Brian WindhorstESPN Senior Writer September 2, 2023, 8:49am ET4 minutes read
MANILA, Philippines – In an indelible moment this FIBA World Cup, South Sudan secured the country’s first Olympic berth in any sport on Saturday with a team full of refugees and the children of refugees from the war-torn country.
The Bright Stars, as they are known, won the African competition with a 101-78 victory over Angola, prompting tears and hugs from players while several dozen fans waved the young country’s flag.
They won the prize with a 3-2 record in Manila, outscoring all other African teams, just three years after former NBA all-star Luol Deng took over the program, which he funded largely personally and by recruiting players with South Sudanese roots has filled.
South Sudan heads to the Paris Olympics as the top African participant in the FIBA World Cup after beating Angola 101-78 on Saturday.AP
“It’s an incredible story. It’s an underdog story, not just for South Sudanese, not just for Africa, but for the rest of the world,” Deng said, fighting back tears. “It’s a feel-good story that most people can relate to. It’s such a unique accomplishment because it goes beyond basketball.”
Japan also entered the Olympic field on Saturday as the highest-placed World Cup team from Asia and secured the award with an 80:71 victory over Cape Verde.
Three summers ago, Deng named former NBA player and longtime friend Royal Ivey as the team’s head coach. Ivey, an assistant with the Houston Rockets, began practicing on concrete floors and outdoor courts that were sometimes flooded.
The team trained and played in locations from Kenya to Tunisia to Australia to qualify for the World Cup for the first time and open the door to that success.
“It was a humbling journey. I’ve had heartache, I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, and it’s a great feeling right now,” said Ivey, a 10-year NBA veteran who mentored Deng when he entered the same high school in New Jersey in 2019. “A year ago we were practicing outside with the eagles flying around while we were practicing and the courts were flooded. From then on, I’m happy to go and play in front of these fans in the Philippines, and I’m on cloud nine right now.” “
The team is full of inspiring stories beyond Deng, whose family left Sudan to move to England when he was a child. Since the mid-1950s, there have been a series of civil wars in Sudan and South Sudan, which became independent in 2011, displacing millions of people.
NBA player Wenyen Gabriel, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds on Saturday, was born in Sudan but his family fled to Egypt when he was just two weeks old. He later came to Manchester, New Hampshire, one of the sanctuary cities that welcomed many of his teammates.
Nuni Omot, who had 17 points in the win, was born in a Sudanese refugee camp in Kenya before later moving to Minnesota. He played in the NBA G League last season.
Kacuol Jok, who had three points in the game, was born in Sudan before his family fled to Uganda after both his grandfather and father were killed in civil wars. He eventually moved to Des Moines, Iowa, and later played at the University of Iowa.
One of the stories of the tournament was the 16-year-old Khaman Maluach, 1.90 meters tall, who is already considered a candidate for the 2025 NBA draft. Maluach, who had five points and four rebounds against Angola, was a refugee living in Uganda when he was discovered and has been developing at the NBA Academy Africa in Senegal.
“It was like a movie,” Maluach said.
Numerous other players came from families that moved to the USA, Australia or Canada. The majority of the team only came together this summer, as only six players had played for the national team in previous competitions.
“It was great; it’s all a new experience for everyone,” said former Philadelphia 76er Marial Shayok, who had 18 points in the win. “It’s a new country, it’s a new team, and we’re all just trying to figure it all out as a group and kind of grow together.”
Guard Carlik Jones, who plays for the Chicago Bulls and was the G League Player of the Year for the Windy City Bulls last season, was one of the stars of the World Cup. He finished the game with 26 points and a record-breaking 15 assists.
And he will take his game to Paris next year, where South Sudan will be one of just 12 teams to qualify.
“It means the world, it means the world to the people back home,” said Jones, who was born in Cincinnati to Sudanese parents. “It’s just a blessing.”