South Sudan's inspiring Afrobasket pre-qualifiers is a success story that's transcending cultures and borders
Here in Australia, it's a busy time to be following basketball. The NBL is hitting the final stretch of games before the finals unfold, and the NBA is in full swing. But over 10,000 kilometres from Australia, a handful of Australian basketballers have quietly achieved something worth drawing attention to.
Held in Nairobi, Kenya, the 2020 Afrobasket Pre-qualifiers were held this month to determine who would move through to the 2021 Afrobasket Cup held in Rwanda next year.
Update (clarification via Liz Mills): In earlier years, the host, previous champion and runner up automatically qualified. Qualifiers have always existed, which were generally held during the NBA and European seasons.
South Sudan, of which Australia has a notable refugee population, is led by six South Sudanese Australians at its core - Kuany Kuany, Emmanuel Malou, Mathiang Muo, Mackuei Poundak, Teny Puot and Bol Bak. It's a relatively depleted roster for South Sudan due to the schedule, as most professional and college players were unavailable for selection. But the team proved to be wildly successful, winning all four of their games before finally falling to Kenya in the final held on Saturday.
The competition is a mixed bag - Tanzania, following travel issues, only fielded a roster of 6 players. Eritrea, having never even competed before, lost all their games by an average of 40 points. Other teams, like Kenya, possessed a more formidable lineup.
Nonetheless, it was an impressive tournament for our Australians - established NBL1 talents Malou, Muo and Kuany, as well as former Big V forward Poundak, led the team throughout their games with consistent production, and both Puot (Waverley Falcons, NBL1) and the 22 year old Bak (Ballarat Miners, Youth League) broke out for 33 point games against Burundi and Tanzania, respectively.
Side note: South Sudan also played former Melbourne Tiger, Yusuf Qaafow in their game against Somalia. The guard put up 18 points in the loss.
Facilities are a startling reminder of the relatively underdeveloped and underfunded nature of sport in the region. The court is effectively built like an outdoor court, with sufficient cover but not immune to outside noise and heat, and there's barely a metre of excess space for players beyond the courts' perimeters.
But such things come hand in hand with an authenticity that is at the heart of these Afrobasket qualifiers. Crowds are intimate and wildly passionate. The atmosphere, particularly in South Sudan's final against Kenya --where plenty of South Sudanese fans had made the trip and were as loud as the home crowd-- had every bit of the atmosphere notorious European crowds possessed. Raucous bouts of cheering were entwined with horn blowing and waves of national flags. The culture and character which exuded watching South Sudan's final reflects an unfiltered and untainted basketball experience - free of the polish, overproduction, and general commercialization many of the top professional leagues are filled to the brim with.
Such an event is born of national and cultural pride. The Republic of South Sudan is one of the newest countries on earth, having gained independence from Sudan in 2011, and demographically, it is also one of the youngest, with roughly half its population under 18 years of age, per 2018. Troubles have been rife in the country's short history, with a civil war, rooted in both political and tribal division, taking place since 2013, and having estimated to have killed more than 400,000 people as of 2018.
While basketball may appear trivial in the scope of such devastation, the sport has shown the true extent of its impact in its ability to provide opportunity, community and unity in such troubling circumstances.
A constant theme that stood out whilst following South Sudan's run of impressive victories, were the messages of support and pride from those within the South Sudanese community. After each game, the South Sudanese Basketball Federation would share to their Twitter account, sentiments from fans of how the tournament was bringing a sense of common ground and patriotic union through their support for the team. In many respects, this was bigger than basketball.
It meant a lot to the players, too.
"The last two weeks I spent in Nairobi with my brothers has been nothing short of an experience worth remembering for the rest of my life! Representing the South Sudanese National Basketball team was something most used to dream of, but because of SSBF and everyone behind it, this dream has become a reality for us!" shared Emmanuel Malou via Instagram.
Kuany Kuany said, " Words can’t describe how amazing and phenomenal the past two weeks have been representing my home country of South Sudan with my brothers. Basketball became more than just a sport for us, it became a symbol of unity amongst all South Sudanese around the world who patriotically supported us."
Such impact has been at the heart of basketball within the South Sudanese community of Australia, as well. Through the South Sudanese Australian Basketball Association (SSANBA), we've seen some of the most exciting tournaments on the national basketball calendar year after year.
Australia has been home to many South Sudanese refugees in the last 20 years, many fleeing as a result of the conflicts within the country. Programs such as Longhorns Basketball, founded by Manyang Berberi, have provided a positive outlet through sporting opportunity and a sense of community.
As Berberi noted in the 2016 documentary 'Longhorns: A Story About A Family',
"The idea behind it was get them involved, engaged in sport and keep them busy, and involved in the local community.
"It's good for integration and also at the same time good for kids to develop their leadership skills, develop their confidence, understand how a cohesive team works, their physical and mental health."
Not only has Longhorns basketball provided a positive experience for all involved, it's been an extremely successful pathway for top end basketball talent, with over 150 athletes within their alumni that have gone on to US high schools, college, the NBA and NBL, including Deng Adel (currently of the Long Island Nets of the G League) and Mangok Mathiang (currently with Bahçeşehir Koleji in Turkey).
Its level of success is evident throughout the totality of Australia's South Sudanese basketball population. Despite being such a small minority within our country's population (in 2018, the South Sudanese Australian population was estimated at 20,000), Australia's top leagues and even national programs are seeded with South Sudanese talent.
Of the 15 Australians that have represented Australia in the NBA since 2010, three of those were born in South Sudan - Thon Maker, Deng Adel, and Mangok Mathiang. Thon's brother Matur, also currently plays in the G League. The NBL is also flooded with South Sudanese talent. Majok Majok, Majok Deng, Kouat Noi, Jo Lual-Acuil, Deng Acouth being just some of the currently active names. Our domestic leagues and junior talent pools are just as heavily represented.
This success demonstrates the symbiotic relationship Australia and South Sudan have had in the basketball sphere. Australia's refugee community has undoubtedly benefited from the facilities and focus the sport has in this country, and in return, Australia's leagues and international representation have been boosted by their talent.
It is fitting, then, that Australia's South Sudanese talent were able to go back and represent their country of origin in this month's Afrobasket pre-qualifiers. Despite just falling short of qualification for Afrobasket this time around, this group of players should be celebrated for their performance through these pre-qualifiers. Their achievements are something that should be admired by both the Australian and South Sudanese communities. It is yet another milestone for what is such a valuable demographic in Australia's basketball golden age, and as a community at large, we'd be best served to facilitate the grassroots programs that are nurturing said talent. Cancellation of the community's headline event, for instance, has been counter-productive to this goal.
With Luol Deng's appointment as the South Sudanese Basketball Federation's (SSBF) President in December 2019, the national program's future is in good hands. For this tournament, Deng personally provided the players with accommodation and more, and his time in Australia has been an inspiration for the community here at home.
The influx of South Sudanese-Australian talent is only going to continue to grow. From Deng in 2017: “We’re going to have so many players in the NBA in the future and I really believe that in the near future, it’s not just going to be one or two that we talk about, it’s going to be three or four.”
The achievements of our South-Sudanese born athletes, whether representing South Sudan, Australia, or both, is a boon and a testament to both countries, and South Sudan's admirable performance in the Afrobasket Pre-Qualifiers is the latest milestone worth celebrating. Let us not let it go unnoticed.