Basketball: Brixton's Deng now joins the All-Stars in Orlando
From Sudan to Chicago, the former Topcat is mixing it with America's big boys
Sunday 26 February 2012
The questions arrive thick and fast for Luol Deng. One requires greater deliberation than others. "If you could be one superhero for a day, who would it be?" Britain's foremost basketballer is asked. Gracefully he declines to answer, responding instead with a bemused smile.
Such offbeat interrogation, amid more conventional probing, comes with the territory at the NBA's annual All-Star Game, as much a showbiz spectacle as sporting contest. Dealing with its often nonsensical quirks is something with which the Londoner may have to become accustomed.
In Orlando tonight, the supposed 24 best players on the planet will hold court and attempt to enthral and entertain. For the first time, the Briton will take his place among their number. In his eighth season in the league, Deng is no overnight sensation yet there is little doubt among his peers that the Chicago Bulls forward now belongs in an elite echelon led by established superstars such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
While others embrace the circus, launching personalised shoes, conjuring up outrageous slam dunks, relishing the attention, the spotlight is not Deng's natural domain. "For me to join them and be here is exciting," the 26-year-old confirms as the din relents. "But all these cameras aren't my style." His performances for the Bulls have been all substance of late, which is why the team is a contender for the NBA title that has proven elusive since Michael Jordan was flying through the air with the greatest of ease. As a child, taking his first steps in the game with Brixton Topcats in south London, Deng would devour videos of the legend in his pomp, treating them as instructional manuals. Originally a footballer good enough to be invited for under-age trials with England, the sport became his personal refuge.
"Even though basketball in Britain isn't the biggest, every time I walked into that gym, my friends made it feel like it was the most important thing, the most exciting game," he recounts. "And when you were within those four walls, you forgot what was going on outside. You had fun. And Brixton taught basketball the right way."
It also helped integrate the young Deng into a country where he had arrived, age six, as a refugee. Forced out of what is now the nascent country of South Sudan during a ferocious civil war, his family fled initially to Egypt and then onto the UK. It was, he concedes, an awkward initiation. "I didn't speak English. I went to school after being in England for just two weeks. So a lot of times I was very quiet. I didn't really feel like talking to the other kids."
Deng was tranquil then. He remains softly spoken now. However he has raised his voice about the poverty and dysfunction which still consumes much of Africa, investing a substantial slice of his £6 million annual salary into a foundation which targets both. When he returned to his birthplace last July to attend the independence ceremony of his original homeland, he witnessed hope, but also the realities of constructing a new nation free of despair.
"It's at the beginning," Deng acknowledges. "We know there will be struggles. There'll be some conflicts, some tribes fighting. But it's a lot better than a civil war. Before, it was the same country but you could never come to an agreement. There were always differences. So I'm OK with the struggles going on now. I'd rather not see 12 year-old kids joining the army and fighting inside their own country."
He has provided them with a role model. Likewise for Great Britain, he is an active ambassador, accepting the burden of catalysing the national team in recent years as the building blocks have been laid for this summer's Olympic Games. Nursing a long-term wrist injury, there have been fears that he might be forced to the sidelines. No chance, he declares. "As long as I have something I can manage and control, I'll be fine."
He hopes there can be a legacy, that accomplishment in London can spark the same invigoration he once encountered in Brixton. "Myself being an All-Star and that creating a buzz back there, playing the USA and having the Olympics, for UK basketball, to get to where we want it to get to, it's going in the right direction," he declares.
Perhaps it was just holding out for a hero. One a little reluctant to put his own name forward for the job.
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