Thursday, 5 January 2012

Famous Basketball Legend

Sudans Manute Bol
Late basketball legend Manute Bol sits in Juba in 2009
When late basketball legend Manute Bol was a boy in his war-devastated, grossly poor village in south Sudan, he spent his days herding cattle and only took up the sport in his teens.
Now the first ever basketball court has been built in his birthplace of Turalei to offer others opportunities he never had -- one small part of efforts for peace and reconciliation as south Sudan nears full independence in July.
"We have lost Manute Bol, but we have a hundred more Manute Bols yet to be trained," said Deng Kuoc, the local commissioner, speaking to a large crowd of young athletes at the opening ceremony in the sand-swept village's "Freedom Square".
Many in the crowd showed the towering physique of Bol, the tallest player in National Basketball Association (NBA) history, along with Romanian Gheorghe Muresan.
"They are ready to play all sports all across the world," Kuoc added.
Bol, talent-spotted from obscurity to play in the NBA with Washington, Golden State, Philadelphia and Miami, died in 2010 aged 47 from a rare skin disease as a reaction to kidney medication.
One of south Sudan's most famous sons, the iconic shot-blocker stood at a giant seven feet seven inches (231 centimetres).
But while the outside world remembers him for his towering performances on court, Bol's focus was the plight of south Sudan, pouring his lucrative NBA earnings into supporting his homeland.
The oil-rich but impoverished region was left in ruins by decades of war, as southern rebels battled soldiers and militia forces backed by the government in Khartoum.
The dusty thatched-hut village of Turalei, close to the still-disputed north-south border, was burnt to the ground, its people massacred or taken into slavery.
"Manute Bol was a man of peace, and he believed that south Sudan should be at peace," said the fledgling nation's sports minister, Makuac Teny, shortly before opening the new court. "That is why he supported south Sudan's fight for self-determination."
Now his example is being used in the hope of creating a more peaceful south for the future, to overcome the major challenges the nation-in-waiting faces.
The conflict continues today. Over 800 people have been killed and 94,000 forced from their homes by fighting since January's largely peaceful independence referendum, in which southerners voted almost unanimously to split Africa's largest nation in two.
Turalei is not only close to the disputed border and the contested flashpoint region of Abyei, but is in a region with complex ethnic divisions.
It is hoped that the lessons of sport can be one small step towards allowing the new nation to be at peace.
"Sporting people learn how to forgive, and to compete fairly without cheating," said the basketball star's brother, Nicola Bol, one of the first to shoot a ball at goal on the new court.
"This is a land devastated by war and by starvation, but it was the sport that has kept the youth together, through keeping them engaged and happy."
The court was partially funded by the United States, which is also backing government plans to build 25 courts across the south, to encourage sporting competition between often rival groups.
The US consul in the south, Barrie Walkley, travelled to see the opening of the court, first saying a prayer at the grave of Bol -- a giant mound of earth covered in brightly coloured tinsel wreathes, beside the thatched huts of his family.
"For decades the youth were tools of war, and had few opportunities for education," Walkley said. "We believe that with proper mobilisation and support, the youth can become tools of peace."
The south has over 60 different ethnic or linguistic groups, and divisions run deep following decades of war with the north, which exploited ethnic rivalries by backing splinter militias distrustful of the mainstream southern leadership.
At least seven rebel groups, many including those ex-militia fighters, have taken up arms against the fledgling southern government in recent months.
Addressing deep-seated grievances and ensuring lasting peace will require far more than a few courts, but those involved hope it will contribute to the efforts of forging of a new nation.
"Sports bring youth and communities together from different parts of south Sudan, so they know they belong to something bigger than one county... They belong to the big new nation of south Sudan," added Walkley to cheers from the crowd.
Using sport to overcome conflict here is nothing new: the local county of Twic, in which Turalei lies, started an annual "Twic Olympics" during the civil war -- bringing young people to compete in athletics and soccer.
Now basketball will be included for the first time in those games due to be held later this year.

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