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