The most significant basketball tournament of the summer is a world away from here in central Africa. They played it against a backdrop of gory violence and human rights violations unthinkable to many Americans, and in the name of something so much more important than a trophy.
Actually, they played it in the name of someone more important than a trophy.
They called it the Manute Bol Peace Builders basketball tournament. Bol died five years ago this month, at age 47, complications from a nasty combination of problems he picked up on another trip to help promote peace and progress in the region of his native country.
He would be so proud of what they did this week in Juba, the capital and largest city in South Sudan. They played basketball there, for peace, the best way they know to honor a national hero.
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“This is like a coming out party for people to have fun,” says Matthew Kohn, an American director working on a documentary about Bol. “There are not a lot of opportunities for people to go out and enjoy themselves.”
This is an area of the world that has been set back decades by war, but here, at least this week, teams filled with men from both sides of that brutal conflict came together to play Bol’s favorite sport.
The best part — reason for hope that the sport can be part of the region’s recovery.
This is sports at its best, the kind that bring people together instead of tear them apart. War has been part of what is now South Sudan for so long that grown men cannot remember a time without it.
The civil war technically ended a decade ago, but the crisis in South Sudan grows worse. There are battles so bad that nobody even tries to count the dead, and within two months, half the country could be at famine levels. The battles are often painted as tribal, or ethnic, but the truth is much more complicated than that.
There is a sad political component to it, too, and the result is a country where children are recruited to be killers and the government can’t build roads, hospitals, schools and other infrastructure.
This is the cause for which Bol — who made his home in Olathe, and whose son is now a rising high school basketball recruit at Bishop Miege — first gave his energy, then nearly all of his money, and finally his life.
It’s hard to say exactly what he would think of this. He would love it, obviously, but would he be shocked? Could he have ever imagined men on all sides of this deadly conflict coming together, not just to play basketball against each other, but to play basketball with each other?
The setup is fairly amazing. It would make for a great movie. Most of the players were men, in their 20s, the same demographic that is too often killing each other. Here, men on opposite sides of the fight were on the same teams. A point guard who otherwise might be shooting a gun at his power forward is instead feeding him the ball in the post.
“There are moments where sports help lead the way,” says Tom Prichard, founding executive director for Sudan Sunrise, a charity that works for peace in the region. “Manute’s identity is wrapped in the identity of South Sudan. I love that this is giving South Sudan a moment, a nudge toward peace, that could well have a significant effect.”
Strangest thing, too. People at the tournament alternately talk about two seemingly conflicting focuses of the players — they are constantly stacking teams, and often playing with a sort of politeness that belies both the competition and bigger context.
Both focuses, however, can probably be traced back to Bol. He is such a respected figure there — by men and women on all sides of the conflict — that winning the first tournament in his name would be a major honor. But they want to do it peacefully, too, because that’s what Bol was about.
There have been moments. One game ended in a tie. A controversial tie, too, because there may have been a scoring error and there was definitely a disagreement on how the decisive play was called by the referee.
Both teams, and the hundreds of fans watching, became heated, and quickly. This was exactly the kind of moment some around the tournament worried about.
But in the end, there was nothing more than a relatively quick argument. The teams played on — an overtime, essentially — and the fans cheered for the winning team.
Nobody expects South Sudan to change immediately because of this tournament. War is part of the culture there, part of everyday life. But there are reasons some in the area are finding for hope.
For starters, Kohn says there is a growing distaste for all the violence. People are weary. They’re tired of it. They’re ready for it to end. Relatively small groups of soldiers on each side keep violence in the news there, but after decades of conflict, there is a growing hunger for peace.
Organizers of the tournament have also committed to making this an annual event. The violence didn’t start in an instant, and it won’t end that way, either. But this is a radical change, with men on both sides of a brutal conflict seeing their similarities rather than differences, and working together toward a common goal.
“To play basketball well, you need to be open-minded and on your toes,” Kohn says. “Things you can’t expect will happen in basketball, and real life. Now maybe those players can think about things in a different way.”
Wouldn’t that be something? Bol died five years ago this month, and the movement for peace in South Sudan slowed without his influence. Now, perhaps, that push for a better way is boosted by both his name and the game he loved so much.