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Judge grants Mooseheart restraining order; players from Sudan can play

KevGbadebo (left) laughs with MangisDeng (center) Makur Puou  before Mooseheart's game Tuesday against Westminster Christian. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

Kevin Gbadebo (left) laughs with Mangisto Deng (center) and Makur Puou before Mooseheart's game Tuesday against Westminster Christian. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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GENEVA — A Kane County judge has ruled that three Mooseheart basketball players from the Sudan will be able to compete for the high school, at least temporarily.

Tuesday afternoon, Kane County Judge Dave Akemann ruled that the Illinois High School Association cannot make the three players ineligible prior to a hearing with the state’s governing athletic body set for next Monday.

Mangisto Deng, who is 6 feet, 7 inches tall, Akim Nyang, 7 feet, and Makur Puou, 6 feet, 8 inches, all came to Mooseheart from Sudan through a small organization called A-HOPE that places African children in American school and home settings.

A-HOPE Foundation, started by Mark Adams, has been placing promising student athletes in American schools across the country since 2003. A-HOPE stands for African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education. Several A-HOPE alumni are playing at Division I colleges.

The three players have played on the Mooseheart team for its first four games so far this season. A fourth player, Wal Khat, competed in on Mooseheart’s cross country team and won a medal for finishing 24th in the state.

The IHSA declared the players ineligible, saying Mooseheart recruited them, and has indicated Mooseheart acted incorrectly in doing so and could face IHSA sanctions.

In granting the restraining order, Akemann said the IHSA constitution indicates it cannot prohibit the players from playing until the board has made a determination.

Right now, the only hearing was a more informal one conducted over the telephone, and IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman made a decision based on that.

The situation came to the IHSA’s attention after inquiries from Hinckley-Big Rock High School about players from A-HOPE in general. But Mooseheart officials questioned the relationship between the IHSA and Hinckley-Big Rock because of the timing of Hickman’s decision late last week. Mooseheart and Hinckley-Big Rock play each other Wednesday night.

During court Tuesday, Akemann said attorneys for Mooseheart and the IHSA made statements “both impugning the other party.”

On Tuesday, officials from Hinckley-Big Rock High School sent a release clarifying their involvement in bringing the Mooseheart players to the IHSA’s attention.

The statement from the school district said in February 2012, Hinckley-Big Rock athletic director Bill Sambrookes was informed at a conference meeting that some Mooseheart players were part of the A-HOPE program. Sambrookes was unfamiliar with the program and several other coaches and athletic directors had questions about A-HOPE student eligibility. When Sambrookes contacted the IHSA for more information, he was told the IHSA was already aware of the situation and investigating.

“It was never the intent of the Hinckley-Big Rock School District to attack the student athletes or Mooseheart,” the statement said. “Our only intent was in gathering information about the A-HOPE program and the basis for participation in IHSA sanctioned events and activities.”

In a press conference after Akemann’s ruling, Mooseheart Executive Director Scott Hart said they were “ecstatic by the decision.”

He said that more than 80 percent of Mooseheart children participate in athletics, and called it “a large part” of being at Mooseheart.

Hart said the Moose connection to Sudan began when Sudanese native and former National Basketball Association player Manute Bol, a Moose member, toured Mooseheart a few years back and talked with the students there.

Eventually, that led to A-HOPE contacting Mooseheart about the four students. A key part of the A-HOPE mission is that the students return to Sudan and help their country.

“Being an education man there is prized,” said Gary Urwiler, Mooseheart school superintendent. “They will go back to their country educated.”

The 18-year-old Puou appeared at the press conference and he hopes to use his experience at Mooseheart to “go to college.”

“My goal is to get a good education and go back to and help my family,” he said.

Hart said Mooseheart officials are “confident” they have a good case to present to the IHSA board Monday. But he added that Mooseheart is ready to accept the IHSA decision if it goes against them.

“Life is not always fair,” he said. “We take it one day at a time.”

Whatever happens next Monday, it could prove to be a precedent-setter for the state and how it deals with these athletes and future ones in a similar situation.

“There is a big policy decision included in this, for these students and the more out there like them,” Akemann said.

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