“I would say this team was really like our hope,” Awet Thon tells upstart.
Thon, a South Sudanese student studying away from home in Chandigarh, India, has followed a shining light over the past couple of years: the Bright Stars, South Sudan’s men’s basketball team.
“This [team] is our hope, and this is something that really unites people, because back home there have been so many divisions,” Thon says.
“But when this team came in, to bring everyone on board. Everyone feels like we are one nation.”
In February, the Bright Stars made history. For a nation that has only existed for just over 12 years, they qualified for the FIBA World Cup in their first attempt, making them the first African nation to do so. In a world that mostly knows South Sudan for the violence seen in the media, Thon says the team has given the nation a new identity.
“If you look at our country, for so many years there has been a lot of trouble back home. Whether it is political or these kinds of wars, but then when this team came, they began to kind of change the image of the nation.”
Thon became a fan of the Bright Stars when Chicago Bulls legend and South Sudanese native Luol Deng took the reigns as president of the South Sudan Basketball Federation in 2019.
Deng coached the Bright Stars during their final qualifiers in Alexandria, Egypt. They would only have to win one of their final three games to advance to the World Cup, which would be held in the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia.
South Sudan went on to defeat Senegal 83-75, qualifying for their first World Cup, but the game was shrouded in controversy. Local Egyptian authorities announced on the day of the game that no fans would be allowed in the stadium, but there was no communication with the South Sudan Basketball Federation.
To this day there has still been no explanation by FIBA or the Egyptian Basketball Federation as to why this occurred. Thon recalled the incident, saying people flew from all over the globe to witness history just to be denied entry.
“It was really a very, very big disappointment,” he says. “Not only to me but the entire nation because even after we qualified, the celebration wasn’t how it would’ve been if we were allowed in.”
“But still, that did not disturb our celebration.”
Fans surrounded the arena singing the young nation’s national anthem as a form of celebration for their team.
“Our people were on the street, and they stood there the entire time, from morning until after the game for hours. When the game was over, they were still there and celebrating.”
Solomon Dech, player-agent of Bright Stars captain Kuany Kuany, tells upstart that the team has given South Sudan a sense of unity that the nation rallies behind. He says that the power lies in having something “that is in common and brings everyone together that stops the country”.
“When there is an hour or two to watch the game and have a favourite player that looks like you, that belongs to your country, that has the same last name as you or your cousin.”
“Your flag being seen on an international stage, your country’s name being seen on TV, rather than watching an American play.”
On May 18, just four months out of the World Cup, it was announced that the team would travel to Australia for pre-tournament warm-up games against Venezuela, Brazil and Australia.
Australia and South Sudan have experienced a great basketball connection in the last decade. NBA lottery pick Thon Maker (born in Wau, South Sudan) and, most recently, Olympic bronze medallist Duop Reath (born in Waat, South Sudan) have represented the Boomers at the highest level of competition. There are currently 16 contracted Australian NBL players who are South Sudanese.
The games would mark the first time the Bright Stars would play outside of Africa, and it would be made particularly special as a large percentage of the team call Australia home.
While South Sudan would fall to the Boomers, this was more than just a game of basketball as Dech expressed the sense of the enormity of the games in Melbourne, not only for himself, but for the community.
“The flag waving at Rod Laver Arena, the national anthem being sung and my last name being on the screen. My brother’s playing and four of my guys that I represent being there, it’s just insane,” he says. “It’s amazing and a massive win for the South Sudanese community and for Australia as well.”
When asked to sum up what the team means to the South Sudanese community in one word, Dech said: “Unity.”
“We support this team that has [our] country’s name on the front of the jerseys and I high-five the person next to me that I didn’t know because it’s us against them and them being whoever we play at that particular time,” he says.
“They are uniting with each other. When they play, when they head out it’s like some guys are meeting each other for the first time. It seems like they have known each other for ages. The community, everyone, comes together.”
Photo taken by author.