MANILA, Philippines — In an indelible moment of this FIBA World Cup, South Sudan earned the nation’s first Olympic berth in any sport Saturday and did so with a team filled with refugees and the children of refugees from the war-torn nation.
The Bright Stars, as they are known, won the bid allotted for Africa with a 101-78 victory over Angola, triggering tears and hugs from players as several dozen fans waved the young country’s flag.
They won the prize with a 3-2 record in Manila to outlast all other African teams just three years after former NBA All-Star Luol Deng took over the program, which he has largely funded personally and filled by recruiting players with South Sudanese heritage.
“It’s an unbelievable story. It’s an underdog story that, not just for the South Sudanese, not just for Africa, but for the rest of the world,” Deng said as he fought off tears. “It’s a feel-good story that majority of people can relate to. It’s such a unique achievement because it’s beyond basketball.”
Japan also joined the Olympic field Saturday as the highest-ranked World Cup team from Asia, clinching its bid with an 80-71 win over Cape Verde.
Three summers ago, Deng tapped former NBA player and longtime friend Royal Ivey to be the team’s head coach. Ivey, an assistant with the Houston Rockets, started practices on concrete floors and outdoor courts that were sometimes flooded.
The team practiced and played in places from Kenya to Tunisia to Australia to earn World Cup qualification for the first time and open the door for the achievement.
“It’s been a humbling journey. I had heartaches, I have a lot of ebbs and flows, and it’s a great feeling right now,” said Ivey, a 10-year NBA veteran who mentored Deng when he came to the same high school in New Jersey. “A year ago we were practicing outside with eagles flying around while we were practicing and the courts were flooded. Like to go from there to come and play in front of these fans in the Philippines, and I’m on cloud nine right now.”
The team is loaded with inspirational stories beyond Deng, whose family left Sudan for England when he was a child. Since the mid-1950s, there has been a series of civil wars in Sudan and South Sudan, which became independent in 2011, that have displaced millions.
NBA player Wenyen Gabriel, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds Saturday, was born in Sudan, but his family fled to Egypt when he was 2 weeks old. He later came to Manchester, New Hampshire, one of the sanctuary cities that took in many of his teammates.
Nuni Omot, who had 17 points in the victory, was born in a Sudanese refugee camp in Kenya before later moving to Minnesota. He played in the NBA G League last season.
Kacuol Jok, who had three points in the game, was born in Sudan before his family fled to Uganda after both his grandfather and father were killed in civil wars. He eventually moved to Des Moines, Iowa, and later starred at the University of Iowa.
One of the stories of the tournament was 7-foot-2 16-year-old Khaman Maluach, who is already regarded as a prospect for the 2025 NBA draft. Maluach, who had five points and four rebounds against Angola, was a refugee living in Uganda when he was discovered and has been developing at NBA Academy Africa in Senegal.
“This has been like a movie,” Maluach said.
Numerous other players were from families that moved to the U.S., Australia or Canada. Most of the team came together this summer, as just six players had played for the national team in past competitions.
“It’s been amazing; it’s all a new experience for everybody,” said former Philadelphia 76er Marial Shayok, who had 18 points in the win. “It’s a new country, it’s a new team, and we’re all just trying to take it all in as a group and just kind of grow together.”
Guard Carlik Jones, who plays for the Chicago Bulls and was the G League Player of the Year last season for the Windy City Bulls, has been one of the stars of the World Cup. He finished it off with 26 points and a record-tying 15 assists.
And he will be taking his game to Paris next year, where South Sudan will be one of just 12 teams that qualify.
“It means the world, it means the world to the people back home,” said Jones, who was born in Cincinnati to Sudanese parents. “It’s just a blessing.”