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Refugee Hoop Dreams Do Come True—Right in the Middle of Trump's America

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From left, Koang Doluony, Ed Chang and Wanjang Tut play basketball at George Bryant Basketball Center on March 30, 2017.

Some arrive in beat-up cars packed with five and six long-limbed passengers. More walk over an hour through the cool prairie night, basketballs in their hands, dreams stirring in their minds.

Koang Doluony stands outside the gymnasium at the Nebraska School for the Deaf in Omaha on a recent spring evening. The 27-year-old basketball coach slaps the hands of 30 of his young players, each one the son of South Sudanese refugees. This school for the deaf was shuttered in 1998, but its gym is now the unofficial home of the Omaha Talons—a burgeoning basketball power on the American youth hoops scene.

A janitor unlocks the door to Building H, and Doluony—after propping it open with a two-foot-tall ashtray—leads his players down a dark hallway. High-tops, some of them hand-me-downs, screech on the floor.

“We all feel lucky that we had a parent make it out of Sudan to give us a shot at a better life,” says Julius Seule, a junior at Gross Catholic High School, as he nears the gymnasium for practice. “We have our problems here and life can be a struggle for us, but basketball is our chance to make it. We have certain physical gifts.”

Doluony opens a creaky door and flips on the gymnasium lights, the amber glow revealing five rusted rims, a dusty wooden floor and flaking paint on the concrete walls. The players soon surround their coach, a former Indiana State forward who immigrated to Nebraska from Sudan when he was in fourth grade.

Most of the players, who range in age from 10 to 18, have parents who work the night shift at a local food-processing center or meat-packing plant. Many have never seen their sons play basketball. Yet even before a ball is shot on this Nebraska night, it is immediately evident why Omaha is becoming a must-stop destination for college basketball coaches across the country: Doluony is 6’8’’, and a dozen of his players either stand eye-to-eye with their coach or look downward at him. Winners of the genetic lottery are all around.

A pickup game begins. There is 6’6’’ Aguek Arop, a senior at Omaha South and the 2015-16 Gatorade Nebraska Player of the Year, soaring into the air with an oh-so-easy elegance, dunking over two shorter players and prompting ooohs from the 20 kids standing on the sideline. There is 6’6’’ Khuath Gatkuoth, a junior at Bellevue West, draining back-to-back 25-foot jump shots. Two years ago Gatkuoth says he was on the brink of ruining his life—“I was running with the wrong crowd, but then basketball saved me,” he says later—and now he smiles and giggles at the defender who is trying to guard him.

Doluony walks along the sideline, his eyes flashing. Then he tells a young player about Akoy Agau, one of his former stars who will challenge for a starting forward position at Georgetown this coming fall. “You can be the next Akoy,” Doluony says to the 12-year-old. “Basketball is your ticket to a better life. You can make it. You’ve got to believe.”

He continues to look hard at the kid, locking eyes. He repeats: “You’ve got to believe.”

A quick history lesson here on Sudan, which lies in northern Africa: Between 1955 and 2005, two civil wars were fought between the north and the south. More than two million were killed and more than four million Sudanese, mostly from the South, fled their homes into exile. Today, Sudan (the former north) is one of six countries listed on President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban; South Sudan, which formed in 2011 and is the world’s youngest nation, is not.

Thousands of South Sudanese refugees arrived in Omaha in the late 1990s, attracted to Nebraska’s largest city because of its abundance of factory work and cheap housing. An enclave formed, centered in public housing in South Omaha. Now an estimated 15,000 former residents of South Sudan live in Omaha, which makes it the largest Sudanese population outside of Africa.

Doluony’s mother escaped Sudan in the late 1990s with her six children. After spending two years in a refugee camp, the Doluonys landed in Omaha in 1999. In middle school, Koang began playing pickup basketball at a local park with other South Sudanese refugees. They didn’t know much about the game, but the kids would stay on the court deep into the night, even during the brutal Midwestern winters, dribbling, dunking and shooting.

In his family’s cramped apartment, Koang watched videos of Ray Allen, closely studying his shooting form. Mimicking Allen, he developed into an All-Metro player as a senior at Omaha Bryan. He earned a scholarship to Indiana State, where he played three seasons before transferring to the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Doluony formed the Talons in 2012, and in the past four years, 17 of his players have earned college basketball scholarships. None have ascended to the NBA—yet—but the Sudanese connection in Omaha is growing stronger by the season. When Doluony played at Omaha Bryan, there were only a handful of Sudanese players on high school teams; this past season, there were 54 players with Sudanese roots on high school varsity rosters in the Omaha area. And a bigger wave is coming: There are dozens of Sudanese-American junior high kids who have been practicing with the Talons for several years.

Doluony receives several calls a week from college coaches around the country, checking in on scores of his players. “Before you know it, some of these kids will be in the NBA,” Doluony says. “We’re about to turn Nebraska into a basketball state. If we had all the South Sudanese kids at one high school in Omaha, we would win every state championship for the next 50 years. The talent here isn’t going away anytime soon.”

Marty Levinson, an assistant basketball coach at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California, agrees. He recruited the Omaha area when he was a graduate assistant at the University of Nebraska-Kearney from 2009 to 2011. “In the next 10 years, because of what Koang is doing with the Talons, there will be an influx of Sudanese players into the NBA. People don’t understand how hard it is to be a refugee in America. They feel out of place, they struggle to learn a new culture. The stress is overwhelming for these kids. Basketball can almost be a salvation.”

There are two Sudanese players in the NBA: Thon Maker of the Milwaukee Bucks and Luol Deng of the Los Angeles Lakers. The most famous Sudanese player was Manute Bol, the 7’7’’ center who is the only player in NBA history to have more blocks than points.

Who will be the next NBA Sudanese star? Doluony has his prized pupil, Ed Chang, in mind.

He moved from teenager to teenager, looking each one in the eye, telling them to dream big dreams. Last summer, Luol Deng, the former Duke star who was the seventh overall pick of the 2004 draft, met with the Talon players in Omaha. “My story,” he told them, “can be your story.”

Luol Deng brings the ball up court against the Charlotte Hornets on December 20, 2016.

Deng was five years old when his family left their home in South Sudan and fled to Egypt. His parents told him and his eight siblings that they were going on vacation, so they didn’t pack much. For five years, the family lived in Egypt in a two-bedroom apartment. School was a waking nightmare: Deng and his siblings were the non-Egyptian kids in their classes, and Luol was often beaten by classmates.

At age seven, he started playing basketball. When he was 10, the family was granted political asylum in England. At 14, he had sprouted into a 6’6’’ athletic force of nature and caught the attention of the coaches at Blair Academy, a prep school in New Jersey. He arrived at Blair with only a backpack, two sets of clothes and two pairs of shoes. Five years later, he signed his first NBA contract.

“With hard work, you can make it in life,” Deng told the Talons last summer. “If I can do it, you can do it. It’s all about discipline.”

Chang, then 15, nodded his head at the words coming from Deng. One day, Chang said to himself, I will be like Luol Deng. One day…

Like many inspired ideas, the Talons began spontaneously.

One afternoon in the fall of 2012, Doluony had lunch with two kids whose parents were from South Sudan. They asked Doluony if he wanted to shoot baskets at Pulaski Park in South Omaha—the same court where Doluony learned the game as a boy. Later that afternoon, Doluony taught the kids basketball fundamentals at the park.

They met the next week, and this time, a half-dozen boys turned out. Word quickly spread throughout the Sudanese community in Omaha that a local hoops legend was giving free basketball lessons. Within two weeks, 20 kids were at the park, some riding a city bus over an hour to spend time with Doluony. The group soon moved to the gym at Christ Community Church in Central Omaha. When more than 100 kids appeared at Christ Community a few months later, Doluony took his flock to a bigger space at Omaha North High.

One Saturday morning in 2013, Bryan Wilson, who is not from Sudan and whose son had attended a basketball camp at Omaha North, walked into the gym there. Only three cars were in the parking lot, so he figured the gym would be empty. But he was dazzled by what he saw: 150 Sudanese kids standing in a circle around their coach, all silently hanging on his every word, a congregation riveted to its pastor.

“There was not a sound in that gym other than Koang talking,” says Wilson, who is now the president of the Talons. “Those kids were so focused, so locked in. They wanted to get better. It gave me chills. That’s when I knew I wanted to get involved.”

“There is this stereotype that because we are Africans, we won’t have the intelligence to make it in sports, that we are just athletes with no minds,” Doluony says. “We’re fighting that stereotype. We’re also struggling with our relationship with the African-American community. There are some black kids, and it’s just a few, who pick on Sudanese kids. They get jumped and beat up. Gangs have formed out of a need for protection. This is a real problem. We’re trying to reverse this.”

Doluony pauses. He is gazing at a 14-year-old shooting free throws. Then he says, “We need role models in our community. We need more Ed Changs.”

Here he comes, striding down the hallway at Papillion-La Vista High outside of Omaha. Ed Chang is wearing a protective boot on his left foot, the result of an ankle sprain he suffered in the state semifinals a week earlier, but his gait is easy, fluid, the strut of an athlete. Other kids stop their conversations the moment he glides into view. Days earlier, a giddy admirer asked Chang, a 16-year-old junior, for an autograph and a picture at a Walmart.

At 6’8’’ and 180 pounds, Chang is already a two-time All-State player. He and Doluony started practicing together when he was in sixth grade. “Ed showed up and he was overweight, but he had great hands,” Doluony says. “Then he fell in love with the game and started to grow. Ed’s the total package. He has a chance to be the greatest player to ever come out of this state.”

Chang’s family fled Sudan in the 1980s. After living in Germany—where Ed was born, the second of four children—they settled in Omaha in 2002. But his father, a college professor, returned to Sudan when Ed was in sixth grade. His mother works the night shift at a factory. “Ed had to become the man of the house at a very young age,” Doluony says. “Think about everything he has to overcome just to make it to practice.”

“I worked out with Koang four to five times a week for several years,” Chang says. “Basketball has opened up so many doors for me. It’s made me believe that I can have a life outside of Omaha.”

This season, Chang averaged 17.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.0 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. When he was a sophomore, Chang visited a practice at Creighton University, located in Omaha. He met with coach Greg McDermott, who offered him a scholarship on the spot. He has also received offers from Nebraska and St. John’s. Dana Altman, a Nebraska native who is the head coach at Oregon, has been in frequent contact.

“Ed is special,” says Dan Moore, his high school coach. “The eye test is impressive. He’s so long and tall. He’s got guard skills. At 6’8’’, he can dribble and handle the ball. He has deep range. He’s got a seven-foot reach. He’s just unique. We want him stronger, but I’ve been coaching 32 years, and Ed’s gotten more attention than any kid I’ve ever had.”

At a recent Talons practice, Chang spent 30 minutes teaching a pair of 12-year-olds proper shooting form. His words may as well have been thundering from the sky given the way those kids paid attention to the top high school player in Nebraska. Doluony watched the interaction from the other side of the gym and smiled like a proud father.




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