Deng happy to go extra mile for GB


Click to follow
The Independent Online

We've always been knocked down, whether it's by other team coaches or whether it's by the fans

His life's journey has taken him from the escalating horrors of the second Sudanese Civil War to a £45m, six-year contract with the Chicago Bulls. So you imagine that Luol Deng, the vital component of the Great Britain men's basketball team, would have been unconcerned by a few more miles rattling around his sport's backwaters of Albania, Belarus, Slovakia and Holland.

But he and the rest of coach Chris Finch's squad were forced through those miles because the international basketball fraternity did not believe that a GB side, only formed in 2006 to compete at the forthcoming London Olympics, were up to scratch to get the home nation's pass. They have had to prove their worth, by progressing beyond those also-rans to escape the European B Division for the elite league and acquitting themselves well in the European Championships, which followed. Deng momentarily drops his languid tone when reflecting on this.

"We feel a little disrespected that we didn't get the automatic home place but at the same time we understand," he says. "Since we got together – pretty much since we were in B Division – we've always been knocked down, whether it's by other team coaches or fans. We've always had something in front of us…"

Finch also reflects that "it was a bit of an annoying process" to get here but last night he, too, could finally reflect that he had arrived. The first appearance by a GB team at the Games since 1948 – only confirmed by the governing body FIBA 16 months ago – places them on the big stage and, by way of final preparation, they will take part in the biggest basketball match this country has ever seen, when the fierce Olympic favourites the USA play GB in Manchester tomorrow night.

The prospect of seeing Kobe Bryant and Co (6-1 on for gold) up against Finch's men (350-1) has made the game a virtual 17,000 sell-out, and the same venue will tonight host the corresponding women's sides. There are tickets left for this one, though anyone wanting to catch sight of medal contenders should follow Tom Maher's women, who could conceivably outperform the men, given that the field falls away after USA, Australia and Russia.

Deng has wanted this moment very badly. The Bulls did not want the 27-year-old to be playing this summer, because of a wrist injury, but he was insistent. He has been involved with GB since 2007, almost from the start, and his commitment to this particular lost cause is burnished by the refuge that Britain – Brixton, to be precise – offered his family in the mid-1990s, when they sought political asylum. Deng, then 10, was introduced to basketball with the Brixton Topcats and he hasn't looked back..