SHEFFIELD (Julio Chitunda's African Message) - Two years ago, Jerry Steele coached the Palestinian national team. Now he is embracing a new challenge with the world's newest country.
As Palestine returned to the FIBA Asia Championship in 2015 - after an absence of more than three decades - few expected them to return home with a 4-4 record.
I asked him six key questions that he was kind enough to answer.
How I got the South Sudan Job
"A coach named Dave Wahl runs an international tournament in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada called the World Indigenous Basketball Challenge. Coach Wahl contacted me regarding bringing the Palestinian national basketball team to the tournament last August. I informed him that because of the constraints of the Palestinian Basketball Federation I wouldn't be able to bring that team but that I would explore future involvement. We talked about other basketball work that I have done in South America and some work we have going on in Zimbabwe in addition to the work in Palestine.
Dave mentioned that there was a team from Zimbabwe that was to be participating in his tournament and that a new team from South Sudan was working on coming. He also asked if I would be willing to come and help with a clinic for some high school all-stars from the region.
So I went to Vancouver thinking I was going to get a chance to meet some new people from Zimbabwe, be introduced to some folks starting a program in South Sudan and try to help some high school players by encouraging them.
Upon arriving, coach Wahl contacted me and said that the South Sudan team was there but that the coach they had arranged for had not arrived. He asked if I would be willing to talk to their delegation about helping as a coach. Thinking it was tragic that they had gone to all the work to produce a team and now they had no coach, I volunteered to help.
That evening I met the delegation and asked about their backgrounds, their playing experience and what they thought they could contribute to this team. It was the first time that most of them had met each other also.
Well, we got to know each other and they were eager to set their egos aside and follow some basic direction to become a team. I learned that the young men represented multiple tribes in South Sudan and they wanted to do well in this tournament as a demonstration to their home country that they could achieve great things by working together.
From Palestine to South Sudan
"Truthfully, I don't have a typical 'coaching career'. Mostly I have been blessed with opportunities in my life to use the game of basketball to help young men and women learn some great life lessons, be introduced to new horizons in life's journey and accomplish things that would have otherwise been impossible for them.
We still have ongoing work in Palestine with those same objectives and now we have been given an opportunity to spread that work and influence with a whole new group of young people. Basketball is a tool for us to demonstrate our love for young people. I’m not trying to climb a 'coaching ladder' as much as I’m just trying to do the best I can with the opportunities that present themselves."
The process of building a new team
"The South Sudan Basketball Federation is eager and excited to get their national team program up and running. The enthusiasm is great and the potential is almost unlimited. But it's all new to this federation. So getting the word out to the South Sudanese players throughout the world has been quite a task since there was no established network of communication to rely upon.
Due to recent efforts, we have now begun to hear from players, coaches and agents so we are encouraged. We are still behind in the process so we can use all the help we can get to make contact with potential national team players.
It's an exciting opportunity to be the very first national team in a young country that could really use something positive to rally around. So, we hope South Sudanese all over the globe get excited about joining us and letting us know where the players are.
Thoughts on FIBA AfroBasket
I have never been privileged to be there but when I watch a video of the event I have to believe there may be more athletic ability in that event than any other in the world. Those young men are gifted with great ability and are improving their skills to rival the best in the world. It will be difficult for any young or new team to unseat the perennial favourites but that is the beauty of sport. It is in accepting the challenge that we learn, grow and achieve.
What South Sudan look for on international stage
It is one thing to start a new team. It is quite another to start a new team with a relatively new federation. It is yet another to start a new team with a new federation in a new nation. Thankfully South Sudan is blessed with good athletes and hopeful people with big dreams. It is now that we learn what it is to do the necessary work to achieve. Our longer range goal is to qualify for the next Olympics. That is quite a lofty goal and but for the ability of the young men who could join us and the enthusiasm of the leadership, I would say it is impossible.
For now, we need to gather the best and the brightest and get this team formed. Along the way, our federation will become familiar with the administration of participating on the FIBA stage and perhaps we'll find the financial support that will enable us to properly prepare.
With FIBA's New Competition System and the emphasis on the national team as the focal point of each nation's basketball program, our goal is to build the basketball training and facilities structure by example, using the national team as the model. Perhaps we can then be an encouragement to the entire country so that all of South Sudan is built on self-sacrifice, cooperation and finding something bigger than ourselves to which to give our lives.
Team's preparations for FIBA AfroBasket 2017
So many factors go into that formula that it's hard to know. What I would like is to have a relatively brief camp, perhaps in the USA as I have already heard from some training groups willing to help. Then I'd like to get a few friendly games in if we can. My preference is to play the best competition we can find for those games.
However, we're still taking baby steps so we’ll take one step at a time until we can start running with the best in Africa. You helping us get the word out is part of that process, so thanks for thinking about us.