Cobra Sports head coach Manyang ‘Manny’ Berberi is following a formula that has served him well since his basketball coaching career started in Australia: Putting faith in South Sudanese youngsters and teeing them up for bigger opportunities.
The Longhorns, a youth development basketball club which he built from the ground up in Melbourne in 2003, continues to produce exceptional talent, many of whom have gone on to play college basketball in the US, and beyond.
One of those players is Cobra Sports power forward Mayan Kiir, who moved to Australia with his family from South Sudan when he was four years old, and started playing development hoops with Berberi’s Longhorns when he was 11.
Kiir, who was Cobra’s standout player in their BAL Nile Conference opener against Zamalek, told ESPN: « [My brothers] used to play basketball for the same club Coach Manny was coaching at. Manny found out [about me].
« He saw me over time and I just kept on growing and growing and he noticed that and invited me to come play at the club. »
Kiir went on to earn a scholarship at Victory Rock Prep in Bradenton, Florida, and played college basketball at Louisiana State University, the University of South Florida, New Mexico State University, and most recently Central Baptist College.
Kiir credits Berberi’s influence for his US trajectory, adding: « I was just enjoying playing basketball. He started talking to me like, ‘You can make something of yourself,’ and he was pushing me to go to the United States, that’s when I started thinking more long-term about it.
« I was still young, so it was kind of big for me at the time. When he started investing more in me, that’s when I found it could be more real. »
Kiir’s father had stayed behind to fight in the Second South Sudanese Civil War, and Kiir, who had not seen his dad since a trip home in 2012, learned about the Basketball Africa League while visiting him again recently.
« There’s a basketball league in South Sudan and they were competing to enter the BAL and I heard about that, » Kiir said.
« Also, Manny was coming down and he told me he was going to be the head coach. I was very keen at first and interested — I thought it was a good opportunity since I was out there in South Sudan as well. »
Berberi, who migrated to Australia from Kenya two decades ago when he was 20, after previously fleeing war-torn South Sudan, founded the Longhorns while looking to build a basketball club which could unite the South Sudanese community in Australia.
Berberi understood that being an immigrant can make it difficult to feel a sense of belonging: « In the early 2000s, when it first started, the vast majority [of club members] were from the South Sudanese community, because at that time, the community was new in Australia.
« It was just kind of a way of bringing people together to socialise; to meet their friends and their cousins. Over time, when we developed the junior programme, other young people of different backgrounds could join the team.
« It didn’t matter what race they were, they could just join the team, but a good number to this day still are from the South Sudanese community, because they love basketball and they joined the Longhorns team. »
By serving people who come from similar backgrounds to his own, he has developed a sense of pride in his adopted country while maintaining a connection to his roots. For his efforts, he was last year awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to the South Sudanese community.
Berberi, who works as a youth counselor outside of basketball, told ESPN: « Australia is a great country; Kenya is a great country. I’ve learned a lot from both. Coming back to South Sudan and helping out is good.
« When you’ve lived in different countries, they all become a part of you, so I feel like I’m South Sudanese, Kenyan and Australian all in one, and I like the way they have shaped me. »
As for how he ended up back in South Sudan, Berberi was brought in to help Cobra at the eleventh hour ahead of the BAL due to his track record in Australia, and also his close relationship with former NBA star and current South Sudan Basketball Federation president Luol Deng.
Berberi, whose Cobra team has an average age of 23 so fits his youthful ideals perfectly, explained: « I’ve known Luol Deng for a long time and he’s come to Australia to see some of the tournaments we are running and the kids we are engaging.
« South Sudan had been invited to the Zone 5 FIBA qualifiers in Nairobi, so he contacted some of the players and put the team together and we went to support him in Nairobi.
« Recently, when the World Cup qualifiers were happening, I went there to support the national team, and obviously with Cobra as well when the BAL came up. They won the league championship in South Sudan.
« For them, qualifying to go to Cairo was a big opportunity, so they contacted me and said, ‘Hey, can you help us, because you have been coaching for so long?’
« I said, ‘Ok, well, I’m coming to Africa anyway to support the national team, so from Dakar, Senegal, I’ll fly to South Sudan and support you guys in Cairo, Egypt. »
Berberi is not the only Australia-connected coach in the BAL, with US Monastir’s Liz Mills already leading her side to the Kigali playoffs [May 21-28] during the Sahara Conference in March.
He added of his fellow Aussie: « She’s a very good coach and she’s been in Africa for a while. She loves basketball. I’ve seen her coaching in tournaments in Australia — she’s a very good coach and she’s coached different clubs on the African continent.
« Last year, at the AfroBasket, she coached the Kenyan national team. We’re happy for her. I’m hoping that we can qualify from here so we can go play against her team in Kigali, Rwanda. »
A top four finish in the six-team Nile Conference [running till April 19] would book their place in the playoffs in Rwanda next month.