Newborn nation rests hopes on ball game’s (very tall) shoulders

The Times of London
Juba, South Sudan

Juba hoops

The natural height of the South Sudanese could help the country to sporting fame (Times photographer, Tim Freccia)

He is one of Britain’s big hopes for the 2012 London Olympics. But Luol Deng, the British-Sudanese basketball star, returned to the country of his birth for independence celebrations and to try to inspire the new national team to victory in its first competitive match today.

Hopes are high that local enthusiasm for the game and the natural attributes of its vertiginously tall citizens could earn South Sudan a reputation as something other than the world’s newest and poorest country.

Despite challenges both internally and in conflicts with Khartoum in oil-rich border areas, the newborn country is keen to make a name for itself on the world stage. It hopes that basketball might be the key.

“If you draw a basketball player you draw a South Sudanese or a Dinka because they are tall, they’re co-ordinated, they’re athletic,” said Mr Deng, himself a member of the Dinka tribe.

Despite his 6ft 8in (2m) height, Mr Deng was dwarfed as he played with old friends and young children on a cracked court with drooping hoops in Juba, the new capital in a session organised by the Enough Project advocacy group and his Luol Deng Foundation.

Sudan’s most famous basketball star, the 7ft 7in Manute Bol, was the tallest player in the National Basketball Association (NBA) during the 1980s and 1990s. He could touch the rim of the net with his feet flat on the ground.

Mr Deng, 26, fled Sudan’s civil war with his family when he was 5. It was as a teenager on the courts of Brixton, South London, that his talent was spotted. He won a scholarship to the US where he found fame with the Chicago Bulls, fortune with a £50 million contract and a fan in President Obama.

Next year he will be the core of Britain’s Olympics basketball team, playing the small forward position. “The UK has done so much for me and my family, giving us the opportunity to be refugees there, so when I play for Great Britain that’s my way of giving back,” he told The Times on the banks of the Nile.

For now, however, his focus is the land of his birth. “My whole thing is letting people know I’m no different from them,” he said.

“I was watching some of those kids today and I’m shaking my head at how talented they are.”

Amadou Gallo Fall, the vice-president of the NBA Africa development wing, agreed. “You have an abundance of raw talent, so now we need to build the infrastructure. Within five years they’ll be up there competing,” he said.

South Sudan’s first challenge comes later today when the team takes on neighbouring Uganda in an exhibition game as part of the independence celebrations.

Officials hope that the sport might help to close some of the deep tribal rifts that cut across this diverse nation and threaten to derail progress.

“We hope to use sport as a means to end conflict,” Makuac Teny, the Sports Minister, said this month. “It can help to get the young people to compete in matches instead of fighting, and so to neutralise enmity between tribes.”