‘More than basketball’: South Sudan go from underdogs to history-makers

South Sudan have made history by winning their first FIBA World Cup game and by qualifying for the Paris 2024 Olympics.

South Sudan's Carlik Jones in action
South Sudan's Carlik Jones in action against Angola [Eloisa Lopez/Reuters]

Manila, Philippines – South Sudan have shone at the 2023 FIBA World Cup and its basketball dreams aren’t stopping there.

On Saturday, in the Philippine capital, Manila, the world’s youngest nation secured their first Olympic basketball berth after beating Angola 101-78 to clinch the lone FIBA Africa direct qualification spot at Paris 2024 .

“We earned it,” said Royal Ivey, the Bright Stars head coach at a press conference after defeating host country Philippines in the classification round.

“We competed from zone five [in the Afrobasket qualifiers] to now, my guys are resilient, they know how to work, they push forward, they fought day-in, day-out, and we got here because of the hard work and the sweat that we put in every day. Now we’re reaping the rewards, so it’s not over.”

South Sudan’s 2023 FIBA World Cup campaign has been remarkable.

In its first participation in the Africa qualifiers, the nation of about 11 million people – barely a decade old at that time – shocked the continent by topping the both first and second rounds to clinch a maiden World Cup berth.

Matched with Serbia, Puerto Rico and China in Group B, South Sudan travelled to Manila seeking to advance to the second round and make it all the way to the final phase.

Ranked 62nd in the world, South Sudan impressed with a strong start to their campaign against Puerto Rico before the Caribbeans rallied to secure an overtime win, 101-96.

The team kept their hopes up and made history with a dominant 89-69 win over 20th-ranked China before bowing out of contention for the second round with an 83-115 loss to sixth-ranked Serbia.

Despite falling short and getting relegated to the classification round, the experience has been positive for South Sudan.

“It’s our first time playing [at a World Cup] and having the national team come this far, it’s been great for us and just seeing the potential we have, I think sky’s the limit for us,” Bright Stars leading scorer Carlik Jones of the Chicago Bulls told Al Jazeera.

‘There are no egos’

Despite the fact that South Sudanese stars such as Luol Deng and Manute Bol had reached the NBA, becoming contenders in world basketball meant building from scratch.

In 2019, former Chicago Bulls star Deng became the president of the South Sudan Basketball Federation. With no indoor basketball arena in the country, Deng had his work cut out for him.

The two-time NBA All-Star personally recruited South Sudanese players from the diaspora and briefly coached the team before appointing Royal Ivey, currently an assistant coach in the Houston Rockets, to steer the team in the 2021 AfroBasket tournament and the World Cup.

“He’s such a good dude, so unselfish that there are times where I feel like he puts everyone before himself, and it’s unbelievable,” said Jones of Deng.

“He’s giving back to the development of the game, he helps with on-court stuff, off-the-court stuff, he’s a guy who allows you to come to him if you need anything, even if it’s small talk.”

It’s this basketball culture that Deng set out to instil that allowed the country’s best players to catch onto the dream.

According to team captain Kuany Kuany, players like Sunday Dech, Majok Deng and Deng Acuoth, were approached to play for world number three side Australia, yet they chose to join the Bright Stars.

Because of Deng’s strong foundations, new players like reigning NBA G-League MVP Jones and Los Angeles Lakers’ Wenyen Gabriel were able to easily develop chemistry with the squad, despite only playing with the team for the first time in the World Cup.

“The greatest thing I love about this team is that everybody understands and everybody buys in. There are no egos that say ‘me, me, me’,” Kuany told Al Jazeera.

“We’re playing for what’s at the front [of our jerseys] – South Sudan – and not for the name at the back. That’s what makes it so easy to help lead this team because everybody just loves the idea of winning. Nobody wants to make it about themselves.”

In the World Cup, the Bright Stars waved the South Sudan flag featuring the slogan “more than basketball” as they called for peace and unity in their conflict-ridden home.

After declaring independence in 2011, South Sudan was plagued with civil war that displaced more than four million people because of violence and famine.

But the Bright Stars have become a beacon of hope for the nation.

Thousands of fans met the team at the airport when they came home from Egypt after their historic World Cup qualification last February. Some even travelled to Manila to cheer for the team at the Araneta Coliseum in the quadrennial tournament.

Back at home, photos and videos of locals streaming the game in schools and outdoor stadiums circulated when South Sudan secured their first-ever victory in the World Cup.

More than Deng and the federation’s efforts to develop the sport and the current pool of players inspiring each other, as well as the youth to chase dreams of playing in the NBA and the highest level of basketball, the Bright Stars can help build the young nation.

“This speaks of the potential that South Sudan has not just in basketball, but literally in every sector,” said captain Kuany.

“If we keep trusting in ourselves, the plans and the development goals that we have, we could literally build South Sudan to be one of the best countries, not only in Africa but in the world.”

Source: Al Jazeera