Four young men from war-ravaged Sudan tower above their teachers and fellow students on the pastoral grounds of a century-old school in suburban Chicago.
Eighteen months after arriving — and just as they are beginning to feel at home — these athletes find themselves at center court in a controversy over high school sports recruiting as officials unravel exactly how they came to tiny Mooseheart High School.
The Illinois High School Association board will consider Monday whether the three basketball players and one cross-country runner are ineligible to compete for the Red Ramblers, after the coach of a rival school's basketball team raised questions.
The administrators at Mooseheart, a small, privately funded school 35 miles west of Chicago, say they accepted the students as part of a long tradition of helping troubled and poor youth. But the executive director of IHSA, which governs the state's interscholastic sports, determined that the school broke a prohibition on high school recruiting when it accepted the teenagers from A-HOPE, an Indiana-based foundation that paid for the athletes to come to the United States and whose founder has drawn NCAA scrutiny.
Mooseheart appealed the preliminary ruling, and a judge allowed 6-foot-7-inch Mangisto Deng, 6-feet-8-inch Makur Puou, and 7-footer Akim Nyang to play at least one more game Wednesday — a 58-51 loss to Hinckley-Big Rock, the school that raised questions. It dropped the Red Ramblers to a 3-3 record.
But the four athletes — all juniors — worry about the IHSA's final decision, and what it will mean for their dreams of attending college on sports scholarships, earning degrees and returning to help Sudan.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Friday at one of the school's homelike residence halls, they said sport is their ticket to that future.
"We don't have family here. Nobody's going to pay for our college," said Deng, who wore an Indiana University sweatshirt and jeans. "That's why we're working hard in the sport so we can go to college and pay for our scholarships."
Mooseheart's executive director Scott Hart said the student-athletes at the Class 1A have garnered interest from a few mid-major colleges, such as Wichita State and Indiana State.
Though the African students' path to Mooseheart began when the school's basketball coach reached out to A-HOPE, Hart denied that anyone at the school was interested in their athletic abilities before they arrived.
"Nearly any child growing up in Sudan is in somewhat dire straits, living in poverty with no health care and no opportunity for education," he said. "And that's the focus for these boys, the education."
The school is part of Mooseheart Child City and School, a 1,000-acre residential center for children from troubled homes that is supported by the Loyal Order of Moose and the Women of the Moose. Of its 216 students in preschool through grade 12, about 20-25 were born in Africa and immigrated to the United States with their families, Hart said.
By contrast, the Sudanese athletes came here on student visas, helped by A-HOPE, which stands for African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education. Many of A-HOPE's students play on the founder's AAU basketball team during the summer.
Manute Bol, the Sudanese-born center who spent 13 seasons in the NBA, played a role in the teens' narrative. Bol spoke at the Mooseheart campus in 2005 and, according to court documents filed by Mooseheart's attorneys, inspired basketball coach Ron Ahrens to help African youth.
He took a mission trip to Tanzania in 2009 to work in orphanages. Upon returning, Ahrens started making calls to find Sudanese students that Mooseheart could help.
In January 2010, Ahrens left a voicemail with A-HOPE founder Mark Adams. That May, Adams responded, asking if the school would take a Sudanese student who was losing his scholarship at a high school in Nebraska. That student finished his education at Mooseheart, but never played competitive sports because of IHSA rules that require athletes to sit out a year after switching schools.
Later in 2010, Adams asked Ahrens if the school would take other Sudanese students. Told that Mooseheart would accept students regardless if they were athletes, Adams encouraged the four students to apply, according to the court filing.
The IHSA's recruiting rules say that member schools are responsible for violations committed by coaches, staff, students "or any organization having any connection to the school."
IHSA officials said they would not comment on the case until after the board's ruling.
The school that raised questions about A-HOPE issued a statement in late November saying it "was never the intent of the Hinckley-Big Rock School District to attack the student-athletes or Mooseheart. Our only intent was in gathering information about the A-HOPE program and the basis for participation in IHSA sanctioned events and activities."
It's not the first time A-HOPE has received unflattering attention.
The Bloomington, Ind.-based foundation's mission is helping "African student athletes studying in the U.S., but whose financial ability would otherwise make it impossible," according to the nonprofit's federal income tax forms.
The organization was founded in 2004 by Adams, who told ESPN.com last year that some of the African student athletes he's brought to the United States are poor and homeless, while others "came from loving families willing to let them go in order to seek an education and fulfill their dreams of playing basketball beyond the club level."
He said that his AAU team, Indiana Elite, was an important part of the A-HOPE program, because playing for the team during the summer helps the African students get college scholarships.
The AP left messages for Adams through the group's website and at a phone number listed for a Mark Adams in Bloomington, Ind., but the requests for comment weren't immediately returned.
Last month, the NCAA suspended two Indiana University freshmen for nine games and required them to repay a part of the impermissible benefits they received from Adams, including plane tickets, meals, housing, a laptop computer, a cellphone and clothing. The NCAA said Adams was considered an Indiana University booster because he once donated $185 to the school's Varsity Club.
The four Sudanese students don't fully understand why their eligibility is in question, said Hart, who insisted on being present during the AP's interview with the student athletes. But they do know much is at stake.
Deng and Puou said they want to be businessmen when they return to Sudan. Nyang said he wants to be an engineer. Cross-country runner Wal Khat, the shortest of the four at 6-foot-4, said he wants to be a pilot.
"When we leave Mooseheart, we need something for support ... No one will pay for you," Khat said.
Hart has pledged Mooseheart will stand by them, whether or not they play sports.
Puou talked about life back home: "We don't have good hospitals. We don't have good schools, not even good roads," he said. "United States is helping. It's changing our lives and we hope we're going to be a better people."
Deng said he's had trouble sleeping because "I just (keep) thinking about what's going to happen to us."
Carla K. Johnson can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/CarlaKJohnson.