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South Sudan, world’s newest country, qualifies for Olympic men’s basketball after epic rise

South Sudan Basketball

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - AUGUST 30: Nuni Omot #1 (2R) of South Sudan celebrates with head coach Royal Ivey (R), Deng Acuoth #12 (L) and Dut Jok Kacuol #14 of South Sudan after sinking a three-pointer to end the third quarter during the FIBA Basketball World Cup Group B game against Serbia at Araneta Coliseum on August 30, 2023 in Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)

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South Sudan, the world’s newest nation (2011), qualified for the 2024 Olympic men’s basketball tournament.

South Sudan, ranked 62nd in the world, earned a spot in the 12-team tournament in Paris next year as the top African nation at the ongoing FIBA World Cup. It is the lowest-ranked team to qualify for an Olympic men’s tournament since at least 2004, according to FIBA.

The Bright Stars were the lone African team (out of five) to win three games at the World Cup, going 3-2 overall.

They clinched an Olympic berth after a 101-78 win over Angola, the record 11-time African champion, in their last game of the World Cup on Saturday.

FIBA WORLD CUP: Schedule, Results

One of the great moments in Olympic qualifying across all sports and years took place in the locker room. Luol Deng, the retired NBA All-Star and president of the nation’s basketball federation, led a chant: “Where we goin’?” he yelled. “Paris!” the players replied on repeat.

“A year ago, we were practicing outside with eagles flying around while we were practicing. The courts were flooded,” said head coach Royal Ivey, a former NBA player and University of Texas star. “I’m on cloud nine right now.”

South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in July 2011 and sent its first athlete to the Olympics in 2012 as an Independent Olympic Athlete competing under the Olympic Flag.

Before its independence, Sudan was the center of prolonged periods of conflict in the late 20th and early 21st century, during which an estimated 2.5 million died and many others fled the country.

In 2016, three South Sudan athletes competed at the Olympics under their nation’s flag for the first time. Two more competed at the Tokyo Games. One of its most famous native athletes was 7-foot-7 NBA center Manute Bol.

In November 2019, Deng became president of the federation. He was born in what is now South Sudan, taught basketball by Bol in Egypt and raised in London after his father — a former Sudanese government official and former political prisoner — was granted asylum by Great Britain.

If there is an indoor court anywhere in South Sudan, Deng doesn’t know where it is. He believes the country doesn’t have a single regulation-sized floor.

“It’s an unbelievable story,” Deng said Saturday. “It’s an underdog story, not just for South Sudanese, not just for Africa, but for the rest of the world. It’s a come-up story. It’s a feel-good story that majority of people can relate to. It’s such a unique achievement because it’s beyond basketball.”

Deng was the head coach in February 2021 when South Sudan qualified for its first African Championship (known as AfroBasket). South Sudan originally did not make it out of pre-qualifying after win-or-go-home defeats to Kenya and Cape Verde, then got into the qualifying tournament with five days to prepare after Algeria withdrew.

“Three years ago, when Luol Deng took over, became the president of the South Sudan basketball federation, we were starting in Nairobi, literally playing on concrete floor,” captain Kuany Kuany said. “I never thought that we would be here.”

Ivey succeeded Deng as head coach for the September-August 2021 AfroBasket, where the team lost in the quarterfinals. Ivey and Deng first bonded at Blair Academy in New Jersey as teenagers.

“Luol Deng is the heart and soul of all of this,” Ivey said after South Sudan beat China for its first World Cup win.

South Sudan went 11-1 in African qualifying for the World Cup to reach this tournament, where Ivey is again the head coach and Deng an assistant.

“When we play basketball, everything ceases,” Ivey said after a win over the Philippines on Thursday, when asked about fans back home. “Violence stops. Their eyes are on us.”

The roster includes Los Angeles Lakers big man Wenyen Gabriel (born in Sudan) and Chicago Bulls point guard Carlik Jones (born in Ohio and of South Sudanese descent, according to NBC Sports Chicago). On Thursday, Jones missed the first triple-double in tournament history by one rebound.

Plus, 16-year-old 7-footer Khaman Maluach, the third-youngest man to ever play in a FIBA World Cup, according to the South Sudan federation.

Also Saturday, Japan qualified for an Olympic men’s basketball tournament for the first time since 1976. It was the top Asian nation at the World Cup. Japan went 0-3 in group play at the Tokyo Games, when it got in as host nation without having to qualify.

Australia previously qualified for the Olympics. France gets in automatically as host nation. The top two teams from the Americans and Europe at the World Cup will also qualify. Plus four more nations will get in via last-chance qualifying tournaments next year, likely in June.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.