September 02, 2023 (GMN) – South Sudan has made history by winning their first FIBA World Cup game and by qualifying for the Paris 2024 Olympics.
It was a chant that Luol Deng waited years to lead. He stood along the side of the South Sudan locker room after their run in the World Cup was over, cupped his hands around his mouth, and yelled the same thing, over and over. “Where are we going'?” he shouted.
“Paris,” the players all responded.
On September 02, 2023, in the Philippine capital, Manila, the world’s youngest nation secured its first Olympic basketball berth after beating Angola 101-78 to clinch the lone FIBA Africa direct qualification spot at Paris 2024.
“We earned it,” said Royal Ivey, the Bright Stars head coach at a press conference after defeating host country Philippines in the classification round.
“We competed from zone five in the Afrobasket qualifiers to now, my guys are resilient, they know how to work, they push forward, they fought day-in, day-out, and we got here because of the hard work and the sweat that we put in every day. Now we’re reaping the rewards, so it’s not over.”
In its first participation in the Africa qualifiers, the nation of about 11 million people – barely a decade old at that time shocked the continent by topping the both first and second rounds to clinch a maiden World Cup berth.
Ranked 62nd in the world only being independent for 12 years, now ranked number one in Africa South Sudan impressed with a strong start to their campaign against Puerto Rico before the Caribbeans rallied to secure an overtime win, 101-96.
The team kept their hopes up and made history with a dominant 89-69 win over 20th-ranked China before bowing out of contention for the second round with an 83-115 loss to sixth-ranked Serbia.
Despite falling short and getting relegated to the classification round, the experience has been positive for South Sudan.
“It’s our first time playing at a World Cup and having the national team come this far, it’s been great for us and just seeing the potential we have, I think the sky’s the limit for us,” Bright Stars leading scorer Carlik Jones of the Chicago Bulls.
Despite the fact that South Sudanese stars such as Luol Deng and Manute Bol had reached the NBA, becoming contenders in world basketball meant building from scratch.
In 2019, former Chicago Bulls star Deng became the president of the South Sudan Basketball Federation. With no indoor basketball arena in the country, Deng had his work cut out for him.
The two-time NBA All-Star personally recruited South Sudanese players from the diaspora and briefly coached the team before appointing Royal Ivey, currently an assistant coach in the Houston Rockets, to steer the team in the 2021 AfroBasket tournament and the World Cup.
It’s this basketball culture that Deng set out to instill that allowed the country’s best players to catch onto the dream.
According to team captain Kuany Kuany, players like Sunday Dech, Majok Deng, and Deng Acuoth, were approached to play for world number three side Australia, yet they chose to join the Bright Stars.
Because of Deng’s strong foundations, new players like reigning NBA G-League MVP Jones and Los Angeles Lakers’ Wenyen Gabriel were able to easily develop chemistry with the squad, despite only playing with the team for the first time in the World Cup.
“We’re playing for what’s at the front of our jerseys South Sudan and not for the name at the back. That’s what makes it so easy to help lead this team because everybody just loves the idea of winning. Nobody wants to make it about themselves.”
In the World Cup, the Bright Stars waved the South Sudan flag featuring the slogan “more than basketball” as they called for peace and unity in their conflict-ridden home.
After declaring independence in 2011, South Sudan was plagued with civil war that displaced more than four million people because of violence and famine.
Deng's vision when he founded the national team about a decade ago was to use basketball as a beacon of hope for his homeland. And his vision never seemed more real than qualifying for 2024 Olympics in Paris.
Marial Shayok scored 18, Nuni Omot the reigning MVP of the NBA-backed Basketball Africa League scored 17 and Wenyen Gabriel added 15 for South Sudan (3-2).