By Martin Cleary
Ottawa’s Marial Shayok has worn a dozen different basketball jerseys before this summer, whether it was for high school, Canadian national, university or professional teams.
But the 13th jersey he slipped over the shoulders of his six-foot, six-inch frame on Monday will go down as one of the most memorable moments in his accomplished career.
And there are more of those moments on the horizon.
When Shayok, 28, donned his No. 11 jersey for South Sudan’s preparation game against Brazil, it marked the first time he would represent the northeastern African country, which gained its independence from Sudan after the 2011 referendum.
In 10 days, Shayok will live another moment to remember, when the Bright Stars play their first-ever game at the FIBA World Cup men’s basketball championship, which will be staged in three cities in three different countries – Manila, Philippines; Okinawa, Japan and Jakarta, Indonesia.
That moment also will be special for the Shayok family. Makur Shayok, the father of Marial, was born in Sudan, developed his basketball skills in his homeland and earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Dayton.
South Sudan opened its World Cup preparation schedule on Monday with an 85-75 loss to world No. 13 Brazil. Shayok didn’t play in the African Qualifiers, but was one of several players added to the South Sudan roster for the World Cup.
Australia welcomed South Sudan, Venezuela and Brazil for a triple doubleheader called Boomers vs. World Openers. It appeared Shayok may have had some opening-night jitters as the Bright Stars led Brazil 47-42 at the half and 63-61 after three quarters before being outscored 24-12 in the decisive fourth quarter.
Shayok played a team-leading 22 minutes and 50 seconds, but only connected on one of eight field-goal attempts, which included missing all three of his three-point shots. But the all-around player added three rebounds, three points, one assist and one steal.
South Sudan, which is ranked No. 62 by FIBA, was scheduled to play world No. 17 Venezuela on Wednesday and No. 3 Australia on Thursday. The Bright Stars will wrap up their preparation schedule at the International Men’s Basketball Classic next week with games against No. 22 Iran on Sunday and No. 33 Jordan on Tuesday in Jinjiang, China.
After its game against Jordan, South Sudan will have four days before its World Cup debut on Aug. 26 against No. 20 Puerto Rico in Manila. Needing to finish first or second in its pool to advance to the next round, South Sudan will play No. 27 China on Aug. 28 and No. 6 Serbia on Aug. 30.
South Sudan certainly isn’t a big player on the international men’s basketball circuit, but the Bright Stars turned a lot of heads during the African Qualifiers. Under coaches Luol Deng, the federation president and former NBA all-star, and American Royal Ivey, an assistant coach with the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, South Sudan posted a 12-1 win-loss record.
On Aug. 10, the South Sudan federation named its 18-player team heading to the World Cup, which included the core of the African Qualifiers squad – captain Kuany Kuany, Numi Omot, Deng Acuoth and Mareng Gatkuoth.
As the World Cup approached, Deng added major reinforcements to the roster with the addition of Wenyen Gabriel, Carlik Jones, Shayok and Emmanuel Akot, who once played for a Canadian national youth team.
Gabriel played 147 games in the NBA for six teams over four years, including 68 games for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2022-23. During the past two NBA seasons, Jones played for three teams.
Shayok made sports history at the 2019 NBA Draft, when he became the first Ottawa basketball player selected into the premier league. The Philadelphia 76ers called Shayok’s name in the second round and 54th overall. He played four regular-season games in 2019-20 for the 76ers before being moved to their G League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats.
While South Sudan dominated the African Qualifiers, the major question is how will the Bright Stars do in their World Cup debut?
South Sudan has some experienced players, but does it have enough to accomplish its first task of placing in the top two in its preliminary group? There’s plenty of optimism in the South Sudan camp as the team can enter its biggest championship with a nothing-to-lose, everything-to-gain attitude.
A story on the FIBA website said: “The Bright Stars should have enough talent to get the job done, especially if they rally around being a major beacon of hope for the people back in their homeland and their compatriots around the world.”
Shayok has travelled thousands of kilometres, played hundreds of games and taken thousands of shots to get to the point where he will not only be part of South Sudan’s baptism at the World Cup, but also will play his first game at the men’s world championship.
Here’s a quick overview of his journey down that road, which brought him many honours and many jerseys. Shayok played five years of high school basketball – three years at St. Patrick’s in Ottawa and two years at Blair Academy in New Jersey.
In his final two years at St. Patrick’s, he represented Canada at the 2011 FIBA boys’ U16 championship and the 2012 FIBA boys’ U17 world championship. During his high school days, he also ran the floor one season for CIA Bounce, an AAU team.
NCAA coaches noticed his talent and he played three years for the University of Virginia Cavaliers (2014-17). He sat out the 2017-18 season so he could transfer to the Iowa State University Cyclones for 2018-19.
After going through pre-draft tryout sessions with 15 NBA teams, he was selected by Philadelphia and played four games before having a productive 2019-20 season for Delaware in the G League.
As a free agent, he travelled to Turkey and played in the Basketball Super League for Frutti Extra Bursapor in 2020-21 and Fenerbahce in 2021-22. When he returned to North America, he was on the Minnesota Timberwolves roster for the 2022 NBA’s Summer League.
Shayok signed with the Boston Celtics on Oct. 14, 2022, was placed on waivers a day later and became a free agent on Oct. 17. He signed with the Maine Celtics in the 2022-23 G League and had a notable season, averaging 16.7 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists a game.
And now, Marial Shayok will weave his way from Melbourne to Jinjiang to Manila for a new experience – the FIBA men’s World Cup and another jersey for his collection.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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