JUBA, South Sudan — Like tens of thousands of his countrymen Luol Deng was made a refugee by Sudan’s decades of civil war.
Aged 5, his father moved him to Egypt and then from there to Britain. It was on the hardscrabble basketball courts of Brixton, south London, that Deng was noticed.
Partly it was his height — he is 6’8” — and partly it was his youth, but mostly it was his raw talent on the court and with the ball. Talent that Deng sees all around him on his return to South Sudan to celebrate his country’s long-awaited independence.
“I was watching some of those young kids today on that court,” he said after an exhibition training session and game organized by his Luol Deng Foundation and advocacy group the Enough Project.
“Some of the stuff they’re doing I’m shaking my head at how talented they are and I’m sure if they get the opportunity they’ll be doing what I’m doing or even better. I’m just excited,” he said.
Deng, 26, was welcomed as a hero by the kids and teenagers gathered at the cracked concrete basketball court out the back of a girls’ primary school in Juba, the new capital of the new country where everyone is reveling in the country's new independence.
“I’m very happy to be here,” he told the assembled youngsters of the ‘Bright Stars’ team.
Deng said South Sudan's independence on July 9 was “a big day, a very, very special day for all of us. It’s going to be a bright future.”
Enough Project founder John Prendergast praised Deng’s presence at South Sudan’s independence. “It’s a huge example to people all over the world, of somebody who’s got his priorities right,” said Prendergast.
“He’s a role model for South Sudan and all around the world. He could be doing anything he wants but has chosen to come here for this moment and bring the spotlight that he commands,” he added.
Deng made his name playing small forward for the Chicago Bulls and was named by U.S. President Barack Obama as his favorite player but he is not Sudan’s first international basketball star.
In the 1980s the late Manute Bol — an ethnic Dinka like Deng — was renowned as the tallest player in the NBA using his height to become a legendary shot-blocker.
“You know, if you draw a basketball player you draw a Sudanese or a Dinka and that’s exciting because they are tall, they’re coordinated, they’re athletic and that’s what the game of basketball needs,” Deng told GlobalPost.
“There’s a lot of talent and raw ability,” agreed Patrick Engelbrecht, a coach with NBA Africa, the league’s development arm, after watching the youngsters play. “They are blessed with the right physical attributes: their height, coordination, fluidity, their sheer size. The challenge is helping local coaches cultivate that talent,” he said.
Today the newly minted national team of South Sudan will face its first challenge in an exhibition match against neighbor Uganda. The game follows a football match between South Sudan and Kenya held on Sunday evening and is to mark the beginning of South Sudan’s forays onto the stage of world sports.
Many here hope that through sports South Sudan can create a new name for itself as something other than the world’s newest and poorest country, the result of decades of war and no development.
“We need to build the infrastructure and what’s exciting is that even at the highest levels of government there is a willingness to invest in basketball, they realize what the game can do in teaching the children the right values but also on the global stage,” said NBA Africa’s vice president Amadou Gallo Fall.
Although Deng will not play for South Sudan — he became a British citizen in 2006 and will be playing for Great Britain at the London Olympics next year — he will cheer on his countrymen as he did at independence.
“This is an exciting time … for everyone,” said Deng, “for the people, especially my parents and others who sacrificed so much for this day to come, so many who are not here with us. I’m just glad it’s happening now and I’m happy that independence and everything that everyone fought for was actually for something.”