Basketball: Deng realises dream in £3m journey from Brixton to the Bulls

After fleeing Sudan war and being granted asylum in Britain, 6ft 8in forward set to shake up Chicago
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The Independent Online

When Luol Deng returned to London this summer he found a long forgotten photograph jammed into a family album. Aged just 12 years old he was proudly wearing a replica Chicago Bulls jacket over his school uniform as he posed with a man-of-the-match award at a basketball tournament.

When Luol Deng returned to London this summer he found a long forgotten photograph jammed into a family album. Aged just 12 years old he was proudly wearing a replica Chicago Bulls jacket over his school uniform as he posed with a man-of-the-match award at a basketball tournament.

"That photograph brought back a lot of memories," says Deng, who is now 19. "At that time I was desperate to make it to the NBA and wear a real Bulls kit. It was all I ever thought about. I used to lay awake in bed wishing I was older so I could already be there."

The wait is over. Tomorrow night Deng will fulfil his schoolboy fantasy, and become only the fifth player from Britain to appear in the NBA, by making his debut for the Bulls against the New Jersey Nets at the United Center in Chicago. Four months ago, Deng, a forward, was selected by the Phoenix Suns as the seventh pick in the annual NBA draft at Madison Square Garden before being immediately traded to the Bulls and signing a three-year contract with them worth £3m a year.

Deng thus completes an extraordinary journey which saw him flee a civil war in his native Sudan when he was just four years old, live in exile in Egypt, settle in England as an asylum seeker and head to the United States on his own with the aim of reaching the NBA. "My life has been a tough journey, but it's been a good one and it has helped me," says Deng. "What I have been through has been a blessing. Sometimes I do see myself as the chosen one. There are other kids in Sudan with maybe more talent than me, but they will never get the chance I have had. My life could have been very different - I could have had to fight a war.

"The NBA always seemed so far away when I was growing up in London, but I had an inner belief that I could make it, and here I am."

Born in southern Sudan in April 1985, Deng was the eighth of nine children born to Aldo, a minister in the Sudanese government, and his wife, Martha. At this time Sudan was in the middle of a bloody civil war between the Arab-dominated government in the north and the Christian rebels in the south. The US Committee for Refugees estimates that more than two million people have died since the war began in 1956: three of them were Deng's uncles.

Deng escaped the increasing bloodshed when his father sent the whole family across the border to Egypt in April 1988. A year later, Aldo Deng, who remained in Sudan, was arrested at gunpoint and imprisoned for three months following a military coup in Khartoum. "This was the toughest time for my family," recalls Deng, whose family had to live three to a room in Egypt. "I missed my father and was worried about him, but we had to keep strong." Deng did this by discovering a love for basketball with his older brothers. "There was a charge to play on the smart indoor courts, which we couldn't afford, so we made do with a rundown court outside. But we didn't mind. We just loved to play."

In December 1993, Aldo Deng escaped from Sudan and flew to England to claim political asylum. It was granted three months later and he was then reunited with his whole family here. The Dengs were placed in a terraced house in South Norwood, in south-east London where today the walls are covered with pictures of Luol playing basketball and lifting trophies.

"Britain is the country I know best, which gave me and my family asylum when we needed it and helped us have a better life," says Deng, who has played for England's junior side and hopes to represent Great Britain at the 2008 Olympics. "I have spent a lot of time in the US. But I am still a Londoner. This is my home." Consequently, he is seeking a British rather than US passport.

Deng and his older brothers, Ajou and Deng, who now play respectively for the Brighton Bears and Plymouth Raiders in the British Basketball League, all made their way to the Brixton Reaction Centre, where Jimmy Rogers coaches his renowned Topcats side. The Dengs stood out from the rest of the crowd - literally - being members of the Dinka tribe who are among the world's tallest people. Luol measures 6ft 8in and is following in the gigantic footsteps of Maute Bol, the 7ft 7in Dinka who played for four teams in the NBA over a period of 11 years.

Deng had been discovered in Brixton by US scouts and, at just 14, was offered a scholarship to play basketball at Blair Academy, an exclusive private high school in New Jersey. "If you're from England, you have to work harder and be better than the Americans," says Deng, who arrived in the US in the autumn of 1999.

"I did everything I could do, giving up an hour of sleep every morning so I could practise in the gym before classes. I wanted to prove myself so badly." By the spring of 2003, after four years at Blair, Deng was ranked as the second-best high-school player in the US behind Lebron James, who now plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA and is already being hailed as potentially one of basketball's greatest-ever players.

Deng could have followed James straight into the NBA, but he turned down offers from more than 100 colleges and enrolled at Duke University to work with Mike Krzyzewski, the most venerated college basketball coach in the US. After leading Duke to 31 wins from 37 games and a place in the Final Four tournament in San Antonio, Deng had no hesitation in putting himself forward for this summer's NBA draft. Now he faces his biggest challenge: reviving the Chicago Bulls. During Michael Jordan's glorious reign they dominated the NBA, winning six championships between 1991 and 1998, but since his departure six years ago they have fallen in to a steady decline. Last season they had the second-worst record in the NBA, losing 59 of their 82 games.

"I am not at all nervous, I just can't wait to get started and go up against the best players in the world," says Deng. "I've always gone through situations where people think I won't accomplish something. And I do. I am prepared for this moment because I have been waiting for it my whole life."

FOUR DENG MUST FOLLOW BRITAIN'S NBA PIONEERS

STEVE BUCKNALL 1989-90

Born in London in 1966, he was one of the first British players to emigrate to the US. Played for North Carolina University but lasted only a season and 18 appearances with the LA Lakers. Later founded a sports camp.

JOHN AMAECHI 1995-2002

Raised in Stockport, Amaechi is Britain's most famous export to the NBA, playing for five teams. Never chosen again, however, after criticising US invasion of Afghanistan. The 33-year-old is now studying a PhD in child psychology in England.

MICHAEL OLOWOKANDI 1998-

Born in London, was first draft by the LA Clippers in 1998. A play-off place last year with the Minnesota Timberwolves was the culmination of a relatively successful career of 366 appearances.

ROBERT ARCHIBALD 2002-

The first Scottish player in the NBA, this 24-year-old from Paisley made his debut for the Memphis Grizzlies in 2002. Since then he has played for Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors, but only made 44 appearances and started three times.

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