JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — On his first trip to war-torn South Sudan, Masai Ujiri, president of the Toronto Raptors basketball team, said he came to encourage the country's youth.
"You can come from anywhere in the world and you can become something," he told The Associated Press is the message he's giving South Sudan's young athletes.
Ujiri, a dual Nigerian-British citizen whose Canadian team won the NBA championship for the first time this year, is also founder of Giants of Africa, a non-profit organization to empower Africa's youth through basketball. The program's three-day training camp in South Sudan is led by professional coaches and scouts, many from Africa, and is aimed at teaching basketball skills and leadership. The training camp is eagerly attended by 50 mostly South Sudanese boys, aged from 14 to 18, who are equipped with uniforms, shoes and bags and encouraged to focus on sport, even as the country struggles to sustain a shaky peace.
Standing in the middle of the court in South Sudan's capital, Juba, while young players tirelessly sprinted around him, Ujiri said it's time to "erase the narrative" that sports cannot be promoted in South Sudan, as it slowly emerges from five years of civil war that killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions.
Huddled in circles on the court during a break from layup and dribbling exercises, the young players get pep talks from the coaches. Pumping their fists in the air, one group shouts "We are giants!" as another band eagerly shares career goals with their trainers.
"I'm here to go to the NBA because I want to have a better future," said James Mabor, wiping sweat from his face. The 16-year-old's been playing power forward for three years and wants to learn how to become a better shooter and defender.
Since the program's start in 2003, more than 80 South Sudanese campers have gone on to high school or university in the United States, more than 100 went to university in Nigeria and nearly 20 have played on junior teams in clubs throughout Europe, according to the organization.
Three South Sudanese currently play in the NBA: Thon Maker with the Detroit Pistons, Wenyen Gabriel with the Sacramento Kings and Deng Adel with the Brooklyn Nets. Two-time NBA All-Star Luol Deng, who was born in South Sudan but grew up in London, has played for the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers. He was with the Timberwolves last season but is currently unsigned heading into next season.
The late Manute Bol, who played in the NBA for a decade in the 1980s and 1990s, was one of the tallest players in the league's history at 7 feet 7 inches and known as one of the best blockers. Manute's son, Bol Bol, was drafted to the NBA this year by the Denver Nuggets.
The South Sudan Basketball Federation wants to brand the nation as a "basketball powerhouse,"Acuil Banggol, secretary general for the organization, told the AP. Yet the country's still grappling with implementing a shaky peace deal signed in September. The power sharing agreement's been fraught with delays and key elements have yet to be realized before opposition leader Riek Machar is expected to return in November and assume his position as President Salva Kiir's deputy.
Even though the budget for the ministry of sports, culture and youth increased slightly this year from less than $5 million to almost $7 million — more than 50% of which pays salaries — it's still not enough, undersecretary for the ministry Kuac Wek told the AP.
"Sports can help sensitize youth on peace and friendship and help discover their potential ... But sports are expensive and to budget them needs more effort," he said.
South Sudan's national basketball team was unable to compete in the qualifying competition for the World Cup in China, which starts this weekend, due to a lack of funds, according to the Basketball Federation. It's hoping to have enough money to try in 2021.
It's hard for aspiring players in South Sudan who want to learn the game. There are less than 10 basketball courts in the country and the continuing conflict has hindered the development of basketball outside Juba.
South Sudanese who have played college basketball in the United States say the game is integral in teaching young people to become confident leaders, yet some are divided as to whether the country is ready.
"The time is now," said Sara Chan, a professional South Sudanese basketball player who played for the Lady Bulldogs at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and now coaches players in Giants Of Africa. "We can play without hearing any gunshots. Nothing's exploding, no one's dropping any bombs anywhere. We have peace."
Denay J. Chagor, chairman of the South Sudan Opposition Alliance, is more cautious. Chagor, who played basketball for the Wisconsin Badgers and has been closely involved with the peace process, said South Sudan's volatility hampers young people from devoting themselves to sport.
"They are still being chased by guns," he said.