Gunshots, death, the smell of dead bodies, famine, the constant reminder that mortality is around the corner are just some of the things that everyday civilians experience in the South Sudan, which is torn apart due to a civil war that has killed an estimated 1.9 civilians between 1992-1995. According to UNICEF, an estimated 16,000 children have been used by armed forces in the region. Despite these harsh realities, South Sudan has given birth to basketball legends such as the late Manute Bol and current NBA players Luol Deng and Thon Maker.
Both Deng, and Maker both left South Sudan at an early age to escape the living hell that they faced on a daily basis. The civil war has killed millions of people and has displaced thousands more, with daily atrocities of rape and humanitarian crimes. According to the UN, as much of 100,000 people are on the brink of starvation.
“I left when I was five so I don’t remember much about it. I still have family there and I visit every summer,” says Deng.
Maker, like Deng, fled South Sudan with his siblings and other relatives.
“I didn’t get to see much of my homeland because I was young when I left. It’s always going to be an in-country battle that’s not going away for a while, we just have to push for peace as much as possible,” says Maker.
Deng’s father, Aldo Deng, was elected to the Sudanese parliament in 1967, a role he served until the 1980s. During this time, he served various roles throughout the Sudanese government. During a military coup in 1988 when Deng was five years old, the elder Deng was held captive by a faction trying to overthrow the government. During the previous year, he sent his wife and his children to live in Egypt as refugees as a way to escape the growing political unrest. Eventually, the Deng family would seek political asylum in England before they became British citizens.
“I remember when we were in Egypt as refugees. It was tough, but there was always hope, hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Deng says.
Maker, his younger brother and their aunt had a similar experience as they escaped their horrid environment, and were sent to Australia where they were accepted as refugees. The experience that Maker’s family went through had a lasting impression that still affects him to this day.
“It makes you stronger. It’s not a lot of stuff there, so you have to find a way to make something of yourself when you get a chance like I had to play basketball—you have to take advantage of it,” says Maker.
Pain was the driving force that forced these players out of their country in search of a better life, and in a strange way it’s also the fuel that powers them as basketball players.
Before they found their niche as basketball players, Maker and Deng were talented soccer players in England and Australia, respectively. But even after escaping the tumultuous situations in their new countries as refugees, they were still faced with daily racism.
“For me, I had a close family. There were others like me who were going through a lot of rough times so we always came together. It was understood that we would overcome hate, as long as you surround yourself with love and what’s real,” says Deng. “You’ll recognize that hate is nothing and you’ll come out tougher and stronger no matter what is being said against you.”
“It makes you stronger. It’s not a lot of stuff there, so you have to find a way to make something of yourself when you get a chance like I had to play basketball—you have to take advantage of it.”—Maker
Even after escaping conditions in South Sudan, people from countries such as these still experience exclusion with the recent controversial travel ban.
“I’m an immigrant and refugee so obviously I don’t like it. For me, I’m a British citizen,” says Deng of the travel ban of Muslim countries that has sparked national debate, outrage, and protest. “I went through a lot to have the life that I have now, but unfortunately I can’t vote and make a difference. All I can do is voice my opinion, and I know that some might disagree with me, but for me, all my opinions are coming from everything that I experienced and what I went through in my life, so sometimes it’s hard for me to speak from other people’s point of view. So all I can provide is what I believe.”
Despite the daily threat of racism, Deng found the strength to continue on a lesson he learned from South Sudan’s greatest basketball export, the late Manute Bol. Bol played in the NBA from 1985-1995, a 10-year career that included stops with the Sixers, Warriors and Heat.
“The best thing I learned from Manute was to be selfless. He was always about his people. He was about helping others,” says Deng. ‘A lot of us weren’t as lucky as he was, but his selflessness rubbed off on me at a young age, where now I find myself in a position where I can make a difference and help others.”
Bol, a shotblocking specialist, was seen as a global ambassador to the game of basketball. His presence, alongside programs such as Basketball Without Borders (which Deng has taken a part of), opened up the doors and introduced South Sudan to the game of basketball.
“For us as a nation, he did a lot. A lot of athletes look at him as an inspiration. Luol Deng is another guy that we look up to, but Manute did a lot of good things for us in terms of paving the way. You have to start somewhere and everything started with him. He changed the game and he expanded the game by playing well, and by showing versatility on both ends of the court,” says Maker. “He represented our country well. The kids saw that and everyone wanted to be like him.”
Bol’s inspiration and guidance would eventually lean Deng toward basketball. Bol taught Deng’s elder brother the game while they were refugees in Egypt. Deng would eventually hone his skills in London, where he garnered the attention of head coach Mike Krzyzewski, the legendary coach at Duke University. After a highly successful season at Duke, Deng entered the 2004 NBA Draft where he was selected seventh overall by the Phoenix Suns before having his draft rights traded to the Bulls. It was in Chicago where he experienced the most success, becoming a two-time All-Star and making it to the All-NBA Defensive Second Team.
Now in the twilight of his career, he’s passing on the lessons he learned from Bol to younger players like Maker who is blossoming into a potential NBA star in his own right.
By the time Maker picked up the game of basketball, he gained the attention of every major college scout. His shooting, passing and defensive ability for someone his size had college coaches knocking down his door. Maker would eventually become the first player since 2005 to bypass college altogether and enter the 2016 NBA Draft where he was drafted with the 10th pick in the first round by Milwaukee. In the midst of his second NBA season, Maker has been compared to Kevin Garnett. His work ethic and the amount of time he puts in the gym has people predicting future stardom for him.
But even as Deng and Maker have beat the odds and become success stories from the war-torn region, the humanitarian crisis in the South Sudan continue. The two are thankful, but they are using their fame and voice to raise awareness.
“It was understood that we would overcome hate, as long as you surround yourself with love and what’s real. You’ll recognize that hate is nothing and you’ll come out tougher and stronger no matter what is being said against you.”—Deng
“Things are getting better. There are still conflicts with a civil war, but hopefully things can be resolved so we can have peace,” says Deng. ‘I think the message from day one has been hope. People have been trying to do things individually, but the message is hope and we urge our leaders to do a better job. It takes better communication and understanding of what each side wants; not just in South Sudan but for Africa, in general. Our leaders have to start leading us and know that peace is the number one thing before anything.”
There are still thousands of people from South Sudan who are trying to flee the country in search of a better life. For the lucky few that make it, they have to make the most of their new opportunity and their new lease on life, because back in South Sudan there are many people who are hop“Life isn’t about things being fair, you have to seize an opportunity and take it. There are a lot of people in situations where life isn’t fair for them. You have to make the most of the situations that you’re in and use it to your advantage,” says Maker.