South Sudan is the world's youngest nation, only gaining its independence 12 years ago. Cape Verde is one of the world's least-populated nations, with fewer residents than any country that qualified for the Basketball World Cup.
They stood tall on Monday at the World Cup — both nations winning games at FIBA's biggest tournament for the first time.
It was a double-dose of history for African basketball: South Sudan beat China 89-69 at Manila and Cape Verde beat Venezuela 81-75 at Okinawa, Japan. The wins kept both teams in contention for berths in the second round of the World Cup, and they remain very much in the race to be Africa's automatic qualifier for next summer's Paris Olympics.
“I’m still speechless," said Cape Verde's Will Tavares, a Rhode Island-born forward who scored 20 points in Monday's win. “I feel like I’m in a dream right now, but the win was so big for us and our country and our families. We made a statement. Even though we’re the smallest country, we have so much heart.”
They were the two lowest-ranked nations in the 32-team field to begin the tournament, both countries getting to the World Cup for the first time. South Sudan is ranked 62nd worldwide by FIBA, the sport's global governing body; Cape Verde is ranked 64th.
And they both have a chance to be among the 16 teams still standing when the second round starts Friday.
“I’m just blessed and honored to be a part of this,” South Sudan's Nuni Omot said. “This journey so far, it’s just been an emotional and amazing feeling for me. And I know everyone else on the team feels the same way as well.”
South Sudan's basketball program was essentially started a few years ago by former NBA player Luol Deng, who was born in the country and raised in London after his father — a former Sudanese government official and former political prisoner — was granted asylum by Great Britain. Deng learned to play basketball in London, a scout noticed him when he was about 14 and his life forever changed.
When Deng's playing days were over, he became president of South Sudan's fledgling basketball federation. If there is an indoor court anywhere in that country, Deng doesn't know where it is. He believes the country doesn't have a single regulation-sized floor.
Here they are, undaunted by doubt, unfazed by massive challenges.
“Luol Deng is the heart and soul of all of this,” said South Sudan coach Royal Ivey, an assistant with the NBA's Houston Rockets. “He’s the president. Without Luol I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. He had a great vision. I entrusted in his vision and it all came together. I’m in awe that I’m sitting here at the World Cup. I’m forever indebted to Luol for giving me an opportunity to coach this team.”
Africa has long been considered the sleeping giant in global basketball, and big strides have been made in recent years through investment — such as academies that the NBA has built there to identify and develop promising young players, the NBA-backed Basketball Africa League and the Giants of Africa initiative led by Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri, a native of Nigeria. That group, among other things, is building courts and hosting clinics for boys and girls around the continent.
“Today is a unique and marvelous moment for our people,” Cape Verde coach Emanuel Trovoada said.
Both South Sudan and Cape Verde have one game left in group-stage play — South Sudan plays Serbia on Wednesday, while Cape Verde will take on Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic and Slovenia. The top-ranked African team at this World Cup will automatically qualify for the Paris Olympics; so far, South Sudan, Cape Verde and Angola all have 1-1 records in the battle for that berth.
“This is a dream come true,” Omot said. “People don’t understand where we were just two years ago. To be able to do this in front of our fans, people watching back at home, it’s been a very emotional day for everyone getting our first World Cup win.”
Later on Monday, Ivory Coast beat Iran by 71-69 in a Group G match played in Jakarta.
The winning streak for Africa began from Sunday when Angola got the better of co-hosts the Philippines 80-70 in Group A
The top-ranked African team at this World Cup will automatically qualify for the Paris Olympics.