Home Is Where The Court Is
A crew of young Sudanese refugees in Western Australia finds hope, identity and friendship through basketball.
"In Good Company" is a series about athletic teams and clubs that are challenging the status quo.
There's a casual game of three-a-side going down on Perth's South Beach basketball court in the city of Fremantle (or Freo). It may look friendly, but the banter reveals something big is at stake: Dinner is on the losers.
"That meal's gonna be so good, woo!" says Chris Lako, the team funny guy (and shortest player, which earns him a healthy dose of teasing).
Sebit Reath, the informal leader of the group, grins as he handles the ball. "Bro, I want a milkshake", says the 22-year-old, who played in university on a basketball scholarship. "And you better go deep in that pocket because I'm also going to Nobu!" He has a taste for upmarket Japanese cuisine.
"You ain't getting a meal out of me, get outta here!" replies Chudier Lap, who, at 21, is one of the younger players.
"We can go to barbecue, aye?" adds Ngor Manyang, 25, one of Sebit's teammates. Their accents are distinctly Australian, yet their inflections show their roots. All of the men on the court are refugees from South Sudan who arrived in the western city of Perth when they were children.
Here, halfway around the world, they literally stand out—Sebit is 6 foot 10. But the real reason they stop spectators in their tracks is that few have seen such a high level of skill up close. The ballers are either pros or well on their way. But today, it's about the love of the game (and food).
Sebit drives past them from the left wing towards the bucket. Net. Shirts up by 4. Time for a water break.
From left: Chudier, Ngor and Chris joke around and stretch before a game.
We swoop in to chat with Sebit; his younger brother, Chuatwech, 19, who played for the local National Basketball League team; and Ngor, to find out how this sport has given them the opportunity to connect with all of the things they value most.
We talk the love of basketball, a passport to freedom and winning.
From South Sudan to Perth—what made your family take that journey?
Chuatwech: I was born in Waat, South Sudan. And, because of the civil war, our family moved to Australia when I was 3.
Where is home?
Chuatwech: Australia has played an important role in my life, and I appreciate every opportunity I've been given. But I will always have a connection with South Sudan, it will always be my home and I feel a strong connection with my heritage there.
From left: Chat, Nyanen, Chol, Sebit, Dinaay, Thomas, Nyadang and Chuatwech Reath at their home in Ellenbrook, Western Australia.
How has playing sport at a high level helped to connect you to the wider Australian community?
Chuatwech: It has shown me that you can't take anything for granted and that working hard is the only option if you want to get out of a tough situation. I strive for a better future, making the change from South Sudan to Australia worth it. Hopefully, one day I can go back to South Sudan and make a positive difference there for everyone.
Sebit: I feel like being really good at sport … It's kind of like you're more included. I really think it brings people towards you.
Ngor: We're one of the tallest tribes [South Sudan's Dinka tribe] in the world. We obviously gravitate towards basketball because it works out well for us, with our height and athleticism.
Sebit: Mainly because of my older brother. I wanted to play with him, you know? We do everything together. Basketball is one of the three pillars of my life. There's school, family and basketball.
Chuatwech: My brothers were playing. They'd go to games on the weekend, and I wanted to play with them. So I stopped playing football and started playing basketball, eventually training more seriously from around age 9 onwards. And now, I'm trying to go pro, so I base my day around it; it's basically all I think about.
From left: Chris, Ngor and Chudier laugh in the back seat on the way to the South Beach basketball court.
How'd your crew start?
Chuatwech: We've known each other for years—our families know each other. We just started playing together as kids. Then, someone put together a team for the South Sudanese Australian National Basketball Association, the Perth Rhinos. The team shut down in 2018, but we think of this team as a continuation of that one.
What's it like to be a player on this team?
Sebit: It just takes out all of the outside noise. Nothing else really matters when we get together. Because basketball's the kind of sport where you need cohesion, everyone needs to be on the same page to be successful. We argue with each other, but then move on from that into the next play. You know, teamwork. All that stuff just kind of makes your friendship a bit stronger.
Ngor: I feel the love. I feel, you know, a good energy. I feel the great support of being part of this group, because we really do back each other up wherever we're at.
Chuatwech: It's like family. You have any problems? You can tell anyone in the group. During games, there are obviously struggles, and you don't want to lose. But basketball is a team sport; you've gotta give up your differences. Through that, you know, we work at problem-solving, because we discuss what to do.
Ngor helps Bang to his feet after a foul.
How do your bonds extend off the court?
Ngor: We encourage each other and it's really built resilience within us. When we play together, we see that when one person succeeds, we all succeed. That's what I love about playing team sports.
Sebit: Playing together confirms our friendship. Being able to argue with each other and then move on from that, it makes your friendship stronger.
The Reath family connecting over lunch at their home.
How would you describe your style of play and your strengths?
Ngor: My strength would be shooting. I'm one of the most gifted shooters.
Sebit: My versatility and my height, so I can shoot it from up here.
Chuatwech: My speed and athleticism. I'm not afraid to share the ball. I like to win, so I do basically whatever I can to win.
Who is the best player?
Sebit: (Dead serious) I'd say myself.
Chuatwech: (Dead serious) My brother.
From left: Chris, Bang and Chudier fight for a rebound.
It's back to the court, and the game gets heated. Their voices shoot across the court as quickly as their passes.
"He doesn't want to shoot it!"
"Attack the basket, bro!"
"Yo, how does it feel to be so short?"
"There y'are, show us how it's done!"
Players on neighbouring courts stop their own games and gather around to see the crew's pro-level plays up close. The onlookers' admiration for their skills is evidence that, through basketball, these men have become local heroes.
The series of 11-point games ends 4–3, with Sebit's team taking the win. As the MVP of the game, Sebit spends a few minutes giving pointers to some children who've been watching them play.
Then, the team heads to the beach to cool off in the famous Fremantle breeze, locally known as the Freo Doctor, because the crisp sea air provides relief from Australia's summer heat. Down on the sand, the Freo Doctor whipping around them, they run into the waves, chasing one another, poking one another, falling down laughing.
From left: Chris, Chudier and Bang cool down after the game at South Beach.
The losing team makes a promise to the victors that they'll take them out for burgers or ribs soon. Though winning means everything to them in the moment, it's also not the point at all. For these guys, basketball is a communal language, a lens through which they see the world, a way to belong. Ribs are just a tasty bonus.
Words: Aarti Betigeri
Photography: Chris Gurney
Reported: October 2020