Basketball World Cup 2023: Former NBA star Luol Deng credited with masterminding South Sudan's success

Luol Deng training young basketball players
Luol Deng played for 15 years in the NBA including stints with Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers

Former NBA star Luol Deng has been credited as the 'heart and soul' of South Sudan's Cinderella story at the Basketball World Cup.

Two narrow defeats, by Puerto Rico and Serbia, bookended the debutants' hopes of progression to the last 16 stage in Philippines, Japan and Indonesia.

It was the Bright Stars' stunning win against China though, in their second match, that captured imaginations.

Head coach Royal Ivey says all praise goes to Deng, who is president of the South Sudan Basketball Federation (SSBF): "[Deng] had a great vision and it all came together."

The defeat by Serbia leaves South Sudan battling for classification for positions 17-32.

Regardless of the final ranking, the achievements to this stage stand for a nation who only gained independence in 2011.

Membership of the International Basketball Federation (Fiba) followed in 2013, with a first official international game taking place only six years ago.

How Deng masterminded South Sudan's Cinderella story

Deng, 38, is not only the president of SSBF but has also been out in Manila, serving as an assistant coach for the World Cup.

"Luol Deng is the heart and soul of all of this," continued Ivey, who is also assistant coach for the Houston Rockets following his own ten year playing career in the NBA.

"Without Luol, I wouldn't be sitting here right now."

Luol Deng playing for the London 2012 Olympics basketball team
Luol Deng represented Great Britain at the London 2012 Olympics

Deng is one of the biggest names to come out of South Sudan, featuring for Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers in an illustrious NBA career.

The forward also represented Great Britain at the London 2012 Olympics and two Fiba Eurobaskets - a European Basketball Championships, held every four years.

Deng, who fled war-torn Sudan at the age of five, began to get more involved with basketball in his birth country after retiring, eventually being unanimously elected to the role of SSBF president in 2019.

Setting out his goals in July 2023, Deng felt he could build up the profile of the country through sport.

"We committed to an ambitious vision of nation building through sport, from representing South Sudan abroad to locally developing the sport nationwide. In many ways, our journey has reflected the obstacles and challenges that come with pursuing any higher purpose in life," he said in the report.

"South Sudan's greatest natural resource is its youth, and sport is a proven way to engage, develop and inspire hope in our young people. Basketball is us, as a nation, getting our foot in the door."

Luol Deng holds up his OBE
Luol Deng receives his OBE for services to basketball in the 2021 Birthday Honours

The crowning achievement of beating 10-time champions China, a first win for South Sudan at a basketball World Cup, will forever frame South Sudan's progress.

The world's number 62-ranked team's 15 three-points shots set up a 89-69 victory which forward Nuni Omot said was "a dream come true".

He added: "To be able to do this in front of our fans, people watching back at home, it's been a very emotional day for everyone, getting our first ever World Cup win."

Carlik Jones, who scored 35 points against Puerto Rico, lead South Sudan's scoring against China with 21 points.

"They were resilient, persistent, they had laser-like focus, they followed the game plan and competed at the highest level," said Ivey heaping praise on the team's effort.

"They played with emotion, they played with fight, they played with fire. We competed all 40 minutes and we came out with the victory."

Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior
Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior, addessing the UN General Assembly

Pride of the 'mother of the nation'

South Sudan's vice-president, Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior, spoke of her pride of the team, and also her hopes that her people will be known for something other than civil wars and famine.

"We have had problems in the eye of international community, but this one would really give a smile to the people of South Sudan," she said in an interview to Newsday, from the BBC World Service.

"There's an impression, within the people of South Sudan, they feel that they have what it takes, but when they hear the defeat, they go back to their shell, they feel that we cannot do anything right.

"But victory doesn't come alone, you have to work for it. So our boys, they really work very hard - they put in a lot of effort to come this far."

Nyandeng also reserved praise for the impact Deng has had, and how he has transformed the team.

"I know that they have that potential, but (before) they did not get the opportunity," she continued.

"Luol Deng came, after his retirement, to his country. He knows the potential that they have. He knew that he was going to bring us to this place where we are now."

Sometimes referred to as the mother of the nation, Nyandeng had this message for the South Sudanese who have been inspired by the Bright Stars' performances.

"Being a mother when you have your child and you see his or her eyes, you don't know who they become," she said.

"But now when they become like this, you feel very happy and I'm really very proud as a mother.

"I would tell them: you now see your potential so please pursue it."