A sold out crowd lined up to see Mooseheart City and School take on Hinkley Big-Rock High School -- the school that spurred the ousting of three Mooseheart starters in a dispute about eligibility with the Illinois High School Association.
Mooseheart fans and supporters overflowed the cafeteria in the suburb west of Chicago as the players at the center of the controversy -- Mangisto Deng, Makur Puou and Akim Nyang -- took the court.
A judge had temporarily cleared the students to play only a day before, overturning the IHSA’s ruling that would have had the Sudanese players benched for the season.
As the sold out game began, many spectators could only get as close as the cafeteria.
Parents, staff and students stepped up to the ticket table to plead their case in hopes of getting a glimpse of the game.
But each one was told that the 1,500 capacity Hinkley gym was full.
“We decided we’d come here and watch the game since Hinkley is the ones that caused the big commotion anyway,” said Dennis Whitmore, the husband of a teacher at Mooseheart. “Now we come here and we find out that they got the stands packed with Hinkley people.”
Hinkley police reassured the crowd that everyone who showed up before the game sold out was let in, regardless of who they were rooting for.
Many of the people that were turned away waited in the cafeteria until the game was over.
“I came here because I heard the story and I want to support the three boys that are from the Sudan,” said Mooseheart alumnus Debbie Fornie. “I wanted to make sure no one booed them when they came in, but now we can’t get it. It makes me mad because I wanted to get in here and really be able to cheer them on... we drove an hour and a half to get here.”
Zach Raspopovich said they wanted to surprise the Sudanese athletes by showing up at the away game.
Raspopovich is part of one of the foster families Akim and Puou lived with for a month while they played basketball for an AAU team in Indiana.
“We’re kind of just waiting to see what happens, maybe at halftime some people will leave and we’ll get to meet up with them again,” Raspopovich said.
Mooseheart led Hinkley for most of the game.
But the Big-Rock Royals skimmed past them in the last minutes of the game.
“They scored 25 points on us in the fourth quarter,” head coach Ron Ahrens said. “That should never happen.”
Mooseheart has filed a lawsuit against the IHSA in response to their ruling that accuses them of recruiting Deng, Puou and Nyang from Sudan to join their basketball team.Despite these tensions off the court, Puou said the team just tried to focus on basketball.
“I’m coming to play and have fun, Puou said. “I can’t do nothing without my teammates so I know even if I do better later, I know it comes from them.”
Puou led all scorers with 25 points.
“He’s a good player,” Ahrens said. “That kid works hard, he’s just a phenomenal, phenomenal kid. He’s a way better kid than a basketball player, he’s going to have a good year for us.”
After the final buzzer, the mood of the crowd outside shifted back to the what led them to Hinkley in the first place.
“Mooseheart had a heart for these boys, they needed a home, they wanted to give them a second chance at life and they happen to be tall,” Fornie said . “It’s all going to come out, it’ll all come out and you’ll see, Mooseheart’s going to be on the up and up.”
“I always tell the children at Mooseheart, take it one day at a time, basketball team, take it one game at a time,” Mooseheart executive director Scott Hart said. “They’re still under that constant pressure that this may be my last game. I think the pressure was weighing on them.”
Both the IHSA and Mooseheart are expected to be in Kane County Court on Monday to dispute the recruitment controversy.