(MCT) — The big moment for the Big Three came about 6:30 p.m. Monday when Mooseheart coach Ron Ahrens delivered the news: The three towering Sudanese students can play basketball for the rest of the season.
For a full 30 seconds, the team hollered, laughed, clapped and celebrated with more than a little relief. A short time earlier, state high school officials had declared the three students eligible to play.
"Get over here, big sugar!" guard Peter Kurowski called to 7-footer Akim Nyang before embracing him.
A few feet away, other teammates hoisted 6-foot-9 Makur Puou on their shoulders and laughed as they gathered in the locker room minutes before taking the court against Hiawatha Senior High School in Kirkland.
"I'm very excited," Puou said. "I'm very happy. I really don't know how I got here. Maybe God."
Mooseheart defeated Hiawatha 66-28.
Earlier that afternoon, the three players addressed the Illinois High School Association's board of directors in Bloomington. Their words had an impact.
After nearly four hours of deliberation, the 10-member IHSA board later voted unanimously that the Sudanese athletes were eligible to play, but the organization also sanctioned the school.
The decision, greeted so joyously by the Mooseheart players, reversed a ruling late last month by the IHSA's executive director, Marty Hickman, that barred 6-foot-7 Mangisto Deng, Nyang and Puou from playing.
The board did not sanction any of the Mooseheart coaches or officials individually, but it prohibited the school from taking part in the IHSA's 2013 state basketball tournament until the school implements a training program for its coaches. The school also is required to complete a review and refinement of its admissions process and submit a compliance plan.
If it completes all three steps to the IHSA's satisfaction before the tournament, Mooseheart will be cleared to participate, officials said.
Mooseheart also must sever contact with a placement organization at the center of the controversy, African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education, or A-HOPE. The group arranged for the Sudanese players to attend Mooseheart.
Mooseheart engaged in recruiting the three basketball players and a fourth Sudanese teen who is a talented cross-country runner for athletic purposes, Hickman had said. IHSA bylaws prohibit athletic recruitment.
Board President Dan Klett was blunt about the association's view of A-HOPE.
"For the IHSA, we would recommend that they not use A-HOPE," he said. "We don't feel that they meet some of the things we would like to see as far as helping all students, regardless of whether they're basketball players or volleyball players or just kids that want to come over and sing in a choir and get an education."
Klett also said he appreciated how the young men addressed the board.
"They did a very nice job ... presenting to us, speaking to us and explaining their particular situations," Klett said. "And I think that had a big effect on the board. ... Honestly, I don't think they knew what they were getting themselves into. They were just looking for a better life for themselves."
Klett said the fact that the four already served a year of ineligibility factored into the decision to allow them to play. He also said he doesn't fault rivals for bringing the students to the IHSA's attention, saying they have a right to question the students' eligibility.
"I feel sorry that the students had to go through this process, but I think other schools have a right to question it," he said. "I think any reasonable person would have questioned the situation considering that A-HOPE deals strictly with basketball. ... They're tall young men and people look at those things."
The students, he said, explained the difficulty they faced in their home country, and how there was little opportunity for education in Sudan.
"This is an opportunity for them to get an education," Klett said. "And most importantly, what we heard from all four of those boys was that not only do they want to get an education here, but they want to go back and give back to their own country."
Mooseheart, a 99-year-old residential and educational institution for children from unstable environments, had disputed Hickman's decision. It won a temporary reprieve last week in Kane County Court.
Judge David Akemann granted Mooseheart's request to allow the boys to play until the IHSA board of directors reviewed the matter.
Attorneys for the "child city" said the school had made it clear to A-HOPE, the organization placing the boys, that Mooseheart would accept Sudanese children regardless of their athletic prowess.
The attorneys also said Mooseheart had no contact with the students until they arrived on its campus in Batavia in May 2011. The players then waited a full year — at the IHSA's direction — before they were allowed to compete.
Shortly before his team went into action Monday night, coach Ahrens said he was pleasantly shocked by the decision.
He joined in the celebration, but he also was very much the coach.
He told his players that "we need to continue ... to get a lot better. ... I got a lot of gray hair, but that's not from any of this (eligibility controversy). It's from missed layups and two-footers. We've got to get after it."
The relief in the room was contagious. Nyang said he felt "so close to my team now," adding that he, like the other two Sudanese players, can now focus on school and basketball.
Deng said he couldn't believe what had happened. He thanked God, Mooseheart and Mooseheart's attorney Peter Rush.
"This is my time," Deng said. "Right now."