Basketball: Deng rises to a giant challenge
Chicago Bulls superstar is relishing putting British basketball on the Olympic map
Monday 06 February 2012
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
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
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