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Saturday, June 15, 2024

INTERESTING FOLKS: “Full-Circle Moment” for Blair Coach as Olympic Team Taps Him for Paris

The connection between a coach and two athletes formed nearly a quarter century ago on a Warren County high school basketball court will lead to the world’s largest sports stage this summer.

Longtime Blair Academy faculty member and varsity boys’ basketball coach Joseph Mantegna will serve on the coaching staff of South Sudan’s first national team for its Olympic debut in Paris. The opportunity also reflects the remarkable mentorship Mantegna forged and has maintained with two of Blair’s most celebrated student-athletes.

Mantegna refers to Luol Deng as “Lou” and Royal Ivey as “Roy,” a testament to their close relationship and the pride he takes in their remarkable success. Ivey was drafted by the NBA four years after graduating from Blair in 2000 and played for the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Oklahoma City Thunder. Meanwhile, Deng graduated Blair in 2004, then played professionally for the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves. 

Ivey and Deng are both citizens of South Sudan and now lead their nation’s first Olympic basketball team. Ivey serves as head coach and Deng is president of the organization. 

South Sudan gained independence in 2011, making it the world’s newest recognized country. But that newfound political status came at a brutal cost to its citizens, who endured a civil war and horrific ethnic violence, which Mantegna broached with sensitivity and compassion.

“There’s an untold sort of rule with South Sudanese people that they also don’t talk a ton about the generation before them,” Mantegna said. “Because it’s often, ‘Oh, my father was killed,’ or ‘My grandmother was in the genocide.’”

Neither Deng nor Ivey forgot the crisis in South Sudan and always wanted to give back to their country in meaningful ways. That desire ultimately led to forming the newly-minted nation’s first national basketball team, and a role for their high school coach and mentor.

Framed photographs of his family and former student-athletes line the walls of his office at Blair Academy, where Mantegna serves as associate dean of college counseling in addition to his coaching duties. 

Tall and fit with neatly combed salt-and-pepper hair, Mantegna carries himself with a sense of energetic but measured purpose. With a 441-155 career record against a nationally-ranked schedule, he remains a serious force on the courtside, where his kind eyes take on a sharp focus. 

Initially, the South Sudanese national basketball team considered making Mantegna the head coach. 

“I really thought that Roy, being an NBA coach, should be the head coach,” he said. “And that was absolutely the right move.”

Instead, Mantegna’s role on the South Sudan team has morphed into what he sees as akin to the chief of staff who works alongside the coaches, scouts and athletes. 

“I just sort of have my fingers in everything and I’m sort of the older guy who whispers in everyone’s ears and checks the scouts, checks the defense and watches all the film,” Mantegna said. “I’ve coached the most games of any of those guys, so I’m sort of the older guy who’s been through a lot. But it’s fun, actually, because I don’t have the direct responsibility per se on any one thing.”

That leaves Mantegna free to help support the team in a considered way.

“The word I use is ‘serve.’ I try to serve the other coaches as best I can. Whatever they need, I do, and whatever the players need, I do,” Mantegna said. “But it’s a sort of a mentoring service role that I call the chief of staff because that’s kind of what it is.”

Mantegna gently shakes his head in near disbelief and cracks a slight smile when he explains that it all started with a pair of sneakers nearly 25 years ago.

Born in what is now South Sudan, Luol Deng and his family fled the endemic violence and instability enveloping their home country and settled in Europe. After emigrating to the United Kingdom, Deng’s talent on the basketball court put him on the radar of school athletic programs stateside and landed Deng a seat at Blair Academy. 

“You want to talk about full circle moments, the three of us sort of arrived together in August of 1999,” said Mantegna. “I arrived from my honeymoon, like literally 10 days before they arrived for the first day of classes. Full circle.”

Jet-lagged by a transatlantic flight and carrying only a satchel on his back, Deng came to Blair as a 14-year-old freshman. But he arrived without sneakers, just dress shoes, which he wore to shoot hoops at the gymnasium that late summer day.

His footwear caught the attention of Royal Ivey, a postgraduate student on the basketball team who also hailed from what is now South Sudan, who was sitting in the bleachers that day beside Mantegna. 

Ivey gave Deng his sneakers after learning the two shared the same shoe size, forging a deep bond that continues today. Mantegna observed both Ivey’s sneaker gift and Deng’s obvious talent on the court and knew he had something special, but had no idea at the time that all three would later end up at the Olympic games. 

The long journey to the Olympics began a decade ago, when Deng started hosting basketball summer camps for South Sudanese kids. Deng himself funded these camps with the assistance of Nike. 

“He was trying to bring South Sudanese youth together,” Mantegna said.

The grassroots effort allowed Deng – and later Mantegna – to identify promising South Sudanese athletes and help find places for them in the United States, bringing hope and visibility on the ground for kids whose parents often arrived via refugee camps after fleeing a genocide.

Deng’s experience leading the summer camps inspired him to create a national basketball team for South Sudan. He coached the team outdoors under the blazing sun and heat, since there is not a single indoor basketball court in the eastern central African nation.

A path to Paris emerged when Deng’s South Sudanese team qualified to compete in the AfroBasket, a continental championship held every four years, where they performed so well the team qualified for the World Cup.

“Then, last summer we were in Manilla, Philippines – the first time South Sudan had ever played in any World Cup,” Mantegna said. “And we finished as the highest ranking team. So, that got us an automatic berth to the Paris Olympics. We went from 83rd in Africa to number one in Africa now in just three short years.”

Deng and Ivey leaned into their roles leading the South Sudan team, becoming celebrities themselves in the process and bringing hope to the war-torn country.

“We’re just using the bouncing ball to draw attention to what these guys can do,” Mantegna said. “If we unite people from different tribes in [South Sudan], then what can happen is the strength of this country is shown on the greatest athletic stage.”

Deng and Ivey’s impact extends beyond their team or South Sudan and inspired their high school coach and mentor to learn how he could contribute.

“We started to learn about the narratives of people in South Sudan [and] it just became quietly a thing my family wanted to engage,” said Mantegna. “And you know, we did it through basketball, right? Because that’s what I do. If I had a million dollars, I’d donate, but I don’t, so I was able to try and give back.”

Mantenga’s motivations mirror those of Deng in terms of giving back through basketball. That shared mission has only strengthened their bond.

“Just so you know, he’s my youngest son’s godfather,” Mantegna said, referring to Deng. “He’s family to me.”

Asked about his favorite moment so far on the journey to the Olympics, Mantegna was emotional describing the celebration alongside Deng and Ivey after the South Sudan team qualified for the World Cup in Tunisia in 2023.

“There were probably 75 fans or 100 waving flags, bawling,” said Mantegna. “I looked at Lou and we were on the court waving to them, we had just won. We had beaten Senegal. He’s crying. And I’m crying. And 70 people in the crowd are crying.”

Mantegna gives all the credit to Deng.

“It was all him. It was his money. It was his vision. I’m just a tiny part of it. But to see him bawling and his dream come to fruition… Like how could you have even had this vision if you’re him? In 2024, we had 100 kids at a camp in Omaha. Like 15-year-old South Sudanese kids running around in circles. I’m putting them through drills, he’s putting them through drills and now we’re across the world, qualifying for the World Cup.”

“I’m just glad to be along for a little bit of the ride,” he said. “It’s nation-building through sports.”

Morgan Gardiner
Morgan Gardiner, Contributing Writer

Morgan Gardiner is a journalist and broadcaster based in Northwest New Jersey. Born and raised in Warren County, Gardiner graduated from McGill University and was previously an on-air newscaster, reporter and producer for WRNJ-AM. When not chasing down a news story, Gardiner fills his time with books, family, friends and traveling.