As the final buzzer sounded on the Under-18 Men’s gold medal game at last month’s Helloworld Australian U18 Junior Championships in Townsville… Deng Dut leaped for joy.
This was a kid nobody expected to be there – on a Victoria Metropolitan team few expected to win – and Deng was enjoying the moment, launching himself into the bouncing mass of Metro that had collected midcourt.
“It was the best tournament I’ve ever played in,” Dut told Basketball Victoria. “The competition was great, I made a lot of new friends and it was just an awesome experience over all.”
Of course, getting there is half the fun and for Dut, it has been a fascinating journey.
The Dut family – with Deng the fourth of six kids – emigrated from war-torn South Sudan in 2005, when Deng was just four. They eventually settled in Collingwood, making a home in the housing commission flats that tower over Hoddle Street.
Four years later Deng found basketball, scoring buckets during drink breaks of his older brother’s training sessions. Since then he’s had stints with Coburg, Collingwood and Waverley but is now back with the All-Stars, competing in the Melbourne United Victorian Junior Basketball League’s (MUVJBL) U18 Victorian Championships and in the Big V.
Dut, who turned 16 last November, is proud of his black and white jersey.
“I like representing Collingwood because there are a lot of kids in the area and I want to be a role model to the kids,” he said. “My coach often tells me that those kids are going to look up to me so I love playing for Collingwood and spending time with those kids.”
Last spring, when the Vic Metro tryouts began, Dut hardly gave himself a chance of making the squad. He had never previously made it past the first cut and, coming from a smaller association, the odds seemed firmly stacked against him.
“I didn’t have confidence but I went in thinking that I would do my best and try as hard as I can,” he said. “Then, as the sessions went on, I started thinking, ‘yeah, I can actually make this’ and I kept working.”
Vic Metro head coach Darren Perry recognised the potential.
“Sometimes it’s difficult for the guys from the smaller clubs at those trials,” Perry said. “The amount of structure can sometimes trip them up in the early going.
“You wonder whether some of those guys with talent are able to play in the kind of structure that’s required to compete at the National Championships.
“With Deng, we felt there was enough talent in the player but we also saw enough learning in a short period of time to make us confident that by the time the tournament would come along, he would be able to contribute for us.”
And yet, it wasn’t until the final countdown that Dut solidified his spot.
“We brought him up to the East Coast Challenge and, to be honest, we probably thought that was as far as he was going to go,” assistant coach Chris Anstey explained. “But the better the kid you put against him, the better he played.
“He earned his way into the team and was fantastic.”
In many ways, the journey of this year’s U18 Vic Metro Men’s team is embodied by Dut’s progress within it. Perry’s squad was considered a long shot to take out the tournament but the boys kept working, improving every step of the way.
As Anstey describes it: “We weren’t sure what we were and it just progressively got better.”
The same could be said of Dut, who was elevated into the starting line-up midway through the week. His length helped Metro become more disruptive defensively while on offence, he made good decisions; initiating the offence, slashing to the rim and dropping floaters over help-side defenders.
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
In the final minute of the gold medal game, Dut had his pocket-picked by Queensland North star Kody Stattman. The turnover led to an and-one finish and put Metro down three with 37 seconds remaining.
In response, Perry left Dut in the game, entrusting him to throw the inbounds pass out of the time-out in the contest’s final seconds.
“Credit to Deng that even though that happened he was still able to finish the game and execute what we needed to, in order to get that win,” Perry said.
For Dut, it was a momentary blight on what had been a terrific week. And when the final buzzer sounded, all was forgotten – the sting of that moment replaced by the joy of collective accomplishment.
* * *
In the South Sudanese Australian National Tournaments, Dut plays for the Yarra Wild Beasts; a team made up primarily of ballers from housing estates in Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond.
One of the Wild Beasts coaches, Nima Sobhani, sees Dut’s efforts at the nationals as a source of inspiration within the local South Sudanese community.
“To have Deng, at his young age, to see him accomplish what he’s accomplishing… I can see it in the other kid’s eyes and in their body language that they’re just brimming with pride,” the coach said.
Sobhani serves as something of a mentor for Dut. As does Collingwood’s Big V import Manny Hendrix, whom the youngster views as a role model, on off the floor.
“I like what Manny’s done for Collingwood since he’s come to the club,” Dut explained. “He’s helped a lot of kids with their schoolwork, family, anything the kids need he helps them whichever way he can.
“That’s what I want to do when I grow up, help the kids and the community.”
At the nationals, Dut was proud to represent his community on the national stage. It was a concept Perry and his staff explored with the players in the lead-up, challenging them to reflect on the people who support them.
Dut, whom Sobhani describes as “a sponge, always wanting to learn”, took the message to heart.
“I played representing my club, my family, myself, South Sudanese people and also the State of Victoria,” he said.
In the wake of the AJCs, Dut says he’s hungrier than ever and focused on developing his game while making it rain in the classroom.
“I want to graduate and then go play college in America,” he said. “Then, hopefully, make it to the NBA.
“This is my second last year (of high school) so I really need to be on track.”
Hendrix, who coaches Dut’s Collingwood MUVJBL team, is playing a key role in that process. Homework is commonplace at Hendrix’s training sessions, with older players often tutoring the young.
“Manny’s really helped me lock-in over the past 12 months,” Dut added. “I used to be all over the place with my schoolwork before that but Manny’s helped me get on track.”
He’s also aiming to don the green and gold in two years’ time, setting his sights on the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup.
“I’m just going to keep working and try to make that team and play for Australia,” Dut said.
Work hard, try your best and represent. Not a bad recipe for success.