A new student arrived on Blair’s campus in the fall of 1999 lugging a bookbag and little else. Standing over six feet tall, with a broad reach and a broader smile, the boy told classmates that he “came from nothing,” and indeed, he didn’t have the basketball shoes he needed to play at the School. Seeing an opportunity to help, a Blair postgraduate approached the younger man, offering him his basketball sneakers… And the friendship between Blair basketball legends Luol Deng ’03 and Royal Ivey ’00 was born.
Head coach of the Blair varsity boys' basketball team, Joe Mantegna, fondly recalls the early years in which the two basketball standouts trained on the Blair court together. “Luol had just come from the United Kingdom, and Royal mentored him, challenging him on the court in practice every day. They developed a very close rapport, and Luol certainly got used to American basketball.”
Having fled war-torn South Sudan with his family in 1990, Luol Deng ’03 entered Blair Academy as a student from the United Kingdom and went on to a storied basketball career that took him to the highest echelons of the sport. After graduating from Blair, Luol spent one season at Duke and then starred for 15 illustrious years in the NBA, even playing for Great Britain in the 2012 London Olympics before retiring in 2019.
Then, in November 2019, an unexpected opportunity came knocking. The country of South Sudan needed a leader for their newly formed national Basketball Federation, and with overwhelming support, the parliament elected Luol Deng. With responsibilities that included overseeing the men’s and women’s national teams with hopes of creating a junior national team down the road, Luol settled into his new position as president of the South Sudan Basketball Federation.
While the presidential position didn’t require coaching the men’s national team, Luol soon found himself faced with time and budget constraints and accepted the role of coach for a few games this year. To his delight, the South Sudan men’s team made history, grabbing one of 14 spots and qualifying for the 2021 African basketball championship, known as AfroBasket, for the first time. The hugely popular tournament, which occurs only once every four years, has served in the past as a qualifying tournament for the FIBA World Cup and the Summer Olympic Games. Recognizing that the national team needed experienced leadership for this prestigious tournament, Luol turned to those who had befriended and mentored him in his first semesters at Blair.
In the years since he graduated from Blair, Luol had kept in close contact with Coach Mantegna and Royal. While Coach Mantegna built Blair’s boys’ basketball program into a national prep school powerhouse, he also served as consultant to Luol’s nonprofit foundation, running camps throughout North America and Australia for Sudanese immigrants and, annually, for the best players in the UK. The two maintained a close relationship, with Luol even serving as godfather to Coach Mantegna’s youngest son, Xavier ’24. Meanwhile, Royal played college basketball at the University of Texas at Austin and then starred for 10 distinguished years in the NBA before retiring as a player in 2014. He then commenced coaching in the NBA, serving as an assistant coach for the Oklahoma City Blue, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, while still finding time to reunite with his fellow Bucs at events like Blair’s 2009 ceremony at which their numbers were retired (pictured above).
Recognizing the impressive talent and deep experience that his fellow Blair alums offered, in May 2021, Luol Deng named Royal Ivey head coach of the South Sudan Basketball Federation’s Men’s National Team and Coach Mantegna assistant head coach.
Coach Mantegna is now busy preparing for his departure to Rwanda, where the Afrobasket competition will be held on August 24 through September 5. He could not be more excited about this opportunity for both of his former students. “It is an incredible honor for Luol to be the first president of the South Sudanese Basketball Federation. This is the first time South Sudan has competed in Afrobasket and it carries incredible weight. I am humbled to be a small part of it,” he said.
Coaches Ivey and Mantegna have their work cut out for them. In the weeks ahead, they will need to refine their roster, run training camp, strategize and develop detailed game plans for each opponent they face. But Luol is confident that Royal is the right person to guide the team. “Royal is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met, with an exceptional understanding of the game,” Luol said. “His personality, IQ and drive are precisely what our Men’s National Team needs to elevate to the next level.”
Coach Mantegna concurs. “Royal is an absolute star coach in the making. This is a great opportunity to not only lead the South Sudenese national team but to show the world what a talented leader he is.”
Luol Deng has come a long way since he arrived at Blair toting only his backpack. As all great athletes do, he has learned from the past. This time, he will show up on the new court armed with two weapons: Royal Ivey and Joe Mantegna. Join us in cheering them all on as they lead the South Sudan Men’s National Team to world history on August 24; games will be televised on ESPN+ and YouTube.