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Sudanese Teens Fight To Play Basketball In Illinois

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Illinois, basketball is serious business. It's the home of the six-time champion Chicago Bulls, after all. But this next story is about some NBA-sized players at a small suburban high school. A group of boys from Southern Sudan who attend this school went to court for the right to play on the court. And as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, they've scored a win.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: There's nothing like a good tall tale and this involves some serious height.

MANGISTO DENG: Even in the United States, the first question they ask you, how tall are you? And we are like, sometime I'm like, I'm 5'11. They're like, no, you're kidding.

CORLEY: Eighteen-year-old Mangisto Deng who had just finished playing a high school basketball game is actually 6'7" tall. Sitting next to him are two fellow and taller Sudanese students, 18-year-old Makur Puou, who is 6'9", and 17-year-old Akim Nyang, an even 7 feet tall. They play ball for Mooseheart, a small private school in Batavia, Illinois, 35 miles west of Chicago.

High school basketball fan Tim Kleihege had come to root for Mooseheart's opponent. He tells me the sight of the towering teenagers is awe-inspiring.

TIM KLEIHEGE: I think if I hopped on your shoulders, they'd still be taller than you and I.

CORLEY: Mooseheart student Wal Khat runs cross-country. A mere 6'4 tall, Khat was also part of this controversy. But the focus was mostly on the basketball players. The African students, all juniors now, came to America in the spring of 2011. How they got to Mooseheart is a matter of dispute. Pete Rush, an attorney for Mooseheart, says the school was working with a nonprofit organization, it's called African Hoop Opportunities, Providing An Education, or AHOPE.

He says the nonprofit asked the school to take in students from war-ravaged Sudan.

PETE RUSH: The answer to that question was yes and that Mooseheart would take both athletes and non-athletes and boys or girls.

CORLEY: Here's where the trouble began. A rival school thought it might be more than a coincidence that the students who needed help fleeing Sudan were also the height of some NBA basketball players. It also had questions about the nonprofit's influence. So did the Illinois High School Association, and executive director Marty Hickman ruled the boys should be banned from playing for Moosehearts Red Ramblers.

MARTY HICKMAN: We know that kids are better off when they participate in high school sports. We know that their lives are enhanced by participation in high school sports. But it has to be done within the framework of our rules.

CORLEY: Mooseheart got a circuit court to issue a temporary restraining order so the students could continue to play and appealed the ruling. Yesterday, the association's board, a body of school principals, considered Mooseheart's appeal. The four students talked about life in South Sudan and why they had come to America, just as Mangisto Deng and the others told me earlier on the basketball court.

DENG: We want to go to college, go back, help our family. In South Sudan, a lot of people can't go to school. Even you don't care how to go school and go to play basketball because you care about what I'm going to eat today, what I'm going to drink, how I'm going to sleep, when I'm going to wake up. So our country need help. That's why we're here.

CORLEY: Two of the students want to be businessmen, another an engineer and the cross-country runner, a pilot. They hope to win scholarships to pay for college. What the high school association board heard was enough to make it overturn the ineligibility ruling. Chairman Dan Klett said the decision was unanimous.

DAN KLETT: We really feel that the students were pawns in all of this and how they came about learning about the AHOPE organization and everything else, honestly, I don't think they understood what they were getting themselves into. They were just looking for a better life.

CORLEY: Klett says the board took into account that the Sudanese students sat out a year and that played a role in the decision. Today, a circuit court judge ruled the restraining order was no longer needed. The students are free to play, but Mooseheart is on probation and has to make changes to its admission process. The school's record this season is four and four.

Tomorrow, Mooseheart plays a home game, this time with no threat looming over the heads of its tallest players. Cheryl Corley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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