By Desmond Anuku
When Manock Lual first arrived in Canada in early grade school, he was exploding with anger.
“I used to fight every single day – literally, every single day, I’d get in trouble at school,” recalls Lual, now 34. “I had to deal with a lot of different things – not knowing the language, not understanding communication. I didn’t know what jokes were as a kid – when you made fun of me, I thought that was real personal.”
Though landing in Overbrook was cause for celebration for Lual’s family after his parents lived through war in Sudan, many challenges remained. There was generational trauma from the war, adapting to a new country and trying to begin a new life from nothing.
It was all too much for a child who didn’t have any idea how to manage it all, but Lual’s experience started to change when he began playing basketball.
“I really got the opportunity to discover who I am through the game of basketball. I got to discover friendships. It was like my first love in a sense,” reflects Lual, the seventh of eight children in his family.
“I remember going to school and having no friends, but just understanding that as soon as basketball season started, I would have all the friends I needed. I’d have almost like a new family around me, so I think the game has literally saved my life.”
Lual dedicated substantial time and energy to pursue his basketball dreams, and his hard work paid off with a full scholarship to the University of Prince Edward Island, where he studied sociology and business.
The 6′ 6″ forward then earned the chance to play professionally in England and with the Ottawa SkyHawks back home, and he also played for South Sudan’s national team.
But the business of pro sports was tough on Lual, and when he was released by the SkyHawks during its only season before the franchise folded, the overwhelming feelings of frustration and pain returned.
“I just got to a place where it’s like I lost myself,” Lual recounts. “I had to figure out who I am for the first time again without the label of being a baller.
“So I spiralled and went through a huge depression and kind of had to discover who I was from the core. And I think through that discovery came the chance to give the next generation of leaders an opportunity to avoid all the mistakes that I had to go through while navigating the game.”
It was from that pain that Prezdential Basketball was born. Prezdential has grown to include a wide range of community-based initiatives to support youth, but the initial focus was on basketball coaching and programming.
“In our first year, our goal was honestly just to connect as many youth to full scholarship opportunities on the east coast as we could, and we had a lot of success with that,” Lual explains. “But around Christmas, three of our youth were not going back to school. … We learned that we prepared these youth for the court, but we did not give them any organizational structure, or even the structure to be away from home and survive.”
Today, Prezdential offers programs for financial literacy, nutrition, media, backpack drives, Better with Basketball at schools within the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, and community tournaments. All are focused on mentoring racialized youth living in low-income communities in particular.
The Overbrook Show, a four-part series that aired on Rogers TV, was another innovative project. Produced during the pandemic, the inspiration for the series was “to create an online platform where we can tell our own creative stories about our culture and promote self-love and self-care through artistic expression,” Lual highlights.
The Prezdential youth media program has been a big hit with participants as well. The initiative connects youth interested in media, journalism, videography, or those who simply want to get out of their comfort zone, with the equipment and resources to make their voices heard, and to develop useful skills for future career opportunities.
Might Gouta, a valedictorian at Sir Robert Borden High School, is one of the current participants in the youth media program. The future University of Toronto philosophy student says the program is special because it’s based on “lived experience” and he believes it leaves “a legacy that’s to be lauded.”
Kasai Major-Browne says Lual’s impact stretches well beyond basketball. He notes that Lual’s mentorship style connects with youth on their level, individually.
“Manock, and the friends I found in Prezzy Youth Media, transformed me from a Black boy navigating this world by simply playing a character, into a man whose confidence emanates good energy wherever he goes,” states the Queen’s University student.
Many regard Lual as an inspirational and charismatic figure, though he comes by it honestly from his own real experiences.
“I’ve seen many people go through similar challenges and I think where it’s different is I didn’t let these challenges consume me. I’m still that bright person that I was when I was young, no matter what difficulties I faced,” underlines Lual.
“That allows me to speak on these situations, but to also give you the right perspective – not one that comes from regret or any other difficulties, but that I went through this and I grew from it.”
Lual’s initiatives have brought a sense of healing to the community in times of need. Prezdential organized the first Peace in the Streets tournament following a fatal shooting in a community park in Lowertown.
The event served to remember the life lost while also bringing a positive outlook to the area and a much needed sense of joy and celebration. It gave solace to parents in the community as well as inner peace and helped them regain confidence to let their children go out to play in that same park again. Peace in the Streets has since become an annual event.
Prezdential has continued to grow fast, with piles of community partnerships and collaborations with the Boys and Girls Club, the Ottawa Community Foundation, the Ottawa Community Housing Foundation for Healthy Communities, the Ottawa BlackJacks, Rogers, the University of Ottawa and its Black Student Athlete Association, the OCDSB, as well as many other local community associations and resource centres.
Lual still has the fighting spirit that got him into trouble once upon a time, but now he’s focused on helping to break down barriers and address inequities so youth from vulnerable communities can overcome their challenges and succeed.
“Hopefully one day, we can create an economic base where the Black community and the BIPOC community can thrive,” he indicates. “We can come back to our neighbourhoods, we can start buying businesses, uplifting our neighbourhoods and not always depending on others, or the government or other opportunities to help uplift us, but uplifting ourselves.”
This article is part of the Ottawa Sports Pages’ Inclusion in Sport series. Read more about local sport inclusion initiatives at: OttawaSportsPages.ca/Ottawa-Sports-Pages-Inclusion-In-Sport-Series/.
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