Midvale • In a 2-1 split decision, the UHSAA denied Cottonwood's Deng Deng, one of the state's most talented basketball players, eligibility for his senior season Thursday after the 6-foot-5 Sudanese native transferred from Granger.
Deng and mentor Denise Swope argued in a morning appeal that new Granger basketball coach Bernie Graziano had implied Deng would not be able to make the Lancers' team for the 2011-12 season. Under UHSAA rules, coaches cannot make roster decisions before the school year.
But a UHSAA panel determined that there was not sufficient evidence to show Graziano said Deng could not rejoin the team after the summer. And although panel members and administrators were unhappy that Graziano did not attend the hearing, they ultimately felt the transfer was voluntary rather than tied to a legitimate hardship.
Cottonwood basketball coach Cory Martin said he was disappointed with the decision in a case that he felt Deng was being sincere.
"It's too bad," Martin said. "I thought Deng explained his reasons well, but all you can really do in those situations is tell your story and leave it up to the committee. He knew there was a good possibility he wouldn't be able to play, but he thought Cottonwood was the best place to finish up his senior year, regardless."
The divide between Granger star Deng, who committed to Long Beach State over the summer, and Graziano seemed to grow out of a dispute the two had in the spring. When Graziano did not start Deng and then asked him to sub in during the second half of an exhibition against Bingham, the two argued. The confrontation ended with Deng leaving his team and exiting the court.
Later, the two spoke over the phone, and Graziano informed Deng that he would not be allowed to participate in summer practices. Deng alleged that the coach said, "It would be best for you to move on," which Deng felt implied that he would not be allowed back on the team for the following school year.
"I couldn't take that chance," Deng said at the hearing. "I have too much to lose."
Granger principal Jerry Haslam provided the panel with a brief, two-paragraph statement from Graziano. The coach said although he had forbidden Deng to participate in summer activities, Deng told him that he was choosing to leave the team.
Deng lives with his sister in Cottonwood boundaries, where they moved after he was already enrolled at Granger but long before the transfer.
He was voted to The Tribune's all-state second basketball team, and he plays for AAU squad A-Train Elite.
A-Train coach Alex Austin said he had told Deng specifically not to go through the hardship process, which Austin believed would not end well no matter what case Deng presented. Austin blasted Graziano and the UHSAA, which he said never had Deng's best interests at heart.
"Graziano knew he had a star player and tried the punish the kid because he wanted to practice with his AAU team instead of practicing layups in high school," Austin said. "In Utah, high school basketball is a hobby. If you want to get recognized by college coaches, you gotta be playing with on an AAU team at out-of-state tournaments.
"All [the UHSAA] did was waste everyone's time," he added.
At the meeting, panel members lamented the absence of both Graziano and Austin, hoping the two could clarify the situation.
Austin said he did not know the hearing was taking place Thursday morning if he had, and if Deng had asked him to attend, he said he would have gone to defend Deng.
Graziano was not immediately available for comment. Granger principal Jerry Haslam said the coach knew about the hearing but could not attend.