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For Sudanese teens, hoops not a priority

(from left) Makur Puou18 MangisDeng18 Akim Nyang17 all play for Mooseheart High School basketball team. They practiced Friday Dec. 7

(from left) Makur Puou,18, Mangisto Deng,18, and Akim Nyang,17, all play for the Mooseheart High School basketball team. They practiced Friday Dec. 7, 2012 | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 10, 2013 6:39AM

Word that the Illinois High School Association had ruled four boys from South Sudan ineligible to participate in athletics for tiny Mooseheart High reached all the way back to their homeland last week, prompting a worried call from the father of Mangisto Deng.

Deng, a junior basketball player, said his father feared the ruling meant he was being kicked out of school, scuttling his hopes for an American education.

“No, it’s about basketball,” Deng reassured his father. “I’m still going to school.”

If only somebody could get that message through to the bureaucrats at the IHSA. They are the ones who have made this all about basketball, when it is about so much more for the Sudanese.

“People say something that is not right,” Makur Puou, Deng’s teammate and countryman, explained to me Friday. “They don’t understand us very well, how we came here. People here at Mooseheart, they know. Other people know our country, how it is over there. What we really want is to go to school and to be an educated man — to get an American education.”

The boys from South Sudan are getting an education, all right, an education in the pettiness of Illinois prep sports politics.

The issue is that three of the boys are very tall — Deng is 6-8, Puou is 6-10 and Akim Nyang is 7-1 — and that has upset the balance of basketball power among small schools in their area, in particular drawing the attention of rival Hinckley-Big Rock, which beefed to the IHSA.

I had a short sit-down with the boys Friday and found them to be impressive, earnest and polite, and I came away more convinced than ever that the folks at the IHSA should be ashamed of what they are trying to do to them.

I just wish the Sudanese were going to Bloomington on Monday to give an education about their native country to the IHSA’s board of directors and relate “how it is over there” — so that somebody could start to understand the small-minded folly of denying them this opportunity that could help them toward their goal of a higher education.

Maybe somebody at the IHSA has heard of the Sudan — its history of civil wars, ethnic strife, genocide, extreme poverty, lack of medical care, absence of running water or electricity — and would like a first-hand account of why four boys from there would dream of using whatever talents they have to go to college. Maybe they’d even like to know why those boys say they plan to return to their homeland with their education to help their countrymen.

Monday is when the board, composed of principals from around the state, will consider Mooseheart’s appeal of IHSA executive director Marty Hickman’s ruling that the Sudanese are permanently ineligible because the school allegedly recruited them for basketball purposes.

A Kane County judge has temporarily blocked enforcement of the eligibility ruling pending Monday’s hearing but an adverse decision from the board could send Mooseheart back to court again.

It’s hard to understate how insulting it is to Mooseheart officials to be accused of breaking the rules in the name of basketball success, when everything about the school’s 99-year history tells you that is not a priority — starting with the fact its sports teams are perpetually mediocre.

“We’re trying to save these boys’ lives and give them hope for a future,” said Mooseheart Executive Director Scott Hart, who has lived and worked there since 1991. “At Mooseheart, it’s about life. It’s not about athletics.”

Whether or not the boys from the Sudan are allowed to play basketball, Mooseheart will continue to house, nurture and educate them, which the school has already proved once previously in the case of another Sudanese basketball player, Hart said. Mooseheart petitioned the IHSA to waive its rule that a transfer student sit out 365 days so the boy could play his senior year, but the school was denied. The student graduated from Mooseheart and now attends community college.

As I tried to explain the other day, this is no ordinary school. Mooseheart was started by the Moose fraternal organization in 1913 as an orphanage for children of its members and has maintained its unique role ever since as a place for young people in need.

They come here from around the country, often as youngsters. Many are wards of the state. This is not a boarding school. This is where they live.

These are resilient children who have witnessed Americans atrocities committed by and against their parents: violence, prostitution, drug abuse. Into this mix come the Sudanese, who can tell stories of fleeing into the forest in the dead of night when the rebels raided their villages. They know of living in fear.

Maybe that’s why they bravely shrug off their IHSA problem, knowing it is the least of the impediments life has placed in their way, though no less disappointing.

African athletes are vulnerable to exploitation by American talent scouts, and the involvement of an AAU basketball coach from Indiana in bringing the Sudanese to the U.S. is at the root of the IHSA’s suspicions.

But I see no evidence these boys are being exploited. This isn’t about anybody’s concern for them. It’s about keeping Mooseheart from having what the IHSA called an “unfair advantage” over its competition.

With a loss to Hinckley-Big Rock this week, Mooseheart’s record is 3-3. Some advantage.

That’s another subject where the boys from the Sudan could educate the IHSA: what it means to have advantages in life.

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