KAILUA-KONA — The South Sudan players didn’t get too far off the court before being stopped to take a photo — then another, and another.
Within minutes, the team was scattered throughout Kekuaokalani Gymnasium following their lopsided victory at the World Youth Basketball Tournament on Saturday, posing for shots with their new fans.
That’s become a theme on the trip to the Big Island for the South Sudan boys, who became celebrities this week in Kona, taking over the town with their rim-rattling dunks, highlight reel handles and ear-to-ear smiles.
“Don’t worry. It doesn’t go to their heads,” South Sudan national team head coach Scotty Catt said, looking on with a smile. “They are celebrities everywhere they go, not just because of their play, but because of their demeanor.”
Catt is a basketball lifer. He was once a sharp-shooter on the court during his high school days in Arizona, but then moved on to coaching and scouting in various pro leagues, including some time in NBA. He was named to his current position with the South Sudan squad in 2017 after a rigorous interview process.
“I came in with a plan on how to make things work from a basketball perspective, an academic perspective and a socioeconomic perspective, Catt said. “We want to help these kids gain the skills so they can contribute to the economy in South Sudan and ultimately help their families.”
The bond between the humble group of teens transcends the basketball court, with all the players having links to South Sudan in some way. The African country is “home,” although most of the players now live in the United States and play at various prep schools.
However, Catt notes, many still have immediate family back in South Sudan.
“Most of them were born in South Sudan and fled almost immediately,” Catt said. “The majority of them have at least one parent still living there. Many of them live with guardians, and some of our kids haven’t seen their parents in years.”
Guard Mutdung Bol, a Division I prospect, said the team got to know each other at the Deng Camp two months ago. The camp was put on by NBA All-Star Luol Deng, who was born in what is now South Sudan but fled to the United Kingdom, where he started his journey to the pros.
“We bond through culture, we bond through the struggle and we bond through basketball,” Bol said. “It all adds up and our chemistry has grown every day.”
“We have this natural connection,” guard Bol Akot added. “We all get along off the court and are laughing all the time. We also know each other’s roles and know what we can do out there.”
Building through basketball
South Sudan is located in northeastern Africa and is slightly smaller than Texas. It’s the newest country in the world — independent since 2011 — but is also poverty-stricken, with constant conflict from a prolonged civil war. According to a 2018 State Department-funded study, more than 400,000 people have been killed and millions displaced during the conflicts.
Despite the turmoil, basketball has become a point of cultural pride in South Sudan, with much of the history of the sport being linked to former NBA big-man Manute Bol (no relation to Mutdung Bol).
Manute Bol died in 2010 of kidney failure, but his legacy still lives on through the sport in the country.
“He introduced the game,” Catt said of Manute Bol. “He sacrificed his time and he went to the refugee camps when things were really horrible. No running water, things like that. But he taught the game of basketball to the kids.”
Catt sets up a phone on a tripod for the games along the sideline so fans back in South Sudan can watch. The boys are celebrities there as well.
“I didn’t even know people back in South Sudan were watching us,” Mutdung Bol said. “When people told me that we’re kind of famous, it was just like fuel to the fire. It gives you more motivation to make it.”
Mutdung Bol and Akot both understand how fortunate they are to be able to play the game they love and get an education.
“(In South Sudan) they don’t have the same opportunities we have. There are kids hooping out there with no shoes and we got three or four pairs,” Mutdung Bol said. “My goal is to have a platform through basketball to be able to give back and inspire others.”
Akot, who plays his prep ball in New Hampshire, echoed that sentiment, saying that if he makes it big, the first thing he will do is buy his mom a house.
Eyes on the future
While the South Sudan squad’s play is flashy, their attire is not. The team wears reversible gym jerseys that might be seen in a high school PE class. There’s a reason for it.
“Those jerseys remind them of their roots,” Catt said. “There’s something to be said about not wearing anything nicer than our brothers and sisters in the South Sudan. We are wearing the same jerseys they are wearing and are united across the world.”
With lanky frames and long wingspans, many of the players resemble Manute Bol — especially when they reject opponents brave enough to drive into the paint.
Akot is a speedy point guard with an arsenal of dangerous moves that let him slash to the rim. He said he models his game after Kyrie Irving and Chirs Paul. He already has a few Division I offers on the table.
“In my opinion, he’s the best point guard in the country,” Catt said. “Regardless of where they’re from. He’s up there.”
Mutdung Bol attends high school in Washington and takes notes while watching Portland Trailblazer stars CJ McCollum and Damien Lillard.
“They are just like any other kid that loves basketball in America,” Catt said. “It’s KD, it’s LeBron — it’s all those guys that they model their games after. But then they also have this special flair that I think is uniquely East African. They play for the pride of the game. They play with so much heart. The idea of playing without heart is almost disgraceful — it’s something they don’t want to be a part of. That’s been one of the greatest things for me as a coach, to know that these kids are going to come and play hard every day. It’s something deeper. It’s part of their culture and national pride. Their motto is to build the game to help build a nation inside South Sudan.”
Earlier this year, the NBA announced “The Basketball Africa League.” According to a release, the initial plan is for the 12-team league to begin play in January.
NBA and FIBA’s involvement will include financial support and resources toward continued growth of the game on the continent, as well as providing training for players, coaches and referees and some infrastructure for the new league.
Some of the NBA’s brightest stars have roots in Africa. Pascal Siakam of the NBA champion Raptors was born in Cameroon, as was 76ers All-Star center Joel Embiid. Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka are both from Democratic Republic of the Congo, while reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks was born in Greece to Nigerian parents.
The prospect of the new league in Africa has Catt excited about the future.
“I’m biased, but I think we have the best players in Africa,” Catt said of South Sudan.
Doing more with less
Over its two-decade history, WYBT has hosted teams from all over the world, some that have featured future NBA talent like Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut and J.R. Smith. But the energy the South Sudan team has brought has been unlike anything the tournament has seen.
Catt said the South Sudan Basketball Association is a nonprofit group and they were able to make the trip to Hawaii through generous donations. He noted the South Sudan government does not provide any assistance.
The team hasn’t had a car during the tournament and they walked from the gym to Panda Express at Kona Commons following their game. The African team stands out quite a bit in Kona, and along the way they were stopped by passers-by who want to know how tall they are. When the boys were eating, people came up and asked for photos. They happily obliged.
“It’s just constant,” Catt said with a laugh.
The team had some gift cards to spend, which meant a good meal and some AC to relax in before trying to get back to their rental unit just off Kuakini Highway. Luckily, someone they met had a truck and gave all the boys a ride back, saving them another long walk in the summer heat.
“The people here are so nice,” Catt said of the Aloha Spirit the team has experienced. “It’s been awesome.”
The team wraps up play today at Kekuaokalani Gym against The New Zealand Knights at 12:45 p.m.
Those looking to know more about the team or to donate can reach out to coach Catt at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit teamsouthsudan.com.