South Sudanese, Seeking to Fit In, Stand Out in Australian Basketball


The older boys, like Henry and Gum, seem to be adopting the philosophy wholeheartedly. At practices, Henry in particular already behaves like a leader, running harder than anyone else, clapping as less talented players run drills.

His older sister, Adol Makeny, 34, a lab technician at a hospital, said he’s always been mature, “a big person in a small body” — though now his body seems to have caught up.

And so have his dreams. His eyes light up like flares when he talks about the Gak brothers.

“They were pretty much where we are now,” he told me one day after practice. “And now we can watch them on TV.”

Still, as mature, tall and talented as he is, Henry is young: He still eats too much junk food and struggles talking to girls. He’s the baby in a family of eight brothers and sisters who were raised partly in the African bush, and who told me they also frequently face racism in Australia: A neighbor is trying to get them evicted from their rented townhouse because of all the people coming and going. When Henry takes the train home after practice, he and the other players are regularly stopped and questioned by the police.

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While many of their parents clearly appreciate the chance to live in Australia, flaws and all, the boys tend to express a more complicated mix of emotions. Some have made more Australian friends than others. All are frustrated by stereotypes about their community that focus only on crime, and many of them wonder if they can ever be considered fully Australian even though they are citizens, with Australian passports. For many, this is the only country they know.

When I asked Henry for an example of what he would he would tell his American teammates about his background, he said, “I’ll tell them I come from Australia but I’m South Sudanese.”

Given the ever-present mix of both pressure and excitement (Henry dreams only of playing in the N.B.A.), it’s no wonder he is in such a hurry.

His relatives, along with Mr. Chagai, are all nonetheless trying to help make sure Henry does not go too far too fast and get ahead of himself.

His mother, Elizabeth Mayen, 50, is constantly reminding him to do his homework in case basketball doesn’t work out. “Like every mom or dad, you want your child to have a good future, a good life,” she said.

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