The boys can play.
In a full hearing of the Illinois High School board of directors on Monday in Bloomington, the Board overturned a decision by IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman and found Mooseheart basketball players and Sudanese student-athletes Mangisto Deng, Makur Puou and Akim Nyang eligible to participate in interscholastic athletics. The favorable ruling pertained also to fellow Sudanese junior student-athlete Wal Khat, who in November became Mooseheart's first all-state cross country runner in history after a 24th place finish at the Class 1A state meet.
After a nearly two-week ordeal since Nov. 29 -- when Hickman notified Mooseheart the athletes would be ineligible to compete "due to the IHSA's perception that these young men were 'recruited' to compete in athletics," according to an article on Mooseheart's website -- the Ramblers' good news was a credit to the athletes themselves.
"A lot of it had to do with the interviews we conducted with the students today," IHSA Board President Dan Klett said in a conference call from Bloomington. Klett is the principal at Wauconda High School. The Board also includes Marmion Principal Jim Quaid, its secretary.
"As they told their story and how they got from the Sudan to Kenya to Chicago," Klett said, "from a lot of the questions that we asked it was fairly clear from our standpoint that the students weren't really aware of everything that was going on. They were just looking for an opportunity to get to the United States, to get an education so that ultimately they could take their education and go back and help their own country."
Deng, Puou and Nyang -- respectively a 6-foot-7 guard, a 6-9 forward and a 7-1 center -- left Bloomington at about 4 p.m. with Khat and boys basketball coach Ron Ahrens, on their way to Monday's basketball game at Kirkland-Hiawatha.
Mooseheart executive director Scott Hart, superintendent of Education Gary Urwiler and Mooseheart's legal team left at about 5 p.m., before the official announcement.
Hickman's declaration of ineligibility was stayed by a Dec. 4 temporary restraining order by Kane County Judge David Akemann. The IHSA executive director had "absolutely no problem" with his decision being overturned by the IHSA Board.
"I think we have a great process. We learned some things today that we didn't know earlier," Hickman said in the conference call, noting he'd asked to speak with the student-athletes prior to his Nov. 29 ineligibility decree.
Inevitably, what Hickman and the Board did have a problem with was the process of how the Sudanese students arrived at Mooseheart, through the A-HOPE Foundation. The acronym stands for African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education.
"Our concern is the oversight that they (Mooseheart) use with the organizations where they choose to get students from," Klett said. "In this particular case, it's fairly clear to most people if you look at the A-HOPE website that they're about basketball players, not necessarily just about helping Sudanese youth. We determined that they should have a little bit more oversight when they choose to work with some different organizations."
As a result, Mooseheart did suffer consequences in Monday's proceedings. The Ramblers were placed on probation and ineligible to compete in the IHSA state basketball series until Mooseheart shows compliance with IHSA bylaws and procedures regarding admissions. Coaches and administrators must undergo a training and education program to assure compliance with IHSA bylaws, and the school must submit a satisfactory Compliance Plan.
This is not an uncommon practice.
"We've had these kind of compliance plans before," Hickman said. "It's really a matter of what effort and energy they want to put into this. I would say in a few weeks that they could have something like this done ... I would say a few weeks, six weeks at the most, plenty of time for the state tournament series."
Puou, Deng, Nyang and Khat had sat out the mandated 365-day period following their May 2011 arrival at Mooseheart. They won't sit out any more.
"They told their own story," said attorney Peter Rush, of the law firm K & L Gates LLP, at a Monday postgame press conference.
It is a compelling one.
"I want to be a businessman because my country, we need businessmen. We need doctors. We don't have a lot of things over there," Deng said after the game.
"I want to be an educated man. My country, South Sudan, we don't need basketball players, we don't need singers, we don't need things like that. Our dream over there is, how are you going to survive tomorrow?"