The Olympic flame carries with it the hopes of all nations. It offers the opportunity for countries the world over to rally behind a common goal and common heroes. Citizens are afforded the opportunity to feel pride and patriotism as their country's best representatives fly their peoples' flag on the world stage.

Since it became a globally recognised independent nation in 2011, South Sudan has been clutched in the throes of conflict and poverty. There has been civil war, continued tensions with Sudan over land borders and resources, and it remains one of the world's poorest and least literate countries.

Despite all these barriers, hope and happiness continues to shine through.

In the past 12 months the fortunes of the nation have been trending upwards. The first democratic elections since the start of the nation’s civil war in 2015 are set for later this year, and the government and opposition groups are working towards lasting peace through the Tumaini Initiative. The word 'Tumaini' translates to hope. 

Ahead of those potentially landmark days though, the nation has been given a vehicle by which to rally behind in the upcoming Paris Olympics.

The Bright Stars.

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Kuany Kuany, Majok Deng and Khaman Maluach celebrate at the 2023 FIBA World Cup.

South Sudan's men's basketball team has been one of world basketball's biggest overachievers since the turn of the decade. A quarter-final finish in its inaugural AfroBasket campaign back in 2021 pricked the ears and captured the minds of only the most engaged of basketball savants the world over. Last year's debut World Cup campaign turned those questioning whispers around the team's potential into a roar of praise and hope from all corners of the globe.

Now, a team of 12 is set to represent their nation on sport’s grandest stage and although they will be aligned in one team, this group will more than treble the number of athletes sent to the Games under the South Sudanese banner since 2016.

Santino Kenyi and Guor Marial participated in the men’s 1500m and men’s marathon in 2016, while Margaret Hassan took part in the women’s 200m. Then, in 2020, Abraham Guem and Lucia Moris took to the track in the men’s 1500m and women’s 200m.

At the London 2012 Olympics – the first since South Sudan’s independence – Marial competed as an independent athlete due to the nation’s lack of National Olympic Committee at the time of the Games. He is the only multi-Games athlete in the history of the young nation.

A handful of South Sudanese athletes have also represented the IOC Refugee Olympic Team in the past two Games', largely under the Kenyan flag.

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Guor Marial flies South Sudan's flag at the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics.

There will likely be a distinct Australian/South Sudanese flavour in the upcoming Olympic squad. Longstanding contributors like Bul Kuol, Jackson Makoi and Majok Deng have been joined by a raft of new and eligible talent on an extensive 50-man longlist ahead of the tournament.

Former Boomer Thon Maker and current Phoenix Sun Bol Bol headline the new faces in camp, and they're joined by a host of current and former NBL talents including the likes of newcomer Kouat Noi and known talents Junior Madut and Kuany Kuany.

For Kuol, this opportunity to make his Olympic bow stems far beyond the mere chance to test himself against the world's best - and the world's best he would play, as South Sudan has been drawn against LeBron James' Team USA, Nikola Jokic's Serbia, and the winner of an Olympic qualifying tournament that will feature the likes of traditional European powerhouses Lithuania and Italy.

His status as a defensive stopper means he could well be the matchup sent to James or his teammates Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum and Kawhi Leonard, while Lithuania and Italy will likely boast talents including NBA veterans Jonas Valanciunas and Danilo Gallinari.

Kuol recently signed on with the Sydney Kings following three years with the Cairns Taipans, and he has long been vocal about his motivations for representing the nation of his birth by discussing the pride his mother and wider family take in him pulling on the South Sudanese jersey. 

His story is similar to many of the players selected in this bloated initial 50-man roster. He was born in South Sudan, but left the country young in search of a better life alongside his family. Having left at nine years of age, he says he has some memories of his time in the central African nation prior to moving to Canberra, and prior to its independence from Sudan.

In a recent interview with SEN he reflected on a childhood that included living in Kenya's Kakuma Refugee Camp, which was established in 1992 following the displacement of over 20,000 boys during the Second Sudanese Civil War, and civil unrest in neighbouring Somalia and Ethiopia.

He stated in the interview he has "vague memories" of being "reckless" as a child but he still has a strong connection with the region despite having left almost 20 years ago.

He missed last year's World Cup campaign due to a poorly timed broken wrist, and should he be selected, this will be Kuol's first opportunity to represent South Sudan in an international tournament after his crucial role in that initial World Cup qualification.

Kuol says the platform the team has been given to represent South Sudan in a positive light on the world stage is a priceless opportunity.

“A lot of us weren’t born in Australia, we moved here. We still have that connection back home,” Kuol told NBL Media.

Australia is our home now too. This is a place where we’re raising families, buying homes, our relatives are all here, so Australia is a home to us, but to be able to represent where you come from is something that’s bigger than basketball and bigger than ourselves.

“Our nation doesn’t usually get many positive opportunities to celebrate something that unites us as a people. This is something that’s bringing us all together, putting us on an international stage, and is something the whole nation gets to celebrate.

“What matters most is our country as a whole gets to see us on that stage, not as individuals sharing the moment with some of the greatest athletes in the world, but as a nation, the name of our country will be seen internationally.

“South Sudan is generally seen as a war-torn country. Its violence, its conflict. Rather than that they get to see us united on an international stage being celebrated. Actually, playing comes second, third, fourth, whatever. I don’t think that matters the most.

“I think this is going to change a lot of things, it’s going to inspire the next group coming up, and it’s going to provide opportunities for those at home.”

For all the household NBL names to feature in South Sudan's longlist for Paris, Jackson Makoi is a talent who may have fallen by the wayside in the estimations of even the most ardent of Australian basketball minds. The talented point guard is well on the comeback trail from a serious knee injury now though, and he's been with this team since its first steps onto the world stage.

The 24-year-old is the only currently rostered NBL player to represent South Sudan at AfroBasket 2021 where he, alongside the likes of formerly rostered NBL players Deng Acuoth, Mathiang Muo and Kuany Kuany, led the side to an improbable quarter-final finish.

Makoi was just 21 at the time and still in the midst of his collegiate career prior to his rookie professional year in Turkey. Only Dhieu Deing - who is also in the Olympic squad - was younger.

Despite his tender age, Makoi was a key role player in that tournament. For all the current hype around the emergence of young center Khaman Maluach, Makoi was one of the initial star boys of South Sudan. He was one of the first young players on which the nation pinned its hopes and dreams in the basketball space.

That debut AfroBasket campaign began in strange circumstances. Opening opponent Cameroon forfeited the first game of the tournament to hand South Sudan a victory - on paper at least - but the Bright Stars were defeated by eventual bronze medalists Senegal the first time they actually took to the floor.

Deing starred in the final group game against Uganda with 22 points and five assists to lead his side to second place in the group and a position in the round of 16.

A clash with Kenya awaited in the first elimination game. They had finished third in their group but, unlike South Sudan, had a long and extensive history at the tournament - which was headlined by a fourth-place finish in 1993.

Makoi's ability to unlock defences with his passing proved crucial in the 60-58 win. He registered a game-high six assists to lead the team to a quarter-final meeting with reigning champion and African basketball powerhouse, Tunisia.

Tunisia was led by former EuroLeague champion and Dallas Maverick Salah Mejri who top-scored in the clash with 20 points. A respectable 15-point loss ended South Sudan's campaign, while their opponents went on to register their second straight tournament win.

They may have left the tournament without a medal, but Makoi and his teammates had captured the eyes of a continent, and the wheels for their Olympic qualification had been set in motion.

Like Kuol, he unfortunately missed last year's World Cup due to injury. He suffered a severe ACL rupture in Sydney's final regular season game of the NBL22 season, right when he was establishing himself as a genuine presence in Chase Buford's rotation.

He may have been sidelined for the most recent phase of growth within his nation's basketball program, but there are few players in the world whose individual rise has come in such close tandem with their nation. Makoi, therefore, is the perfect person to discuss just how far the team has come since that initial taste of international success almost three years ago.

“I feel like we’ve finally started to get the recognition we deserve. Some of the players we’ve got now, we didn’t have a couple of years ago,” he told NBL Media.

“Luol (South Sudan Basketball Federation President, Luol Deng) and the staff have been doing a great job of getting guys together and organising things, and the better we’ve become and further we’ve come, the better overall everything has been run as a program.

“There are some very talented players on our list, and we’re already starting to get on the same page … this is bigger than anybody, this is bigger than any one person. I feel like everybody is happy to be a part of this, and that can only bring the best out of us.”

Aside from his firsthand view at the program's rise under the guidance of Deng - who spent 15 years playing in the NBA - Makoi shares a similar viewpoint as international teammate and NBL rival Kuol, in that these Olympics have presented this select group a rare opportunity to rally their nation behind a singular cause.

It's a huge moment for the country because they’re the ones that have been going through it for God knows how long,” he continued. 

“I feel like this is one of the biggest positive situations we have going on back home. It’s a great way to bring people together and bring a positive light throughout the country that will help it be known around the world a lot more.

“It’s amazing, it’s able to bring people together, it’s able to bring so much positive energy and light to the country, and at the end of the day that’s what the people deserve. They’ve been going through it for far too long.

It’s an amazing opportunity and if I do get the chance to play, I will forever be grateful, but any chance I do get to put on that national team jersey is always a great honour. Whether it’s the Olympics, World Cup or any other event I always go out there and play with the same amount of pride.

There’s no bigger honour for me, personally, than having the chance to represent your family, your country, and your last name.”

While there is a spate of South Sudanese-Australian players hoping to earn Bright Stars selection in this Olympic campaign, there is one player set to fly the flag for the nation in the Boomers' ranks. Duop Reath.

In another world Reath could easily be among the contingent of top players in this South Sudanese squad. Instead, he will almost certainly pull on Australia's green and gold in a second straight Olympic campaign for the Boomers, and is set to play a key role in the campaign to bring a second ever men's basketball medal back to his adopted nation.

Reath's professional pathway to the Portland Trail Blazers has been anything but smooth or standard. He started his journey in Waat, South Sudan, and didn't even take the game up until high school following his family's move to Perth.

He, like Makoi, studied at and represented collegiate side Lee College. He then blazed his own trail and headed to powerhouse school LSU and played all over the world before landing - fittingly - at the Trail Blazers this past season.

He has since become a hero of the West Australian basketball scene, and recently discussed his perception of the NBL's South Sudanese contingent with Wildcats legend Damian Martin on SEN WA

“I’m definitely connected to them because I am South Sudanese as well. I support those guys and I want the team to do well,” Reath said.

“Without us being here right now with Australia giving us a chance it would be a whole different story for a lot of us. To be able to represent the country that gave me and my family an opportunity, and to be able to represent all the South Sudanese kids who are living here is a privilege.

“Most of us are South Sudanese/Australian, and to be recognised at that level, it’s a privilege to represent the country that gave most of us an opportunity and took us and our families in.

“I love to watch the NBL … and to see all these South Sudanese boys now in the league, it represents how talented they are. To be able to get this kind of recognition nationally is just great.

“I’m really proud of them, I just hope everybody keeps leading in the right way and keeps opening doors for the other South Sudanese kids, you want to set a big example and that’s what I’m proudest of, because the guys who are in there now are setting great examples.”

The fact that some of the world's biggest basketball superstars currently await this South Sudan side in Paris is irrelevant. Just like Kuol said, the basketball comes second, third or even fourth at this point.

For a nation that has been in such dire need of an injection of positivity on the world stage, they’ve already won. South Sudan will be competing in one of the world’s most popular sports, against some of the world’s most well-known athletes, in the world’s biggest tournament.

Even outside of this 'Games, the future is looking increasingly bright. The signing of center Khaman Maluach to collegiate powerhouse Duke and his emergence as top draft contender has likely given the nation its star of the future and will continue to bring eyes to African basketball, much like the emergence of Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo and Joel Embiid has done so through the decades.

Maluach will eventually join the likes Jayson Tatum, Zion Williamson, Kyrie Irving and Luol Deng in Duke's star-studded list of alumni, and he is currently ranked as the third best prospect in next year’s draft class by ESPN draft expert Jonathan Givony. 

Reath also labelled the 17-year-old as “the real deal” and believes he can be the number one selection in a future NBA Draft.

The commitment of the likes of Thon Maker and Bol Bol representing the nation gives the program a pair of leaders who can take their experience at the top level of basketball and help foster some of the nation’s best young talent. Their inclusion alongside the likes of Wenyen Gabriel and Carlik Jones can only help fast track the development of the likes of Maluach, Deing and Makoi.

Then, with a name like Luol Deng continuing to steer the ship in his presidential role, the Federation will only continue to grow its relevance and importance within the African and global basketball landscapes.

This South Sudanese basketball team has risen to Olympic glory from the humblest of beginnings, and now they’re ready to take on the world.

Hell. This rise to the top has been so miraculous that taking on the world might not be enough for the Bright Stars. They could even be ready to shock it.

Source: https://nbl.com.au/news/south-sudan-uniting-a-nation