Running Like an Anime Ninja: How Australian Sudanese Refugees Are Taking Over Basketball
Australia is about to dominate the NBA, and it’s all a lesson in immigration policy
“When I get excited and just run off, my arms just flare out. In the game, when I’m really hyped, it just happens. I don’t try to force it. I don’t try to fight it. I’m just going to let it happen.” This is how, in between fits of laughter, a 20-year-old Australian kid describes his signature celebration move after scoring for his college basketball team, the Louisville Cardinals.
And he’s been doing a lot of that. In the lead-up to Louisville’s shock exit on Sunday from the NCAA championship, Deng Adel had been the top scorer for his #2-seeded team, including this spectacular addition to the highlight reel:
Deng plays alongside his friend, Cardinals senior Mangok Mathiang. When Adel pulls out the move, Mathiang says, “that’s when I know… it’s go-time for DA [Deng].” Both are big fans of Japanese anime, where Adel gets the inspiration for his celebration run — but that’s not all they have in common. Both Louisville stars are Australian, both are Sudanese refugees.
Adel was born in Sudan (the village he was born in is now in the newly created country of South Sudan), and fled the war-torn country with his mother and siblings to a refugee camp in Uganda. Eventually, like a lot of people fleeing the conflict, they made it to Melbourne, Australia — his father still left behind, and never having seen a game of basketball.
Mathiang’s story is almost identical — born in Sudan, he came with his family to Melbourne by way of two years as a refugee in Egypt, also without his father, and also unfamiliar with the game. That all changed as they hung out in the Sudanese community in Melbourne, discovering many of their peers were playing in a local basketball league, and began a journey that would lead them to Florida, then Kentucky.
They’re not alone. In this March Madness tournament, Adel and Mathiang are joined by Gorjok Gak — the surprise star of the Florida Gators, still in the competition and vying for a spot in the Elite Eight this Thursday. Duop Reath’s LSU Tigers didn’t make the cut this year, nor did Kuany Kuany’s Chaminade Silverswords. But next year, expect more: Kouat Noi is redshirting for TCU, Deng Gak has committed to the Miami Hurricanes, Mayan Kiir to VCU, and Daniel Mading to Texas Tech.
The one thing all these players have in common? Like Adel and Mathiang, they are all Sudanese refugees from Australia.
In all, there are more than 60 young Australians playing in Division 1 college basketball in the US this year (an impressive feat of its own for a country of only 25 million people, with a crowded sports landscape). Of those players, over 14% (the nine listed above) were born in what is now South Sudan. Their stories all mirror the two Louisville Cardinals’.
That’s no exaggeration, down to even the minor details — for most, the story goes like this: born in southern Sudan, fleeing as children (many leaving their fathers behind) via an African refugee camp and then into Australia’s resettlement program, discovering basketball in the youth leagues of Melbourne’s southeast corridor, playing for the Longhorns (named for the long-horned Zebu cattle herded in South Sudan), and from there into Loren Jackson’s basement in Sarasota, Florida.
Loren Jackson has an excellent coaching pedigree. He counts NBA stars Anthony Davis and Derrick Rose (both number one overall draft picks) amongst his students, and boasts over 150 Division 1 players to his name.
Jackson had long had a dream: build a high school that could give promising young basketballers the required academic instruction to qualify them for college, while honing their athletic skills to guarantee they were given the opportunity. It would be a gym first, a classroom second.
But his first attempt at a basketball high school — the Boys to Men Academy in Chicago’s Southwest Side — failed after only two years. Those two years, though, germinated two big ideas. As a boarding school, Boys to Men recruited a lot of overseas high school players. Also, two of Boys to Men’s best players — Thijin Moses and Mac Nyal Koshwal — were both born in Sudan and came to the US as kids.
These two ideas combined when Jackson founded Victory Rock Prep school in Bradenton, Florida in 2013. Many of the students are South Sudanese Australian refugees, who will often live in Jackson’s basement while attending Victory Rock, welcomed as though they are part of his family.
Deng Adel and Mangok Mathiang both lived in his basement, though at separate times. Mayan Kiir graduated from Victory Rock Prep last year. Gorjak Gok did so the year before. Right now, there are five more South Sudanese Australians attending Victory Rock, and playing for its varsity team under Loren Jackson as their coach/teacher.
Jackson isn’t the only high school coach recruiting South Sudanese Australians, but his enthusiasm for doing so offers a glimpse into the potential these kids present to keen scouts looking to find the next NBA star.
Not many people in America will have heard of the names listed above, but plenty who follow basketball will have heard of Thon Maker.
Maker, over seven feet tall, was a YouTube star first. Like a lot of high school ballplayers, Maker’s skills were the subject of a ‘mix tape’ of his best work. Unlike most players, his tapes went viral, with one of him as a 16 year old amassing over 3.5 million views alone.
“An email arrived in my inbox with the subject line ‘check this kid out.’ Twenty seconds into the video — watching this tall, lanky kid create separation with a jab step before displaying near perfect form on a long distance 3-pointer — I was captivated.” — Jerry Bembry, ‘Vaulting from YouTube to the NBA’
Maker made headlines last summer by becoming the first player in over a decade to be drafted straight out of high school into the NBA in the first round, when the Milwaukee Bucks selected him with the tenth pick overall.
His story, you guessed it, may sound familiar: Maker left his illiterate parents behind in the small southern Sudanese village he was born in, when he fled the war with his brother and aunt — first to Uganda and then through Australia’s refugee resettlement program to Perth. Once there he was discovered playing soccer by a basketball coach with a history of developing Sudanese migrant kids, who took him to Sydney and eventually to Louisiana to play high school ball. The rest is NBA history.
Maker is not the first Sudanese person to play in the NBA — Manute Bol, the tallest player in history (who incidentally played alongside the shortest player in NBA history in the 1980s for the Washington Bullets) has that honor, and the Sudanese-British Luol Deng currently plays for the LA Lakers —and not the first Australian. But he is the first Sudanese-Australian, and seen by many as a trailblazer for the boys coming along behind him.
Others are not far behind. Emmanuel Malou and Deng Deng are two more South Sudanese Australian players who have already been through the US high school-college pipeline and are currently playing in the NBA’s D-League, where fringe and up-and-coming players vie for the big time.
As Mark Hellinger, a filmmaker who has documented the Sudanese basketball community in Australia, told a Milwaukee Bucks fan site when Maker was drafted, “the first Sudanese Australian NBA players will have a huge impact on the next generation of Sudanese Australian youngsters. Showing the kids that they can do it, no matter where they come from, should inspire more kids to play basketball.”
It’s a story that’s bigger than Thon, bigger than Deng and Mangok, bigger than basketball. It’s a tale of immigration, integration and the cost of international isolation.
The experience of these South Sudanese boys tells the experience of immigration gone right. From the misery of the brutal civil war, and genocide in Darfur, abject poverty, often fatherless through war or unable to migrate with them, these kids faced a lonely life in a foreign land with its alien customs, language and sports.
On the one hand, the South Sudanese migrant community in Australia might have easily become a familiar tale of ghettoization, criminal gangs and fodder for the resurgent racist political populists who would have them turned away at the border. Instead, these Sudanese youth found community and each other through the sports of their adopted country.
The Sudanese who started these basketball clubs in Australia, like the Longhorns in Melbourne and the Savannah Pride in Sydney, didn’t do so with the NBA in mind, they did it to give the fatherless kids in their community the discipline, focus, friendship and leadership skills that come with training and playing a team sport.
As Manyang Berberi, the founder of the Longhorns told ESPN in an interview, “the thing that I’ve seen with some of the kids from our community is, the ones that come here and you had a tough background you’re like, ‘oh, wow, this is great’. You really appreciate the opportunity you get. You cherish it and say, ‘I’m excited just to have this’. They don’t take it for granted.”
“If I don’t get it the first time, I’m definitely going to get it the second.” — Gorjok Gak, on why he chose #12 as his number
That the whole exercise has led to the unlikely scenario of potential NBA dominance for one of the most oft-maligned groups in the world, usually only recognized for their roles in charity ads as destitute, desperate, distended, drought-stricken African children, is a testament to Australia’s refugee resettlement program.
That these kids were born in one of the six countries now barred from entry into America due to Trump’s Muslim travel ban, should be a cautionary tale to the US. Migrant communities flourish when new arrivals run full force into established traditions to make them their own. “Like pizza or Halloween,” we opined in the Weekend Caucus article suggesting the same travel ban will cost the US the hosting rights to the 2026 soccer World Cup.
Luckily, being dual citizen Australians means Thon Maker, Deng Adel, Mangok Mathiang and the others will not be swept up in the ban that is threatening athletes across the board in the US. But the stories of how these kids, born into a Muslim ban nation, refugees to Australia, exports to the US, and now role models for thousands more, is one we have to tell loudly and often. It’s what we should hear in one South Sudanese Australian kid’s scream as he runs in joyous celebration like a cartoon ninja across the boards after an emphatic dunk; all youthful innocence, all hardship overcome, all supreme athlete, all coming to take over the NBA.