MANILA, Philippines (AFP) — South Sudan has lurched from one crisis to another since winning independence in 2011, but its basketball team is determined to “change the narrative” on the world stage.
The Bright Stars are competing at the Basketball World Cup, currently taking place in the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia, and have won plaudits for their dynamic play and positive attitude on and off the court.
Playing in the tournament for the first time, they pulled off a historic win when they beat basketball-obsessed China 89-69 in their second game.
Their hopes of reaching the second round ended after a defeat to Serbia on Wednesday, but they still have the chance to claim a qualifying spot at next year’s Paris Olympics.
Bright Stars skipper Kuany Ngor Kuany, who was born in South Sudan but moved to Australia as a nine-year-old, said the tournament was “a tool to promote the image of our country.”
“We’re literally one, that’s what this basketball team stands for — for unity, a pathway for peace and development in the country, and just a way to change the narrative,” he said.
“For us, that’s why it’s so much more, so much bigger than basketball.”
The team are a mix of players with South Sudanese heritage and those born in the country.
Forward Nuni Omot was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, where his parents spent three years after travelling more than 400 miles to flee civil war in Ethiopia.
Two of the squad played in the United States, while the others are scattered around the world playing in leagues in Australia, Denmark, Taiwan, France, Belarus and Senegal.
American-born head coach Royal Ivey is an assistant for the Houston Rockets in the National Basketball Association.
The impetus for the team came from Luol Deng, a former NBA player who was born in Sudan and raised in London after his father, a former Sudanese government minister and political prisoner, was granted asylum by the United Kingdom.
Deng spent 15 years in the NBA before becoming president of South Sudan’s basketball federation after he retired.
The team played its first official international game only six years ago, but Kuany said they have captured the South Sudanese public’s imagination, with crowds gathering to watch their team on giant screens in the capital Juba.
“The reason why this is so important and means a lot is because we have so much division, a lot of trouble and a lot of conflict going on in our country,” he said.
“Whenever the basketball team plays, it’s literally the only time that everybody comes together.”