In the new Republic of South Sudan, an exuberant re-embrace of the sport of basketball
seems to be emerging. Manute Bol, Sudan’s pioneer, became an N.B.A. star a quarter-century ago. Since then, many talented players, some driven out of southern Sudan by the years of violence, have had solid collegiate careers in the United States. Now there’s a second wave of talent to be recruited, prospects perhaps no longer seen chiefly as curiosities.
The new recruits are versatile, freakishly athletic, and have a confidence for the game. Their hero is not Bol who died in June 2010; it is Luol Deng, a star with the Chicago Bulls. The N.B.A. has noticed.
“We are very much in tune with what’s going on in South Sudan,” said Amadou Fall, the vice president for development with N.B.A. Africa, the league’s outreach arm. “Southern Sudan does have an abundance of tall, well-talented players. We have to pay attention.”
Two years ago, Mangistu Deng (no relation to Luol) was any other third-world teenager, stuck in the usual miserable circumstances: unrivaled poverty, violence, and instability.
Now he has found a way out. Each day, Deng slips away from the daily chaos of the southern capital, Juba, to the sanctuary he has cultivated: Nimra Tilata, the hallowed basketball court near the Nile River. Now he is one of South Sudan’s top basketball prospects and the face of a new sporting generation. He has not always had a lot in this life, but he has a place to play.
“I was born in war,” he said. “So, I thought, when I grow up, I will be a soldier. But then basketball just came. “God gave me this talent. It was not my choice. I really appreciate it.”
The rekindled passion for the game has been fueled in part by the return of the Sudanese basketball Diaspora. Duany, who played Division I basketball at Eastern Illinois from 2004-6, is one who came back. “There are guys here with N.B.A.-caliber talent,” said Duany, who serves as a coach to many of the local boys. The obvious attributes endure. The Dinka and Nuer tribes of South Sudan are considered among the tallest people in the world.
“South Sudanese are tall, they run well for guys of their size, and they’re very skillful,” Duany said. “They’ve passed that requirement already.”
Now Duany is here to help them get to the next level. In south Sudan, one of the poorest places in the world, the chance to play basketball may be the chance of a lifetime. “I want to show my country I can do something,” Deng said.
Bol, a 7-foot-6 Dinka cattle herder, was the first to show what a Sudanese player could do on the world stage. He was the second African-born player to be drafted into the N.B.A., and for years, he was, if an incomplete player, a shot-blocking sensation. Bol, though, was not just a defender on the court. He used his N.B.A. salary to help bankroll the southern Sudanese liberation movement, which fought an insurgency against the north during the civil war.
But basketball’s long-term future here hangs on the quality and lasting nature of independence. Let’s hope more kids grow up to bounce a basketball instead of toting a gun.
(Based on an article by Josh Kron in NYTimes, Feb. 19, 2011)