The FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 has seen South Sudan capture the admiration of fans. But this fledgling nation’s journey onto the global stage wouldn’t have been possible without the dedication of its driving force – Luol Deng.
On August 28, South Sudan made history at the World Cup by defeating China 89-69, marking their very first victory on the international scene.
“It means the world. Yes, it’s basketball, but it’s a sport we deeply care about and want to foster. As a new country, we’ve faced our share of challenges, but this World Cup gives us a platform to stand alongside everyone else. We can finally claim it as our own and celebrate,” shared Deng, who’s currently serving as an assistant coach for South Sudan in Manila.
Deng stands as one of the most notable basketball figures from South Sudan – alongside former NBA star Manute Bol, whose likeness is featured in the emblem of the South Sudanese federation. Deng himself boasts an extensive NBA career spanning 15 years across 5 NBA teams, and he also represented Great Britain on the international stage.
Deng participated in the 2012 Olympics and played in two FIBA EuroBaskets for the British team, as he held a passport due to his family’s relocation to London after escaping the conflict in Sudan when he was just 5 years old, and then later moving to Egypt.
However, after South Sudan gained independence on July 9, 2011, and became a member of FIBA on November 24, 2013, Deng took on a more active role. In November 2019, Deng was elected as the president of the South Sudan Basketball Federation (SSBF).
“Deng’s return is a significant step for South Sudan,” noted Marier Anyuat, the newly elected secretary general of the federation, as quoted by insidethegames.biz after Deng’s unanimous election. “Basketball is just a piece of what we’re capable of; there’s no limit for us.”
Deng and those aligned with his vision believed in the potential of sports to uplift South Sudan.
“We embraced an audacious vision of building our nation through sports, representing South Sudan globally and nurturing the sport across the nation. Our journey reflects the challenges that come with pursuing a higher purpose,” Deng stated in the SSBF’s “More Than Basketball” report from July 2023.
Leveraging his connections in the basketball world, Deng united like-minded individuals who shared his vision.
“Luol Deng is the heart and soul of all of this. He is our president. Without Luol, I wouldn’t be here right now. He had a grand vision. I believed in his vision, and everything fell into place. It’s incredible to find myself here at the World Cup,” exclaimed South Sudan head coach Royal Ivey after their historic victory.
“He is reshaping his country’s path. He’s using basketball to inspire hope. It’s humbling to be part of this journey and witness the transformation happening in South Sudan due to our team’s success,” added assistant head coach Joe Mategna.
Mategna plays a pivotal role in the South Sudan coaching staff. The American has been a longtime head coach at Blair Academy High School in New Jersey. Both Deng and the Harlem, New York native Ivey played under Mategna in New Jersey.
Deng’s contributions to South Sudan’s World Cup journey extend beyond the scenes. He also coached the Bright Stars in two of the four windows of the African Qualifiers since Ivey was occupied as an NBA assistant coach. Deng had previously coached South Sudan in the FIBA AfroBasket 2021 Qualifiers as well.
Under Deng’s leadership, South Sudan’s progress has been remarkable. The team advanced from playing outdoors in Zone V AfroBasket Qualifiers to reaching the Quarter-Finals of their first FIBA AfroBasket in 2021. They also became the first nation to secure a World Cup spot in their debut attempt. The team has managed to attract NBA-level talents such as Weynen Gabriel and naturalized player Carlik Jones, with many other high-level players also linked to South Sudan.
Deng and his team still have a significant game against Serbia on Wednesday, August 30, with a chance to advance to the Second Round. The federation president believes the team is destined for greatness.
“We want to keep progressing. We are content with where we are and enthusiastic about our journey. I truly believe we can stand on the global stage alongside other basketball powerhouses. We possess abundant talent. Even more individuals are emerging, and there’s an abundance of talent in South Sudan. It’s about organizing and bringing it all together,” Deng affirmed.
“This is the initial stride. I genuinely believe basketball is a sport where we naturally excel and thrive, backed by determination. The challenge has been its organization. Nevertheless, I have faith in our team and our efforts.”
These words resonate as the authentic voice of a movement’s heart and soul.