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Mooseheart basketball decision ‘wrong-headed’

Mooseheart's MangisDeng (right) Peter Kurowski embrace before hitting court for warmups Hinckley Big-Rock High School Wednesday December 5 2012. |

Mooseheart's Mangisto Deng (right) and Peter Kurowski embrace before hitting the court for warmups at Hinckley Big-Rock High School on Wednesday, December 5, 2012. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 7, 2013 1:31PM

Somewhere along the way, the Illinois High School Association, the organization that oversees interscholastic athletics in this state, got lost in the weeds of its own bureaucracy.

I couldn’t tell you precisely when this happened, although my impression is that it’s been that way for a while now.

The final confirmation for me came this past week with the IHSA’s decision to prevent three Sudanese boys from playing basketball for tiny Mooseheart school in Batavia.

That decision, which has since been temporarily reversed by a Kane County judge, strikes me as one of the most wrongheaded in a long line of dubious rulings by an organization that never seems to put the best interests of its student-athletes first.

Instead, it clings to some archaic priority of maintaining competitive balance, although anyone familiar with its handling of Public League transfers knows it does a lousy job of that as well.

In the case of Mooseheart, the IHSA is trying to run roughshod over the futures of Mangisto Deng, Akim Nyang and Makur Puou — who came to the school from war-ravaged South Sudan in the summer of 2011 to get an education and play basketball.

Under IHSA rules governing foreign students, the three boys — who happen to measure 6-7, 6-10 and 7-1 — sat out their sophomore seasons while waiting the required 365 days to become eligible.

Now as juniors, they are ready to play, which apparently didn’t sit well with the school’s rivals at neighboring Hinckley-Big Rock High School, who raised a stink with the IHSA about whether those extremely tall Sudanese boys had been improperly induced to enroll at Mooseheart for athletic purposes.

Under IHSA rules, you’re not supposed to transfer from one school to another just to get into a better sports program, although recent history shows it happens all the time and has become practically the norm in basketball since summer AAU programs became dominant.

The implication that Mooseheart has recruited these boys for purposes of creating a basketball powerhouse overlooks the unique history and mission of a very special place, which shows this is not some basketball factory the likes of which the IHSA allows to flourish all over this city and state.

Many of you may have always thought Mooseheart was some little town in the sticks near Aurora.

Actually, the school takes its name from the Loyal Order of Moose fraternal organization that founded the facility in 1913 as an orphanage for the children of its members.

Over the years, the Mooseheart Child City and School, as it is formally known, has evolved into a residential child-care facility for kids in need from infancy through high school. The Moose continue to provide the funding.

Most of Mooseheart’s 210 students come from troubled backgrounds, often involving dysfunctional parents. They live in 30 homes on its cloistered campus, each home organized into a “family” for six to 12 children.

That would seem to be as natural a fit as any for three kids from the Sudan. (Actually, there are four, but the fourth isn’t good at basketball and runs track, which seems to engender less jealousy among competitors.)

I don’t know details about the boys’ impoverished early lives in their home country but I know it isn’t an easy place to live for anybody.

The three Sudanese basketball players are quite open about the fact they hope the sport will help earn them college scholarships, maybe even a shot some day at the NBA, for which they would have been better off enrolling at Simeon, although nobody there is offering free room and board (as far as we know).

But even for a 7-footer, college scholarship opportunities will be few and far between if the IHSA does not allow him to compete in high school and get better.

The IHSA declined to discuss the Mooseheart situation while waiting for a hearing Monday at which the school plans to appeal a staff recommendation that the three players be ruled ineligible. If the school loses, it’s expected to return to court.

Somebody might wonder why the IHSA has jurisdiction in these matters. Simply put, to play in the organization’s sanctioned activities, including the state tournaments, all schools must agree to play by its rules.

According to its mission statement: “The IHSA governs the equitable participation in interscholastic athletics and activities that enrich the educational experience.”

I guess that means they try to make the competition fair. I think they need to rethink their mission to emphasize what’s fair to the students who play their games.

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