You can hear coach Mayor Chagai barking orders well before you enter the basketball court at the Police Citizens Youth Club at Blacktown in Sydney’s west.
- Basketball program has stopped loitering and fighting on streets of Blacktown
- Some players have earned scholarships to play US college basketball
- Savannah Pride basketball club looking for financial lifeline
“Ten seconds, I want you to do this in 10 seconds.”
He is ordering a series of gut-busting sprints up and down the court that will leave his young athletes dripping with sweat.
This will be followed by push-ups, “the monkey” (a tortuous stooping exercise conducted at speed) and a range of other high-pressure drills.
The young players don’t complain — their coach won’t allow that. And besides, they know he has had remarkable success in placing young men on college scholarships in the United States — a stepping stone to every young basketballer’s dream to play in the NBA.
As the coach pauses to rest his team he must surely contemplate how his life has utterly changed since arriving in Australia as a penniless refugee from South Sudan in 2006.
Childhood horrors ‘make me stronger’
Mayor was six years old when he began an epic, months-long trek from his South Sudanese cattle village to Ethiopia, fleeing war and famine.
He, and thousands like him, became known as Sudan’s ‘Lost Boys’. They survived unimaginable horror along the way.
Young Mayor saw hundreds of children die in attacks from the Sudanese army and roving militias, drown while crossing rivers or starve to death along the way.
“My memories don’t haunt me … they inspire me, they make me stronger,” Mayor said.
He is certainly not short of inspiration for changing other young people’s lives.
Thursday night in Blacktown was once referred to as ‘fight night’, as young men from different ethnic backgrounds clashed in the heart of the main shopping centre.
Former Blacktown Local Area Commander Mark Wright said Mayor’s basketball program was credited with defusing this ugly situation.
“What we saw was 150 to 200 young Sudanese boys not roaming the streets of Blacktown but actively engaged in an environment,” Superintendent Wright said.
Players at Savannah Pride Basketball club say Mayor helps guide them to success. (Supplied: Adam McKay)
‘Mayor is a visionary’
Superintendent Wright recognised a community leader in Mayor. The two men — a cop and a former refugee — have since formed a close relationship.
It began with “community walks” where police and Sudanese leaders would interact with young men on the street. This served to diffuse tension with the police and Superintendent Wright now serves on the advisory committee that oversees Mayor’s basketball team, which is called Savannah Pride.
“Mayor is a visionary … because he’s not just building basketballers, he’s building people,” Superintendent Wright said.
While dozens of kids began eagerly turning up for his training sessions, Mayor also realised that many young Sudanese were struggling at school. The solution? He linked the basketball to lessons after school in a room upstairs from the court.
The Savannah Pride basketball players studying at the Blacktown PCYC (Supplied: Mayor Chagai)
No study, no court time was the simple rule.
Mayor’s skill as a mentor caught the eye of Elena Marinis, principal of Mitchell High School in Blacktown.
A staggering 174 nationalities are represented at the school. She now has Mayor working with students who need support.
“He is bridging the gap between our African students, their families and the school,” Ms Marinis said.
“He’s brought to the school a sense of belonging and he has helped us engage with the families outside.”
Talent no tall order
Back at the training session there is a game underway. Players race to the hoops, with one slam dunk after another.
Mayor shouts instructions from the sidelines as the young athletes fling themselves into the contest.
When they take a break, bodies glistening with sweat, you realise how tall they are. Many are 16 or 17 years old and well over two metres tall, with plenty of growing left in them.
“They run like gazelles”, says Savannah Pride co-founder Emmanuel Acouth.
This athletic prowess has not gone unnoticed.
International success for Mayor’s players
Local tournaments now regularly attract top line college coaches from the US eager to recruit from Mayor’s stable, and 14 young athletes have already been snapped up
“At the end of the day he’s impacting more people than most of us ever do in a lifetime,” says Joe Mantegna, head coach at Blair Academy, a prestigious college in New Jersey.
Mantegna’s latest recruit is Henry Makeny, aged 16 and 203 centimetres tall, is about to take up a Blair scholarship. Mantegna describes Henry as “outstanding”.
Henry says that basketball “shaped” him and he praises Mayor for his constant mentoring.
“He’s the one who built me up to where I am today,” Henry said.
The tall young man has a big story to tell. His mother, Elizabeth, also fled the conflict in South Sudan.
“I spent 22 years in the bush,” she says. She arrived in Australia as single parent with eight children.
Now she is proudly standing by as Henry counts down the days until he leaves for the US.
Lifeline needed for Savannah Pride
Savannah Pride has become more than just sport for many of the players; it’s also offers a sense of belonging. (Supplied: Adam McKay)
Despite the success of Mayor’s program, many challenges lie ahead. All of his work — endless hours of coaching, organising tournaments, mentoring and late night calls to the US — is entirely voluntary.
Superintendent Wright describes how Mayor had maxed out his credit card, “sacrificed meals, clothing and even rent to ensure that young girls and boys are able to play”.
Mayor knows his work shapes young lives and builds the reputation of the Sudanese community, but says Savannah Pride needs financial support.
“It put a lot of pressure on me … because it doesn’t pay me and at the same time it keeps growing,” he said.
Meanwhile there are other pressures bearing down on this talented coach and mentor. Mayor was married in South Sudan last year and is hoping to bring his new wife and mother to Australia, an expensive part of his plans for the future.
He also wants to complete an agricultural degree, which he put on hold in order to throw himself into developing the basketball program.
The former chief executive of Police Citizen Youth Centres, Chris Gardiner, describes the possible departure of Mayor as a potentially “devastating blow” to the basketball program.
Emmanuel Acouth said the club needed a partner to secure its future.
For coach Mayor, a strong and stable club would fulfil his dream for Savannah Pride.
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