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South Sudan’s men basketball team on the cusp of FIBA World Cup history

Africa’s youngest country, the Republic of South Sudan, could soon make basketball history. Competing for qualification to the FIBA World Cup to be held from August to September 2023 in the Asian tri-nations of Indonesia, Japan, and the Philippines, the ‘Bright Stars’ are one game away from joining four other African representatives in the tournament.

Under the stewardship of former NBA star Luol Deng, South Sudan’s Bright Stars have defied skeptics by winning all but one of the nine qualifying games in the Africa FIBA Basketball qualifiers.

Known for having the tallest people in Africa, South Sudan has a rich history in the game of basketball. The second player of African origin and joint tallest player in the NBA league, the late Manute Bol drafted in 1985, had roots here. His feats in the mid-1980s and early 1990s saw many young Sudanese develop an interest in basketball. Upon his retirement, he returned home and was actively involved in the liberation war of South Sudan from the greater Sudan. He opened the way for many other players of Sudanese origin, including the current South Sudan Basketball Federation President Luol Deng.

In recognition of his efforts, Deng was in July awarded the Order of the British Empire for his involvement and efforts in basketball — having dual citizenship of English and South Sudanese origin. This cements his efforts in building the game beyond his club playing and national boundaries.

The Sudanese former basketball players formed the South Sudan Basketball Federation in 2011 and became part of FIBA in December 2013. Because of the lack of infrastructure in Juba and other towns, most of the players plied their trade abroad. The Federation has been working on developing a competitive league for both men and women players.  

Road to the World Cup

In January 2020, the Bright Stars lost to Kenya in the FIBA Afrobasket qualifiers, but they quickly bounced back to become frontrunners in the World Cup tournament. Prior to the loss, the team had won four of its previous games. In November 2020, an opportunity arose to qualify for the Afrobasket tournament after Algeria withdrew because of COVID-19 fears. The African Basketball Invitational featured Cape Verde, Chad, and South Sudan, which won to qualify for the Afrobasket in 2021.

Deng took up the responsibility of assembling the young players, many of whom played abroad to develop a competitive team. Using the FastScout Pro tool, the team has been growing strong, becoming major contenders to play in the World Cup. The FastScout Pro tool is a platform developed to track the performance of players during their games, providing managers and the technical bench with data to use in deciding on plays, and how to approach different games.  

Going into the next window of qualifiers expected to be played in November this year, the South Sudanese team ranks first in Africa in FIBA Power Rankings. Some players on the national team also play for the South Sudanese basketball league team, Cobra Sport. The team took part in the 2022 Basketball Africa League — a collaboration of FIBA and NBA to develop homegrown talent from the African continent and showcase this to the world. The team includes talented players such as Padiet Wang, who plays as a guard, coming off the bench to make an impact on the court, Deng Ring playing for Newfound Rangers in Canada and Nuni Omot playing the game in Puerto Rico after briefly playing for the Golden State Warriors and Brooklyn Nets in the NBA Summer League.

A Hero’s Welcome

Coming home from the Window 4 World Cup qualifiers, the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, hosted the team to a hero’s welcome on its return. The qualifiers are the fourth round of games for teams from Africa looking to qualify for the World Cup. The final round will have Window 5 qualifiers in November.

The international Basketball Federation (FIBA) via their Twitter handle, declared the Bright Stars as standing on the cusp of glory;

Activities at the Juba International Airport almost came to a standstill as family, friends, and fans of their beloved basketball team landed. Padiet Wang, a player on the team, captured and posted the jubilant celebrations on his Instagram page.

As the final Window 5 comes up from February 24 to 26, 2023, the Bright Stars will look to qualify for the World Cup for the first time as the youngest democratic republic in the world.

Source: Global Voices