South Sudan coach Royal Ivey as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder
Royal Ivey as an assistant coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder (Photo by Torrey Purvey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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Nets Assistant Royal Ivey on Coaching South Sudan & Growing Basketball in Africa

His vision is clear: “connectivity through the vessel of basketball.”

For a man still awaiting his 40th birthday, Brooklyn Nets assistant coach Royal Ivey is seriously well-traveled. A New York City native, he starred at Cardozo High School in Queens before emerging as a consummate defensive stopper at the University of Texas. After spending a decade in the NBA, he opted to wrap up his pro career in China with the Guangdong Southern Tigers.

His coching journey began in Oklahoma City before leading him back home to the Five Boroughs, first as an assistant with the Knicks before shipping down to Brooklyn. But Ivey isn’t content to keep things local; his dreams were always bigger.

This month, he took on the biggest, most uniquely inspiring challenge of his career: Ivey became head coach of the South Sudan national team as it prepares for the 2021 FIBA AfroBasket tournament in August.

As he takes the coaching reins from two-time NBA All-Star Luol Deng — the finest basketball player South Sudan has produced to date — Ivey spoke to Boardroom about what attracted him to this incredible opportunity and the wisdom he’s picked up from Deng along the way.

On the heels of the launch of the Basketball Africa League (which famously features rapper J. Cole among its players), he also discussed what the NBA community can do to capitalize on the BAL’s buzz and continue to grow the game on the continent.

The following is Boardroom’s conversation with Royal Ivey, conducted via email and lightly edited for clarity.

SAM DUNN: How did you first come to know South Sudanese basketball, and what ultimately drew you to the national team opportunity?

ROYAL IVEY: I first came in contact with the basketball establishment in South Sudan due to my relationship with Luol Deng. I saw that he was coaching and wanted to help out. We had several talks over the phone and came to a common ground, and I thought this would be a great opportunity. I couldn’t turn down the chance to be a part of the resurrection of South Sudan basketball.

I’m very excited and humbled to be a part of this journey. I believe the basketball dynamic in South Sudan is on the rise.

SD: What does Luol Deng mean to the South Sudanese community at home and abroad? What advice has he given you about taking on this job?

RI: Luol Deng means everything to the South Sudanese community at home and abroad. He is the President of the South Sudan Basketball Federation and is an ambassador of his country, which gained their independence in 2011.

He has done so much for his country off the court and is truly an iconic figure. The pride that he has for his family and country is immeasurable. He is a very passionate individual who has an affinity for people and relationships.

I’m honored to call him a friend, but he is more like family. He has given me free rein. He told me to be myself and to stay authentic.

SD: What’s the basketball culture like in South Sudan?

RI: The basketball culture in this part of the world is on the rise, especially with the new Basketball Africa League. In the next few years you are going to see more talent coming to intertwine with the talent already in Africa.

AfroBasket is a culmination of 16 countries in Africa [competing for] the FIBA African championship: NBA players, high-level EuroLeague players, and young college players. It is high-level basketball. There are a lot of high-level African players in the NBA. The talent runs deep in Africa.

SD: Who’s a South Sudanese player or two to look out for at AfroBasket?

RI: The two South Sudanese players to watch out for in AfroBasket would be Bol Bol and Wenyen Gabriel. Bol Bol currently plays for the Denver Nuggets, and Gabriel plays for the New Orleans Pelicans.

SD: As players with strong roots in Africa continue to reach greater heights in the NBA, what kinds of progress are you hoping to see in growing the game on the continent?

RI: The progress I would love to see would be for all the high-level NBA guys connecting with their country, giving their time and effort to support the growth of the game of basketball. Doing more clinics and camps, more player development and people development on and off the court — connectivity through the vessel of basketball.

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