from Liam Santamaria at nbl.com.au:
With a trio of former NBL players leading from the front, South Sudan turned heads at last week’s FIBA AfroBasket 2021 Qualifiers in Rwanda.
The South Sudanese national team was added to the tournament as a last-minute replacement and, despite limited preparation, completed the initial round of group phase games with an impressive 2-1 record.
The squad, coached by two-time NBA All-Star Luol Deng and featuring a host of South Sudanese-Australians, lost their initial game to top-ranked Nigeria but bounced back to defeat both Mali and host country Rwanda.
Those results have placed South Sudan on the cusp of securing an historic first-ever qualification to AfroBasket, to be held next year.
Deng Acouth, who played 15 NBL games for Sydney and South East Melbourne over the past three seasons, was South Sudan’s leading scorer during the initial round of games, averaging 10 points per outing.
He was well-supported by a spread of solid contributors, including former Cairns Taipans and Sydney Kings wing Kuany Kuany and former Perth Wildcats forward Mathiang Muo.
The qualifiers will resume in February next year when each team will play another round of games against the same opponents, with the top three teams in each pool qualifying for the continental championship.
“Those two wins were huge,” Acouth told media over the weekend.
“It means a lot to us (but) we’re not going to look forward too much. We’ve still got three more games to go in this group so we’re not looking at the big tournament yet.”
Luol Deng, who played 15 seasons in the NBA, became the president of the South Sudan Basketball Federation twelve months ago and only took on the coaching role in the days leading up to the tournament. With the team desperately needing a coach and no time to find a suitable candidate, Deng stepped into the void.
“In life you don’t get (many) opportunities like this,” the former Chicago Bulls forward explained.
“I’m just happy that we put a team together and we’re able to come together and celebrate.”
In addition to Acouth, Kuany and Muo, Deng’s team features a number of other South Sudanese-Australians, including Emmanuel Malou, Mackuei Poundak, Bol Bak and Teny Puot as well as exciting youngster Jackson Makoi.
For all involved, the opportunity to represent South Sudan on the big stage was one not to be missed.
“We want to let people know that we belong here,” Deng told media in Rwanda.
“Each game for us is our biggest game. Some of these teams might have been here so many times and have experience. For us, every time we’ve hit the floor in our whole history we’ve never been seen on TV by our people from our country… Every game for us is something to cheer for. Even to see our flag up there and the national anthem, it makes us all proud.
“We want to change the story and the narrative about us. We want people to start talking about what we have and what we can bring to the table when it comes to basketball and AfroBasket.”
The two-time NBA All-Star has high hopes for what the world’s youngest sovereign state can achieve on the global basketball scene. For now, however, he is focused on putting one foot in front of the other on the path to long-term success.
“We have the talent,” Deng explained.
“There are a lot of countries that are searching for talent. They have the infrastructure and everything. We have the talent, we want the infrastructure. We want our players to be able to come home and train and not think ‘I can’t go home, I can’t train.’
“That’s the level we’ve got to get to. I think we’re going to get there but these are the steps that we’re taking to let people know that we love basketball and it’s a God-given talent.
“We didn’t ask to be this tall and someone created this game that we’re so good at so why not try to be the best at it? That’s our goal.”
The being said, it’s clear that for this group of men pulling on the South Sudanese jersey at the international level is about much more than basketball.
“I never had the opportunity to represent my country,” Deng added.
“Some of these guys left younger than me but the love that they have and the fact that they want to represent their country that speaks a lot for who they are.
“When I played basketball I wanted people to know that I’m South Sudanese. Right now we want people who are South Sudanese to be proud when they see us. (We want them) to talk about us and talk about our team.
“A lot of times when we say South Sudan, what comes into people’s mind is not what we want it. We want to change the narrative. Basketball is an opportunity for us to put that positive energy out there.”
Asked if he would consider lacing up his kicks and pulling on a jersey in the next round of qualifiers, the former NBA star was forthright in his response.
“My days playing are done but I can stay involved with these guys, for them to get that experience and express themselves,” he said.
“The energy in there today… I’ve been around a lot of professional teams in games that were import (but) we celebrated in there today like we won the championship.
“That’s just out of love because we’re in a place that we’ve never been before. That’s the amazing joy of it.”