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Hoops & Consequences: The High Drama Of Mooseheart’s Sudanese Ballers

It wasn’t the craziest experiment ever conducted in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago – where the Fermilab has been humming since 1967 – but it was perhaps one of its most combustible.

Three Sudanese high school basketball players — Mangisto Deng, Makur Puou and Akim Nyang — arrived on the campus at Mooseheart Child City and School, near Batavia, in May 2011. Thereafter, a bureaucratic and media storm took hold over whether the towering trio (rising to 6-foot-7, 6-9, and 7-foot, respectively) should be permitted to stand among the shrubs of Class 1A Illinois basketball.

Now, at long last, it seems the issue is finally being laid to rest. The Illinois High School Association’s executive director, Marty Hickman, recently said he expects Mooseheart to be absolved of its probationary status and allowed to compete in the state basketball playoffs.

“We have been working closely with individuals from Mooseheart High School and the school is in the final stages of completing the IHSA’s requirements from the ruling on December 11,” Hickman said in a statement last week. “We anticipate that they will complete the necessary steps well in advance of the start of the IHSA Boys Basketball State Series and be eligible to compete.”

But the legacy of the Sudanese trio will linger long after they’ve left Mooseheart. In July, a new IHSA bylaw will go into effect, designed to discourage similar transfers of foreign students in the future.

“The proposal was not a direct result of the Mooseheart situation, but is related,” said IHSA spokesman Matt Troha. “There has been an increased awareness by state associations around the country recently on the growing number of international students coming to U.S. high schools that are not associated with foreign exchange programs or are being placed by other organizations with athletically motivated missions.”

Troha cited the case of Junior Etou, a top-ranked power forward from the Congo, playing high school basketball outside of Washington, DC, who was recently discovered to be 20 years old.

Though there’s no evidence that the Sudanese players at Mooseheart are older than 18, their arrivals were greeted with distrust that still hasn’t quite completely faded. The three had originally come to the United States at the behest of  A-HOPE Foundation, an Indiana-based non-profit run by the coach of one of the country’s top AAU programs. Both the organization and the coach, Mark Adams, have been subjects of scrutiny in recent years.

The IHSA had initially ruled the three Sudanese players ineligible back in December, six days before Mooseheart’s big game against Hinckley-Big Rock High School. Eventually, the dispute landed in the courtroom of District Court Judge David Akemann.

It surely wasn’t the most pleasant American welcome for the players. Then again, what’s more American than a lawsuit?

“It was crazy,” Deng told me in a recent interview. “You feel weird, like you’ve done something bad. People go over there when you make a mistake.”

In court, Mooseheart put its reputation as an institution of do-goodery on the line. It argued that the school would suffer “immediate, severe, and irreparable injuries,” unless the three Sudanese were permitted to play.

“Given the unique (and particularly difficult) circumstances from which the African Students came,” lawyers for the school argued, “and the crucial role interscholastic competition plays in Mooseheart’s extraordinary educational mission, the African Students’ eligibility is simply indispensable.”

Ultimately, the IHSA board overturned the executive director’s ruling and declared the players eligible on Dec. 10. The announcement was made in front of television cameras at a press conference following Mooseheart’s game against Hinckley-Big Rock. Still, the IHSA made clear that it would not tolerate future players involved with A-HOPE.

“The students were taken advantage of by A-HOPE Foundation and people related to that organization,” the board stated.

In order to clear the final hurdle allowing the Sudanese players to participate in the state basketball tournament, the IHSA conditioned Mooseheart to submit two weeks ago to a one-day training course on rules and procedures.

Mooseheart, which celebrates its centennial anniversary this year, was originally founded by the Loyal Order of the Moose to serve as a kind of educational life insurance policy for the children of members. That held until the 1980s, when it opened up its admissions to other under-privileged children, so long as they had a Moose lodge to sponsor them. Today, the school has roughly 230 students who live on campus in houses staffed by married couples.

Athletics and academics are unmistakably intertwined at the school: Gary Urwiler, the executive director, is also the head football coach; Ahrens, in addition to coaching basketball, serves as director of residential living. Mooseheart’s football team has attracted most of the attention over the years, fueling a whisper campaign that the school actively recruits athletes.

“That is something that has been whispered for years, because of the nature of the kids coming here,” said Darryl Mellema, Mooseheart’s spokesman.

“If you took the kids in the high school and stood them up shoulder to shoulder across the bleachers, you would know that is not the case. There are certainly young men and women here who are athletes…but we don’t bring anybody here that way. That is not part of the recruitment process.”

Neither Deng, nor Puou nor Nyang say they know exactly why they ended up at Mooseheart. The school’s official explanation, codified in court affidavits, begins a number of years before its Sudanese stars arrived, when the late Manute Bol, the 7-foot-7 former NBA giant (and Moose member) visited Mooseheart and stirred its interest in helping children from his native Sudan. Ahrens also says he became personally invested in the cause of aiding African youth after serving on a mission trip to Tanzania in 2009. In court documents and media interviews, Ahrens insists he first learned of A-HOPE in a newspaper story he read. When he reached out to Mark Adams, he adds, he made clear he was interested in helping kids regardless of their abilities in competitive sports.

The argument is undercut by the fact that A-HOPE explicitly deals with basketball players, as clearly stated in the organization acronym: African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education. Like a handful of other A-HOPE players, the Mooseheart Sudanese kids are also on Adams’ AAU team, the Indiana Elite.

Adams’ overlapping enterprises have attracted the attention of the NCAA’s rule cops. Right around the time the three Sudanese enrolled in Mooseheart, ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” released a five-month investigation that determined Adams had provided financial benefits to some of his players that were deemed impermissible by the NCAA.

Consequently, two of his former players now playing for Indiana University, Hanner Perea and Peter Jurkin, were suspended for nine games this season. Jurkin is a fellow A-HOPE player from Sudan. Could his troubles foretell future mess Deng, Puou and Nyang?

Adams did not respond to email inquiries sent, but Mooseheart says its kids are beyond reproach.

The Mooseheart Ramblers are 15-5 this season, winning their most recent game against Alden-Hebron High School. Three of their losses came against out-of-state teams and one came against Hinckley-Big Rock. Deng, who inspired The New York Times to once call him “the face of a new sporting generation,” is the most polished of three Sudanese, often playing as a tall point guard at 6-7. Ahrens thinks each are athletically gifted enough to wind up on Division I basketball teams.

Whether the IHSA’s new rules on foreign players will have the limiting effect it intends remains to be seen. It was exactly 20 years ago that a group of Bosnian national players were airdropped into suburban high schools outside Chicago, begetting a similar media circus.

Ahrens and Mellema told me that they’ve heard Adams may fight the IHSA ban, and Ahrens didn’t rule out the possibility that Mooseheart would take A-HOPE kids in the future. I asked if he had any other experiments in mind.

He pointed to Deng, Puou and Nyang: “Sometimes, they talk about their brothers coming.”

cst_logo-sqEDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of stories published in partnership with the Chicago Sun-Times. To learn more about our partnership, read this note from our founders.

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