Far From Home, South Sudanese Basketballer Finds Footing On Court

In three years, Mooseheart High School's basketball team went from also-ran to champion. One of the reasons? Mangisto Deng, a 6-foot-7-inch player from South Sudan. He tells of his journey and team.

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And now to high school basketball. If you don't live in the Chicago area, you likely never heard of Mooseheart High School. It was founded about a hundred years ago by the Moose Fraternal Organization as a sanctuary for kids in need. Until about three years ago, Mooseheart was not considered a big high school basketball power.

But in 2011, three very skilled and very tall players from South Sudan arrived thanks to a group called A-HOPE: African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education. Well, suddenly Mooseheart was a contender, and the remarkable three-year turnaround culminated this weekend when Mooseheart won the Illinois State Class 1A championship. Joining me now from Mooseheart is Mangisto Deng, who is a six-foot-seven-inch forward who scored 27 points in the title game. Welcome to the program and congratulations.

MANGISTO DENG: Thank you.

SIEGEL: You've been in the U.S. for three years. Tell me, what's the biggest difference between being home in South Sudan and life in Batavia, Illinois?

DENG: The big difference is being far away from my family. This is the first thing. And the second one is just, you know, there's a lot of things different, you know, from my country. Food is different. It's beautiful, a lot of building, you know, a lot of light, a lot of cars.

SIEGEL: Did you play basketball back in South Sudan?

DENG: I played basketball, but I was not that good. This is my fifth year right now playing basketball.

SIEGEL: Now, when we think of Sudanese - or you're from the Dinka tribe, yes, in South Sudan?

DENG: Yeah.

SIEGEL: When we think of a Dinka basketball player in the U.S., people of a certain age think of Manute Bol. How important is Manute Bol to you?

DENG: Everybody know Manute Bol. He played in the NBA and he spent all his money, you know, he went back over there and buy a lot of medicine, you know, provide - buy some food for some villages who don't have food, you know. I grew up - my dad used to tell me, you know, when you become famous, you know, be like Manute Bol, you know, just care about your country, you know, and about your people like Manute Bol does.

SIEGEL: How much basketball talent is there over in South Sudan, among the Dinka people?

DENG: We have a lot of tall people, you know, but we don't have a lot of coaches or a lot - somebody who can teach you how to play sport. Over there, we play outside. I never play indoor in my life. And the basketball, we don't have a lot of ball, you know. Sometimes two people, they have a ball. If that guy didn't come today, you guys are not going to practice. You are going to go play soccer or something.

SIEGEL: Now, where do you stand in your school? You came over. You've obviously led Mooseheart to a great state championship. Do you have a diploma? Are you - have you studied enough to be able to attend either a college or a community college?

DENG: To graduate from Mooseheart, I have enough credit to graduate from Mooseheart. But I don't have enough credit to go to college. The plan is I'm going to go to prep school for another year so I can develop my English, you know, be strong a little bit and be strong in basketball, too. And then after that, go to division one.

SIEGEL: In the college ranks, in the college division, right.

DENG: In college, yeah.

SIEGEL: Well, do you think that like Manute Bol, you'll - if you succeed here in the United States that you'll want to take back to South Sudan, or do you think you'd just become an immigrant and become an American at that point?

DENG: Absolutely. You know, it's not just like to be like Manute Bol, you know. But when somebody did something good for you, you know, you got to look back, you know, and do something good to other people, too, you know. Like what Mooseheart did to me is, like, it mean a lot, you know.

SIEGEL: Well, Mangisto Deng of Mooseheart High School in Batavia, Illinois, now the Class 1A state champions in basketball, congratulations and thanks for talking with us.

DENG: Thank you. Thank you.

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