Behind former NBA forward Luol Deng’s coaching and charity, South Sudan basketball is on the rise
Along with Brooklyn Nets assistant Royal Ivey, the retired player has led the African nation to within one win of qualifying for the 2023 FIBA World Cup
As Luol Deng represented Great Britain during the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Games, he pondered what it would mean for his birth country of South Sudan to one day experience similar pride.
Deng is president of the Republic of South Sudan Basketball Federation and is also on its coaching staff. South Sudan is one win away from qualifying for the 2023 FIBA World Cup, which would be a first for Africa’s youngest country. The Bright Stars need to win just one of three games against other African countries from Feb. 24-Feb. 26, 2023, in Egypt to qualify for the tournament showcasing the world’s top men’s basketball teams. Qualifying for the World Cup could also eventually open the door for the first Olympic berth for war-ravaged South Sudan.
“It is going to be very emotional,” Deng said of qualifying for the World Cup. “And what’s so great about it, I always knew that we are capable of doing it. But seeing it and making it happen, honestly, it’s something that will never be taken away if we make it. And also, it gives us a great opportunity to have a chance to make it to the Olympics because out of the five teams that go from Africa, the team with the best record in the World Cup automatically goes to the Olympics and then the other four teams will play out the last spot because two teams will go to the Olympics.
“So, for us, there’s a chance to go to the World Cup, there’s a chance to have the best African team record and then there’s a chance to play. So it gives us three chances really to make it to the Olympics. I want to make it the Olympics and have our South Sudan flag at the opening ceremony like I did with the Great Britain team.”
Deng will be in Chicago on Friday where he used to play for the Chicago Bulls to host a private fundraiser for the Luol Deng Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit organization that “creates pathways to opportunity through sport and development,” according to its website, in Africa, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The foundation also has charitable programs that aid youths in education and sport, people with disabilities, people with mental health problems, poor people and men’s and women’s basketball programs in South Sudan.
“The South Sudan basketball team is a story that I’m sharing with everyone,” Deng said. “But some of this money obviously will go to the Deng Academy, which is separate from the federation. It will go to bringing in more wheelchairs. Doctors within our borders that come to perform surgeries in different villages. It will go into South Sudan to tackle things like mental health issues. That’s a big issue in our South Sudanese community.
“People who fled South Sudan as refugees are still affected by the war, but the attention is never shown to them or how to help them. [Proceeds will] go into different platforms of the foundation.”
Deng was born in Wau, South Sudan, on April 16, 1985, as the eighth of nine children of Christian parents Aldo Ajou Deng and Martha Leon Jon. Aldo Deng was a wealthy landowner who served as provincial governor, deputy speaker, minister of culture, minister of irrigation, minister of transportation, and deputy prime minister in the Sudanese government from 1967 to 1989. Deng’s family history is strong in South Sudan.
“My grandfather was the chief of my village,” Deng said. “He founded the village that we are from. My dad became the chief and my older brother has the right to be chief. We also have so many relatives in Sudan. My dad was very close with John Garang [a revolutionary who he led the Sudan’s People Liberation Army]. And when the revolution started, my dad was part of it. So, my dad’s whole life, [he] dedicated it to South Sudan and then helping South Sudan gain into the government and fighting for the rights of South Sudanese.
“And for me, I have family and friends that are still in South Sudan. So, when I say that I’m very involved in South Sudan, it’s not just that I’m from South Sudan. I’m not far from the individuals that had a lot to do with South Sudan becoming what it is today.”
The Second Sudanese Civil War between the central Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army took place from 1983 to 2005. In 1989, Omar al-Bashir led a military coup that took control of the government. Aldo Deng was arrested at gunpoint and imprisoned for three months before being released on the condition that he negotiate peace between the Christian South and the Muslim North, according to The Guardian.
Deng recalls his father sending his mother and their children to Alexandria, Egypt, in 1988 for what he was told was “a vacation,” but it was really a precaution because of the war. On Dec. 15, 1993, Aldo Deng was given political asylum and left Khartoum for London shortly after. He eventually was able to bring his family to London, Deng said, when he was 10 years old.
“When my dad was put into exile, that was pretty much it for us, knowing that we could never ever go back at the time,” Deng said. “So, we had to just figure out how we’re going to live our life as refugees in Egypt. And basically, being in exile, my dad was in Egypt trying to figure out how he could bring us. My dad was in the U.K. trying to figure out how he could bring his family to the U.K. and that ended up taking him five to six years. My dad and my mom were in the U.K. [from when] I was 4½ until I was 10½. I was without my parents. It was just me and my brothers and sisters.”
While refugees in Egypt, two of Deng’s older brothers learned how to play basketball from then-NBA center Manute Bol. Deng said the 7-foot-7 shot-blocker regularly visited a church he and his siblings attended in Egypt that aided Sudanese refugees. Bol was known for visiting Sudanese refugee camps.
After Bol’s tutelage, one of Deng’s brothers taught Deng how to play basketball. The Deng brothers also used to watch Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan’s popular Come Fly with Me VCR tape to get more basketball education and motivation. Deng played basketball in London and a prep school in New Jersey before earning a scholarship to play for Duke University. The two-time NBA star also played for the Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Deng credits Bol for getting him connected to basketball.
“When Manute started coming and training us, my oldest brother especially took it to heart, everything Manute was teaching him,” Deng said. “[My brother] would grab me and my friends and he would take us to the court, and we would do exactly the same drills. Manute would teach him how to do a layup, how to dribble between the legs, behind the back, how to shoot. And my brother started teaching me that and I was 7 at the time.
“And from then, I was always listening to them and following, so it really helped me a lot because my brother was coaching me almost as if he believed that I could be the one. Every day we were doing drills and drills and drills. That’s really how it started for me.”
Bol was much more known for his humanitarian work in Sudan than his 10-year NBA career. He was an advisory board member of Sudan Sunrise, which promotes reconciliation in Sudan, and had a goal of building 41 schools in South Sudan. Bol established the Ring True Foundation to fundraise for Sudanese and gave most of his NBA earnings to aid the charity.
Bol died on June 19, 2010, at age 47 in a hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he was being treated for severe kidney trouble and painful skin condition known as Stevens-Johnson syndrome.
“Forget a basketball legend, he was a guy who was in the thick of things, funding the government as much as he can for us to win our independence,” Deng said.
Deng has definitely taken the torch from Bol in helping South Sudan.
Deng honored Bol by naming an outdoor court he had made in Juba, South Sudan, where more than 1,000 kids have learned basketball. Deng has a co-curriculum basketball program in Juba and London and is committed to gender equity with a number of girls in the program. He rebuilt a school in South Sudan originally built by his grandfather in 1972. The foundation’s Wheels of Hope provides close to 1,000 people living with disabilities receive wheelchairs, walkers, canes, and crutches. With the help of its partners, the foundation also helps poor people in South Sudan when they are in dire need.
“We have an academy in South Sudan that has almost 2,000 kids and we’ve put over 300 kids on scholarships,” Deng said. “Some of them have gone to become doctors or doing something else other than basketball. We have kids who are still in school now through scholarships and my basketball camp for South Sudanese kids in the U.S.”
In 2010, Deng returned to South Sudan for the first time since departing as a refugee. In January 2011, he donated a portion of his NBA salary to pay for bus rides for the South Sudanese diaspora in need so they could vote for independence. South Sudan officially gained its independence on July 9, 2011.
Deng formed the South Sudan Basketball Federation in 2011 and was able to get the organization officially recognized by FIBA in December 2013. There is no notable basketball facility in South Sudan other than the outdoor basketball courts at his school in Juba. So, the South Sudanese team, made of mostly Australians and Americans with South Sudanese heritage, arrives early at game sites to practice before competing.
“Growing up, it always bothered me that it just couldn’t represent my country for a number of reasons, because of the war and not having a country fighting the civil war against the north,” Deng said. “I remember before I played for the British national team, I was asked to play for the Sudanese national team, and it was all run by people from the north and at the time there was a huge conflict in the country, so I declined it, and I represented Great Britain. I was thankful to have the opportunity, but it just wasn’t the same. So, it always been in the back of my mind.
“So, when I took over, I always felt that how much these players, South Sudanese kids, would appreciate it. Not only to get to represent their country and give back and feel the energy and the love from their people, but also uplift the nation.”
Deng was the first head coach for the South Sudan men’s basketball team. He hired Brooklyn Nets assistant coach and former NBA guard Royal Ivey as head coach on May 3, 2021, and remained on the Nets staff as an assistant coach. Ivey and Deng were prep school teammates at Blair Academy in New Jersey before they both went on to play college basketball. Ivey is coaching the South Sudan men’s basketball team for free.
“With how passionate Royal is, I knew that he would get these young men to play very, very hard,” Deng said. “And also, he never wanted anything for it. He just wants to coach. He never asked me for money. And he’s been the right fit in terms of Xs and Os winning but more importantly how he connects with all these young men off the court.”
Ivey aspires to be an NBA head coach one day, which is part of the reason he took the job.
“I took it for the experience, being a head coach, getting in reps, being in that hot seat, making executive decisions and just to validate myself, knowing that I could coach,” Ivey said.
South Sudan went a surprising 8-1 in FIBA African qualifiers for the World Cup. The Bright Stars came within one win of qualifying for the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup with an 85-65 win over Egypt in Monastir, Tunisia, on Aug. 28. Numerous fans came from South Sudan to offer boisterous support.
South Sudan returned home to a hero’s welcome, as a horde of fans greeted them enthusiastically at Juba International Airport, surrounding the plane after it landed in darkness. South Sudan president Salva Kiir also hosted the team for a celebration as well and was presented with a signed jersey.
“Going to South Sudan and meeting the president, just to be around there, just to sit in his presence, it was definitely humbling. The whole experience was humbling. Get off the plane, there’s thousands of people waiting for us,” Ivey said.
Kiir also surprised Ivey by giving him South Sudan citizenship.
“This past summer was my first time to Sudan,” Ivey said. “They treated me like a celebrity and gave me my citizenship. It was great meeting the president. And he said, ‘You’re not a Black American anymore. You’re an African now. You’re South Sudanese.’ So, to hear that, I almost broke out in tears. Getting a passport to the motherland in another country, that’s kind of dope.”
South Sudan will be going to Egypt to play three games in Group F of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 African Qualifiers in February. South Sudan must beat either Senegal, the Democratic Republic of Congo or host Egypt to qualify.
With Ivey busy with the Nets in February, Deng will coach South Sudan as it attempts to make basketball history for his country.
“Our chances are very high and we’re going to go in February and make history,” Deng said. “It’s going to be one of my biggest accomplishments just to see our nation finally recognized in a world event that is demonstrated in a positive way. South Sudan on TV has always been war or poverty or sanction or some type of conflict that’s going on. So, for our people, it will be the first time that as a team or as a nation, we are representing something positive, something that we achieved, something that we could cheer on instead of sad news consistently. And that was the goal to begin with.
“I’m superexcited. To have the opportunity to put it together and just see how it’s coming and also just seeing how happy the players are to finally have an opportunity to represent their country. It’s been an amazing journey so far.”
The 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup is hosted by Indonesia, Japan, and the Philippines. It will send seven directly qualified national teams to the 2024 Paris Olympics, including one from Africa. If South Sudan qualifies for the World Cup, Deng hopes to add players with ties to the NBA, such as Orlando Magic forward Bol Bol, Los Angeles Lakers center Wenyen Gabriel, G League Maine Celtics swingman Marial Shayok and G League Westchester Knicks forward Anunwa “Nuni” Omot to the roster.
Deng says that South Sudanese basketball fans are very fond of Bol Bol, the son of their beloved late legend Manute Bol. The 7-foot-2 Bol Bol is having a breakthrough season with the Magic, averaging 12.8 points and 7.5 rebounds.
“Bol Bol told me he wants to play,” Deng said. “Obviously, this window in February, he’s still in the NBA. So, when we make it to the World Cup, then we can come to Bol Bol and knock on his door again. But in the past, he wanted to play badly. I remember he got hurt, but he wanted to play. But for Bol Bol, for him to [play], he needs to understand that his father’s legacy was for Bol Bol to play. He doesn’t understand how much he’s loved, and I think he will as he gets older.
“But his dad is loved so much that right now Bol Bol is getting everybody in the country so excited. His games are being watched by every kid.”