Basketball: Deng rises to a giant challenge

Chicago Bulls superstar is relishing putting British basketball on the Olympic map

Luol Deng has become well practised in absorbing new experiences, be it as a child refugee in Egypt and then London, as a promising young basketballer in New Jersey, as one of the most revered players in the NBA, with Barack Obama among his admirers, or last year seeing his native land gain its independence and the chance of a brighter future.

This year comes another, one that in sporting terms may well prove his toughest. Come the end of July, Deng will swap his superstar team-mates at the Chicago Bulls and his $71m contract for the blue vest of Great Britain, to experience his first Olympic Games lining up alongside Drew Sullivan, the team's captain, who plays for Leicester Riders, and Robert Archibald, the 6ft 10in Scot who has played in the US, Ukraine and Spain.

He will not be alone in the British team in making an Olympic bow –far from it. This is the first time a British team will compete in the Games since 1948, the last time the Olympics came to this country. Britain's journey to the Games is in itself extraordinary – there was no such thing as a GB basketball team just six years ago – but it cannot compete with Deng's improbable path to sporting stardom.

He was five when his family was forced to flee from the second Sudanese civil war, crossing the border to neighbouring Egypt to escape the fighting that would leave an indelible scar on the North African country. His father Aldo , a former minister for transportation, was eventually granted political asylum in the UK in 1993.

Deng, along with the rest of his family, returned to South Sudan last year to celebrate the country gaining its independence on 9 July. The Dengs were part of a crowd estimated at one million that rapturously marked the occasion. "Unbelievable," is how Deng describes it. It was a moment he had contributed to, having chartered two buses to bring fellow countrymen from Michigan to Chicago to vote in the referendum for the south to separate from the rest of the country in January 2011.

"My whole life my country has been at war," says Deng. "I want people to be able to go home. A lot of lives have been lost, and here is a chance to make a difference."

It was in south London that Deng took his first steps on a basketball court. He began playing for Brixton Topcats before winning a scholarship to the US on the back of his sporting ability.

Aged 14, he was on the move again. The US has been his home since, although his family remains in the UK and he is a regular visitor during the close season. For the last five years he has run basketball camps around the country, seeking to promote sport among young people – an act that should strike a chord among government and sporting bodies who want the Olympics to provide a lasting legacy in terms of numbers playing sport.

This summer Deng will be back in the city of his youth, the focal point of a British team that has improved markedly since the home nations became one in a bid to secure a place in the London Games.

Only two of the side play their sport in this country; the rest are scattered around European leagues and the minor US leagues. At the team's first training session in 2006, Chris Finch, Britain's US coach who does the job alongside a role with the Houston Rockets, had six players to work with. It was not until March last year that Britain was granted a place at the Games as basketball's governing body sought assurances the team would be of a suitable standard and their presence would help boost the sport in the UK.

Deng's presence was vital. "We will be ready and like I have always said we'll surprise people," he says. "We have some respect now – before, no one knew who GB were. I'm in touch with Team GB as much as possible. The UK has the talent, it's getting access to good quality coaching that seems to be the issue. I'm still hopeful that basketball will continue to grow in popularity."

Deng's participation, coupled with back-to-back victories over Portugal and Poland at last summer's Eurobasket tournament – the European championship – in Lithuania, have further served to raise awareness, although it would take a brave man to back Team GB to achieve anything other than respectability in the Basketball Arena, the 12,000-capacity temporary construction next door to the Velodrome.

"In Lithuania, we were so frustrated with our performance as we know we are better than that," said Deng. "The USA are the best, no doubt. They are the team to beat, they've got a squad of some of the best players in the world. The gap has definitely closed and isn't like it used to be with the Dream Team but, of course, they're the team that all the fans want to see and the team that all the other teams want to beat."

With 13 gold medals since the sport was first granted Olympic status in 1936, the mighty US side have dominated the event, although they fell short in Athens in 2004, when they were defeated by Argentina at the semi-final stage.

That year Deng, now a 6ft 9in giant, would sign for Chicago, where he has since dazzled audiences around the NBA, not least Obama, a Bulls fan. Last year Deng lunched with the president.

This season's delayed NBA season finally began on Christmas Day after peace broke out between franchise owners and the players following a dispute lasting the best part of six months. "I'm just glad it all worked out," says Deng. "If it hadn't been resolved and the league wasn't on this year, it would have been tough for a lot of the players."

With the truncated NBA season now spanning 66 games, rather than the regular 82 – coupled with his recent wrist injury – a fit-again Deng should arrive back home far fresher than might otherwise have been the case.

"I honestly can't believe how quickly it seems to have just landed on us," he says. "I remember hearing that London was getting the 2012 Olympics and it feels like it was only a year or two ago; it's crazy. It's going to be great for London in so many ways. For me to play in the biggest sporting event in my home town, where my basketball started, is going to be amazing. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

For more information on the Luol Deng Foundation visit www.luoldeng.org.uk

Deng's details

Born 16 April 1985 in Wau, Sudan

Raised London, following his family being granted political asylum in 1993

Schooled After playing for Brixton Topcats, he was offered a scholarship at the Blair Academy in New Jersey.

NBA team Chicago Bulls (2004- )

Contract Signed a six-year $71m contract in 2008, that could rise to $80m, depending upon performances. Coach Tom Thibodeau has recently called Deng the "glue that holds the team together."

Team GB Made his debut in 2007 and will spearhead the team's efforts during this summer's London Games. Michael Butler

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before