Basketball: Deng is a bigger star than Becks

From child refugee in Sudan to NBA hero – now Luol Deng is pushing GB to new heights
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The Independent Online

Ask the American fan in the street who is the best-known sporting Briton in the United States and, despite all the Hollywood hoopla, the name they come up with will not be you-know-who but Luol Deng. Over there, he is bigger than Beckham in every sense. Over here, he is still growing in stature, even though he stands 6ft 9in and is pushing Team GB to new heights in basketball. He scored 22 points yesterday as Britain secured promotion to European Group A, vital for prospects of Olympic qualification in 2012, by beating Switzerland 89-78 in Geneva.

LA Galaxy may demur but, truth is, to the majority of Americans Becks is a bottle of beer, while the 22-year-old Deng is well on his way to becoming a legend. Although he may not earn as much as Mr B, there are plenty of Premier League footballers whose agents would not turn up their noses at the near- £40 million five-year extension to his contract he is due to sign when he flies back to the US today after his £72-a-match mission to nudge Britain towards eventual qualification.

When it comes to dunking the ball in the basket, 'Lu', as they call him, can bend it like Beckham. He has clocked up 147 points in six GB appearances, with consecutive wins over Slovakia, Holland, Albania, Belarus and home-and-away play-offs against Switzerland.

Despite his status across the Atlantic, there is no superstar swagger about the quietly articulate Deng. He is not Tinseltown material, though his story is. A child refugee from Sudan, where his father, Aldo, a government minister before the 1989 military coup, was the victim of political persecution and jailed for three months for "helping his people", Deng fled to Egypt with his mother, three brothers and five sisters. They were uncertain of their father's future until his release and escapefrom Sudan.

"Things were tough in Egypt," Deng says. "We lived in a three-bedroomed flat, me, my eight brothers and sisters and two aunts, while most of the time my parents were in London fighting for political asylum. I was only young so I remember little of Sudan, but I saw some hard things, and these stay with you.

"They also help you to be the person you are. I went to Sunday school and believe that being faithful to your religion and following the Bible helps kids like myself stay out of trouble. I still go to church. It was there that we learnt to play basketball."

Deng comes from the Dinka tribe, who are among the world's tallest people. He could not speak English when, as an eight-year-old, he and his family were given refugee status and settled in south London. "I was this big, silent kid who did not know how to interact with anyone," he says.

His sporting prowess was his making. An avid Arsenal fan, he was selected for the England Under-15 football squad, but his height was already sending out messages that basketball was his real calling. "I might have made it as a footballer, midfield or up front, but I had to choose. I was playing basketball against 18-year-olds when I was 11, and that's how my NBA dream began."

Of his eight siblings, six play, or have played, basketball, including his 24-year-old sister Arek, a professional with French side Pleyber-Christ. At 14, playing alongside his elder brother Ajou for Brixton Topcats, he accepted a scholarship at Blair University in New Jersey, where he was voted the second best high school player in the country. He then moved to Duke College, one of the great basketball "feeders" to the NBA, and after being drafted by the Chicago Bulls has blossomed into one of the league's outstanding talents.

Both Deng and Britain's American coach, Chris Finch, rebut the notion that the reborn team are a one-man band. Deng is one of several top-class performers who play for overseas clubs, including the 7ft Scot Robert Archibald, who is about to sign a million-dollar deal in Ukraine.

Deng's return has coincided with the sport's recovery in Britain from a financial trauma which threatened its international future. "This has been a great experience," he says, "and something of a learning one too. I am playing with some great players and a great coach. The more people see us the more they will realise how good Britons can be.

"There is so much talent here, and if only basketball could get the attention it deserves Britain could be one of the most powerful nations. Also, it's an ideal sport for 2012, with its emphasis on youth culture. My goal has always been to play for Britain. I consider myself very lucky to be British [he was given citizenship last year]. Some people are born into a country where they have nothing. My life's been a tough journey but a good one. I could have had to fight a war."

Despite his size, Deng is termed a "small forward", but he's a big name in Chicago, where he was the only Bull to play in all 82 league games last season. He also won the NBA's prestigious Sportsmanship Award for community and charity work off the court, as well as his "ethical behaviour, fair play and integrity"on it. "I'm a basketball player, but I'd like to be more," he says. "Part of my motivation is the better I get the more influence I'll have beyond the court. I can do something to help those who suffer, particularly in Africa."

The last time Britain appeared in an Olympic basketball tournament was in London in 1948. Deng believes they are building the foundations for a credible challenge in 2012 with their very own "Dream Team".

"Britain gave me a new life. I'm proud to be able to put something back," he says. Out of Africa, a big star is aiming high.