Luol Deng helps connect Australia's South Sudanese basketball pipeline

ByChristian Red ESPN logo
Tuesday, December 11, 2018

BLAIRSTOWN, N.J. -- Luol Deng had already been setting screens and launching midrange jumpers on NBA courts for nearly a decade when he opened his Facebook account one day in 2013 and read a message from an unfamiliar name.

The social media post came from Mayor Chagai, a youth basketball coach in Sydney, Australia. Deng, a two-time All-Star, learned that he and Chagai shared the same birth country -- Africa's war-torn South Sudan -- and Chagai invited the then-Chicago Bulls star to come visit Sydney to see firsthand the basketball program Chagai had started.

"It was really interesting. That's the first time I really got an idea that there's a lot of South Sudanese in Australia," says Deng, who now plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves. "I reached back out and told Mayor I was going to take a trip to come down. When I got there, I was amazed by the program that they're running and the job that they were doing."

"Luol was the only person in the NBA at that time that many South Sudanese followed," Chagai says.

Deng's 2013 Australia trip, which was the first time he had traveled Down Under, was a fact-finding mission first and foremost, he says. He brought along a staffer from the Luol Deng Foundation, which supports youth-basketball initiatives mainly in Africa and the U.K. After watching teams stacked with young, South Sudanese basketball prospects play games -- including the signature "National Classic" annual tournament Chagai had created and which featured dozens of teams from across Australia -- the NBA veteran was wowed. The kids had game.

"Right away, I started to see the talent and the potential," says Deng, 33. "I was seeing kids, left and right, that really should be getting scholarships. A lot of them were older, people not recognizing them. They were having a hard time going to the U.S. Right away, I wanted to be more involved."

During that trip, Deng told Chagai he should contact Joe Mantegna, the boys' basketball coach at Blair Academy in New Jersey whom Deng played for in the early 2000s alongside Charlie Villanueva, who would go on to play in the NBA as well.

Chagai didn't waste the opportunity and sent a Facebook friend request to Mantegna. Two years later, in the summer of 2015, Deng and his old high school coach were on their way to Sydney to help run basketball clinics around the city. Social media helped link the veteran NBA player, New Jersey prep school coach and the Australia youth basketball director, but it was also the genesis of what has become a basketball pipeline between Sydney and the U.S.

Elite South Sudanese players have landed scholarships to play for powerhouse high school programs such as the one at Blair as a result of the Chagai connection. This season alone, Mantegna has two players -- 6-foot-6 senior shooting guard Henry Makeny and 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Akoldah Gak -- on his Buccaneers roster. Both boys grew up in Sydney's South Sudanese community and honed their hoops skills under Chagai's watch.

"Blair Academy helped me to understand what is required for the kids to get to the U.S. on a basketball scholarship," Chagai says. "After I understood that academics are very important, and character and skills, I started to talk to the kids that were interested and would like to get on scholarship. I started to build a connection. Many high school coaches started coming to Australia. I met most of the coaches at the [National Classic] tournament."

Makeny and Gak both gush about their good fortune during a break from classes in the autumn of 2018. They know the story of Luol Deng -- a South Sudanese son who helped raise Blair's profile when he played for Mantegna and who later starred for Duke before becoming a first-round pick in the 2004 NBA draft. "That's the dream," says Gak, 16.

The decades-long civil unrest in South Sudan has forced millions of people to seek a safe haven in other parts of the world. The 33-year-old Chagai was one of them; he fled Africa and eventually moved to Australia in 2006 on his own, when he was barely out of his teens. Chagai settled in Sydney's already sizeable South Sudanese community and soon started the fledgling hoops program, mainly as an outlet for young kids.

"When I came to Australia, it was hard to find something that you would spend your time engaged with other young people in a positive way. That's what led me to start what has become Savannah Pride," says Chagai, referring to the team he coaches and that has had several different incarnations.

Chagai's original vision has spawned the creation of dozens of youth basketball teams throughout Australia -- from Melbourne to Perth to Adelaide -- providing South Sudanese kids an opportunity to develop their game. The crown jewel each year was the National Classic tournament, in which more than 40 teams participated in 2017. Makeny and Gak both played in the Classic, and they describe an electric atmosphere, featuring large crowds and loud cheers.

This year, however, the event was canceled because of security concerns, according to Chagai, who blames media portrayals of crime in the South Sudanese community for scaring gym owners into closing their doors to the Classic. He says the loss of the tournament is a big blow to his hoops program, especially to the young prospects who can use the showcase to get noticed. But Chagai also points to a deeper, long-standing problem of racism that the South Sudanese communities across the country have faced for years as those communities have grown in size.

"There have been hurdles. All the people that came as migrants to this country, things were very tough," says Chagai, referring to the migration of South Sudanese to Australia in the '90s. "There were a lot of times where people were very racist. People of different color -- you had to resist those things. That's what led me to organize our own basketball team."

Gak was born in Sydney in 2002, years after his family fled South Sudan. But Gak's father, Matur, says the transition from leaving Africa and settling in Sydney was not an easy one. Matur's family encountered racism early on, he says, but community relations have improved.

"Human beings are human beings," says Matur Gak, 52, who is a general practitioner in Sydney and a father of six, including sons Akoldah and Deng, who also played at Blair and is now a scholarship player at the University of Miami. "Racism is everywhere. When we first came to Sydney, the first two years were very difficult. People were not accepting, all because of the color of our skin. Now we are part of a well-integrated community."

BothAkoldah Gak and Makeny speak in positive terms about their upbringing in Sydney. Gak allows that "there's racism everywhere," but he says in the same breath that any adversity he faced might have had to do with the fact that "I'd be the first black kid [other kids in the community] have seen." He and Makeny say they look forward to the times when they return to Sydney.

As for the Classic tournament, Chagai says he is confident the event will resume in 2019. His optimism stems from his plan to redouble efforts and work with local authorities and community leaders to mitigate -- and hopefully eradicate -- racially motivated fears and strife.

"The tournament is one thing that is engaging young people in a very positive way," Chagai says. "The kids that go to the U.S. on a scholarship come back, and they are very inspiring to the young kids that live here in Australia."

Chagai says he has for years relied on fundraisers and donations to help pay for everything from new basketballs to tournament fees or fees associated with his Savannah Pride team using courts around Sydney. This year, Chagai says he partnered with the Police Citizens Youth Club (PCYC), which now helps with the majority of the financing.

Deng, meanwhile, was so inspired by Chagai's program and the work he was doing for South Sudanese youth in Australia that he set the wheels in motion to do similar work in his home country. As of 2018, Deng has helped fund the construction of two courts with 12 baskets in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

It's one thing to travel to Australia and put on a hoops clinic for South Sudanese boys hoping to someday carve a path to basketball stardom. But as Mantegna found out, it's quite another experience to have NBA royalty along for the occasion.

"Amazing, like having Michael Jordan in that community," says Mantegna, referring to Luol Deng. Mantegna says he saw many youth players compete on hardscrabble courts and in the Classic tournament while he and Deng were visiting Sydney. The South Sudanese players showcased their talents, and Chagai forged a friendship with Mantegna. Months after that trip, Deng Gak, Akoldah's older brother, was enrolled at Blair after securing a scholarship to attend the prep school starting in the autumn of 2015.

Makeny was next to arrive in Blairstown, starting in 2017, followed by Akoldah Gak, who began this autumn. Makeny and Gak are both on scholarships.

The journey for Makeny and Gak to Blair's pristine hardwood floor in Hardwick Hall was one fraught with other hurdles, not the least of which is the enormous pressure and expectations they now shoulder.

"It can go the other way. If a kid would go the wrong way and shut down that pipeline, you're taking opportunities away," Mantegna says. "I think there is an onus. But I think it's actually a good pressure. I think it's something Mayor preaches to his kids. And we do too."

A year ago around Christmas, Makeny was struggling in his first year at Blair in the classroom and on the court. Mantegna says Makeny, then 16, reached a crossroads about his future.

"Henry always liked Blair. But he was in the deep end -- academically and basketball-wise," Mantegna says. "He got to December, and he had to decide if he was going to hunker down in both areas. And he did. He had a great second semester academically and on the basketball court. I think we all come to a time when we get tested, and we're either going to run from the test or step up. And H certainly stepped up."

Mantegna says there wasn't any one game or classroom moment that set Makeny back on the right path, and that it probably had more to do with fulfilling some larger goals -- making his family back in Australia proud of him and helping blaze a pathway for younger players back home.

"He didn't want to take the opportunity away from the next guy who might come from Sydney," says Mantegna. "It showed me an unbelievable amount of maturity. That's when I knew Henry had it figured out, and he's taken off from there."

Makeny says he had a rough initiation to both prep school education and learning how to play basketball in the U.S., which he says is a style akin to the go-go Golden State Warriors. "Over here, the game's a lot faster. Stronger players. The game is different. I had to adjust, get stronger. I had to learn to play under pressure," says Makeny, who was born in Kenya in 2000 and arrived in Australia when he was an infant. "When I came [to Blair], I didn't like math at all. But when you're at Blair, you kind of learn to like math. They really help you. You can meet your teachers after class, during your free blocks. Math, history, English are my favorites."

Akoldah Gak says his application to Blair became a protracted process, starting around Christmas 2017. He didn't get resolution until eight months later.

"I had to get an American visa. I had to get a recommendation from teachers in Australia -- for English and math. They were taking their time and didn't do it for two months. That held it back a bit," Gak says.

Both boys have since settled in and embraced their new lives. Gak and Makeny live in separate dorms on Blair's campus. When they want to talk to their families back home, FaceTime is a savior.

The social scene has presented its own quirks and challenges. Makeny and Gak speak with a slight Australian accent, and they've had to overcome certain linguistic differences, such as ditching the word "bubbler" when referring to a water fountain. The two boys say they usually dine with other basketball teammates.

The Blair Buccaneers made it to the boys' basketball state championship last season, only to lose to St. Benedict's, a rival. But Makeny, who averaged 7 points and 3 rebounds per game in 2017, says he thinks the team has a good chance of returning to the state title game. Makeny and Gak are garnering interest from college recruiters, too. According to Mantegna, Makeny has verbal offers from Rider University and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

"Other than Royal Ivey, who played in the NBA for 10 years, [Makeny] is probably the most gifted defender that I've coached here in 20 years," Mantegna says. "He is a high-level defender. He's a guy who can guard the best [players] in the country. He's so good laterally. He's so long, and he has a 41-inch vertical jump. Obviously he can contest everything. When he gets stronger, which he's really working hard on, by his sophomore year in college, it's going to be a joke. It's already a joke. Someone is going to get a gem."

In Blair's home opener, a win against Prestige Prep, Makeny had several key defensive stops in the 79-50 victory.

Mantegna calls Gak a player in the same vein as Anthony Davis or Thon Maker, but Gak is not yet a starter. Mantegna says he doesn't want to place any extra weight on Gak's shoulders so early in his Blair career.

"His growth plates are still open. He might be 7-1, but he moves like a guard," says Mantegna of Gak. "I worked him out when he was 13 [during the 2015 trip]. He looked like he was 16. I love the fact that he's [at Blair] three years. I don't want him to crumble under the pressure."

"I'm a lanky-type player," Gak says. "I see centers as big, bulky, stronger. I'm not that strong. Adjusting here is tough. In Australia, I'd be the only, like, 6-foot-10 dude that's athletic, that can dunk. But over here, other guys are 6-10, are stronger than me, can jump higher than me. So it's a battle every day."

On a weekday afternoon in October, two dozen Blair Academy boys' basketball players are scattered around the Hardwick Hall court, a preseason workout underway sans coaches and weeks ahead of the start of the season.

Hip-hop music is blaring from the speakers, and hanging in one of the corners of the gymnasium, minding watch over the din below, is a reminder of the New Jersey prep school's famous basketball alumni: three blue-and-gray banners that frame the jerseys of Ivey, Villanueva and Deng, all of whom forged successful NBA careers.

Makeny breaks from the pack of players at center court during warmups, sprints to the basket and makes a two-handed dunk. Right on Makeny's heels follows Akoldah Gak, whose finger-roll layup barely rims out and falls to the hardwood. The scene is a long,longway from the suburbs of Sydney. Makeny and Gak are in the beginning stages of a basketball path, one for which the final destination is yet to be determined.

Special reporting by Chris Tyler.