By Cam Lucadou-Wells
It couldn’t be real.
While setting up his Christmas barbecue, Teny Puot got a long text message from NBA Los Angeles Laker and Hall of Famer, Luol Deng.
“It was out of nowhere,” Teny says. “I thought it was probably one of my friends.”
But before long, Luol Deng was on the phone, offering the 28-year-old Dandenong-based point guard the chance of a lifetime.
He’d hand-picked a stunned Teny to captain South Sudan in a FIBA AfroBasket qualifying round in Nairobi, Kenya.
“I didn’t believe it until I met him later.”
“Not many people can say they’ve represented and led South Sudan in any sport,” Teny grins.
“It’s amazing. It’s a big-time achievement to represent your people.
“It means you’re doing something right”
And so in January, Teny led this all-star South Sudanese team gathered from all over the planet, including six from Australia.
They topped the table and Teny starred.
His team qualified to the next stage with flair, skill and passion in front of packed stadiums, fever-pitched singing and stomping crowds. An atmosphere Teny had never encountered.
And South Sudan are on the path for a June qualification round, then to meet Africa’s best basketballing nations in AfroBasket 2021. The top two make the World Cup – and the 2024 Olympics.
First hand he saw the unifying power of basketball – that transcended mere ‘sport’. Back in Melbourne, the community were filling up cafes, cheering on the games as early as 4am.
It’s reward for effort for Teny, a private, self-motivated disciple who shoots 800 baskets a day and hits the gym up to three times a day.
Along the way he’s met like-minded souls like businessman James Kerr, who bankrolled and formed the Red Roo basketball club in Dandenong.
It’s a place where players can chase their dreams, says Teny – who will be assistant coach on a Red Roo trip to an international comp in Orlando, USA.
“James is a hell of a person, his heart is in the right place. He’s one of those guys that keeps me honest.
“I tell him everyday I appreciate everything you do.
“All people need is an opportunity – and I don’t want to take it for granted. Hard work – that’s what God has blessed me with.
“I expect myself to give 110 per cent.”
Teny’s sport took him from Melbourne to Boston on a scholarship as a 13-year-old.
Then there was Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, Perth and back to Melbourne – where he is trialling for Dandenong’s NBL1 team.
In January, he paid his first ever visit to South Sudan’s capital Juba, and a meeting with president Salva Kiir. He expected harsh desert, he discovered a “green, beautiful” land full of life.
He saw “my people smiling, living their lives”.
It filled him with a longing to see South Sudan reach its potential.
“There’s nothing compared to it. There’s no word – I hope I’m alive to see it.
Basketball was always a means to further study, in the hope that he could help South Sudan rebuild.
His trip sharpened that yearning – following in the altruistic steps of Luol Deng who now heads basketball in South Sudan.
Teny also draws motivation from his 14 siblings.
His younger ones look up to him, ask him the “serious questions” about how to train and give him honest answers. He’s faced crossroads, but doesn’t want to “fall off” the path.
He won’t let people down.
“Everybody in front of me fell off and they never came to me, saying they could help me. They had so much talent, and they might have started hanging with the wrong crowd.
“I want to be better than that.
“Coming from my background, knowing the lifestyle I left behind … I do it for the entire next generation so the next kid gets a better opportunity than I did.”