JUBA, South Sudan — Basketball has united the South Sudanese.
The country, which gained its independence just 12 years ago, is still celebrating the men’s national team after its first-ever qualification for the Olympics.
South Sudan will play at the Paris Olympics as the automatic qualifier from Africa thanks to a 101-78 win over Angola a week ago at the basketball World Cup in the Philippines.
Thousands of fans, some wrapped in the national flag, blew horns and flooded the streets of the capital this week to welcome the team home.
Chol David, a 22-year-old diehard fan, called it incredible and historic.
“The world knows us,” he said.
The players and staff met Friday with South Sudan President Salva Kiir, who expressed his pride for their accomplishment. The government called the Olympic qualification a “remarkable achievement.”
Earlier in the week outside the Juba International Airport for the team's arrival, fan Anger Aquin Awan said “they have registered our names in history.”
South Sudan, ranked 62nd in the world, is the lowest-ranked men’s team to qualify for an Olympics since at least 2004, according to the sport's governing body.
Upon arriving in Juba, team captain Kuany Kuany led a chant: “Where are we going?” he yelled. “Paris!” the fans replied.
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of conflict and sent its first athlete, a marathoner, to the 2012 London Olympics as an independent athlete competing under the Olympic flag. The International Olympic Committee made the country’s Olympic committee a full member in 2015.
Two years after independence, South Sudan fought a civil war that left nearly 400,000 people dead and more than 4 million displaced. The slow recovery from war continues with bursts of politically motivated ethnic violence.
But basketball dreams have brought South Sudanese together, fans said.
“We gathered here to welcome the basketball team as the country, not a tribe,” said 25-year-old Aman Akech, wrapped in the national flag.
With tears of joy, senior presidential adviser Kuol Manyang Juuk declared that the team’s success has reunited the country.
“The youth have re-liberated South Sudan again from tribalism and division,” Manyang said.
Kiir has pledged to build a basketball arena or indoor court in Juba as a gift for the team, the adviser said.
There has been little for the country to celebrate at this scale since independence, aside from the exuberant visit of Pope Francis earlier this year.
Millions of South Sudanese struggle with the deadly effects of climate change while receiving little support in one of the world’s poorest countries. The United Nations this month said it is cutting food rations to focus on the 3.2 million people who need it most because of reduced funding and insecurity, affecting communities "living on the brink of starvation.”
The civil war also ruined infrastructure. South Sudan doesn’t have a single indoor basketball stadium. The men’s team started its basketball journey in neighboring Kenya, playing on a concrete floor.
The team is filled with refugees and the children of refugees who fled decades of bloodshed and currently live abroad.
“We never thought that we would be here,” Kuany, the team captain, told The Associated Press.
The team’s Olympic qualification might not have come if Luol Deng, a former NBA All-Star, hadn’t stepped in and personally funded his native country's program.
Deng, now the president of South Sudan Basketball Federation, said he and the players acted out of patriotism and have one goal: to put South Sudan on the map and change the way the world sees the country.
“We can erase the negativity and the things that have been said about South Sudan,” Deng said. “We’re using sport to do that, and I’m happy to be a part in doing that.”
Despite being relatively rich in oil reserves, South Sudan’s government still struggles to provide even basic services, let alone support sports.
“Sport without money can’t go anywhere,” said Albino Bol, the country’s youth and sports minister.
Kuany said South Sudan will continue to improve in areas beyond basketball.
“It is just a matter of time.”