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‘Bigger than basketball’: South Sudan win hearts, minds at World Cup

Author: AFP | Published: September 1, 2023

South Sudan's players celebrate their historic win against China at the World Cup (JAM STA ROSA/AFP)

South Sudan has lurched from one crisis to another since winning independence in 2011, but the country’s basketball team are determined to “change the narrative” on the world stage.

South Sudan are competing at the Basketball World Cup, currently taking place in the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia, and have won plaudits for their dynamic play and positive attitude on and off the court.

Playing in the tournament for the first time, they pulled off a historic win when they beat basketball-obsessed China 89-69 in their second game.

Their hopes of reaching the second round ended after a defeat to Serbia on Wednesday, but they still have the chance to claim a qualifying spot at next year’s Paris Olympics.

Captain Kuany Ngor Kuany, who was born in South Sudan but moved to Australia as a nine-year-old, said the tournament was “a tool to promote the image of our country”.

“We’re literally one, that’s what this basketball team stands for — for unity, a pathway for peace and development in the country, and just a way to change the narrative,” he said.

“For us, that’s why it’s so much more, so much bigger than basketball.”

The team are a mix of players with South Sudanese heritage and those born in the country.

Forward Nuni Omot was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, where his parents spent three years after travelling more than 400 miles to flee civil war in Ethiopia.

Two of the squad play in the United States, while the others are scattered around the world playing in leagues in Australia, Denmark, Taiwan, France, Belarus and Senegal.

American-born head coach Royal Ivey is an assistant for the Houston Rockets in the NBA.

The impetus for the team came from Luol Deng, a former NBA player who was born in Sudan and raised in London after his father, a former Sudanese government minister and political prisoner, was granted asylum by the United Kingdom.

Deng spent 15 years in the NBA before becoming president of South Sudan’s basketball federation after he retired.

– National unity –

The team played their first official international game only six years ago, but Kuany says they have captured the South Sudanese public’s imagination, with crowds gathering to watch their team on giant screens in the capital Juba.

“The reason why this is so important and means a lot is because we have so much division, a lot of trouble and a lot of conflict going on in our country,” he said.

“Whenever the basketball team plays, it’s literally the only time that everybody comes together.

“There’s no more tribes — ‘I’m from so-and-so region’ — everyone is wearing the same flag and that’s South Sudan.”

The team’s first-round results mean they are out of title contention but they can still grab a spot at the Paris Olympics if they finish as the tournament’s highest-placed African team.

That would be a remarkable achievement for a team whose only previous international tournament was the 2021 African championships.

Guard Sunday Dech, who was born in Ethiopia and moved to Australia as a child, believes the team is only just getting started.

“We’re not satisfied, we want to keep going and it’s going to be piece by piece,” he said.

“We’ll come back stronger and better for tomorrow’s game and the next game after that and the tournament after that too.”

South Sudan play co-hosts the Philippines in their first game in the classification round on Thursday.

Regardless of the result, Ivey says they are already winning the battle for hearts and minds.

“They come together, they unite, and through basketball we share the vision of camaraderie, friendship, love, sportsmanship, togetherness,” he said.

“That’s what my players emulate every day when they step out on that court.”

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