Luol Deng happy to go extra mile as GB's journeymen seek the golden route
After tackling the also-rans of Europe's B Division, Britain's basketball squad will be able to gauge just how far they've come when they face the mighty US tomorrow
His life's journey has taken him from the escalating horrors of the second Sudanese Civil War to a £45m, six-year contract with the Chicago Bulls. So you imagine that Luol Deng, the vital component of the Great Britain men's basketball team, would have been unconcerned by a few more miles rattling around his sport's backwaters of Albania, Belarus, Slovakia and Holland.
But he and the rest of coach Chris Finch's squad were forced through those miles because the international basketball fraternity did not believe that a GB side, only formed in 2006 to compete at the forthcoming London Olympics, were up to scratch to get the home nation's pass. They have had to prove their worth, by progressing beyond those also-rans to escape the European B Division for the elite league and acquitting themselves well in the European Championships, which followed. Deng momentarily drops his languid tone when reflecting on this.
"We feel a little disrespected that we didn't get the automatic home place but at the same time we understand," he says. "Since we got together – pretty much since we were in B Division – we've always been knocked down, whether it's by other team coaches or fans. We've always had something in front of us…"
Finch also reflects that "it was a bit of an annoying process" to get here but last night he, too, could finally reflect that he had arrived. The first appearance by a GB team at the Games since 1948 – only confirmed by the governing body FIBA 16 months ago – places them on the big stage and, by way of final preparation, they will take part in the biggest basketball match this country has ever seen, when the fierce Olympic favourites the USA play GB in Manchester tomorrow night. The prospect of seeing Kobe Bryant and Co (6-1 on for gold) up against Finch's men (350-1) has made the game a virtual 17,000 sell-out, and the same venue will tonight host the corresponding women's sides. There are tickets left for this one, though anyone wanting to catch sight of medal contenders should follow Tom Maher's women, who could conceivably outperform the men, given that the field falls away after USA, Australia and Russia.
Deng has wanted this moment very badly. The Bulls did not want the 27-year-old to be playing this summer, because of a wrist injury, but he was insistent. He has been involved with GB since 2007, almost from the start, and his commitment to this particular lost cause is burnished by the refuge that Britain – Brixton, to be precise – offered his family in the mid-1990s, when they sought political asylum. Deng, then 10, was introduced to basketball with the Brixton Topcats and didn't look back.
It was the B Division game in remote Belarus that came to Deng's mind yesterday, as he remembered GB's trudge around Europe to prove their worth. "I remember where we played they had guards with machine guns and I remember saying it must mean things are going to get extreme," he said. "I'd never seen anything like it. I had seen security guards but to stand there with machine guns! We've really come a long way since then. There's not a lot of recognition for what we've done or what coach Finch has done but we really came through. No one realises just how fast British basketball has come forward."
They are still waiting for a big win – giving Spain a scare in the 2009 Europeans is the closest they have got to it – and Deng has always needed to be present for GB to prosper. They bombed in the 2009 Europeans when he was injured, and it was touch and go when he missed the first half of the vital 2006/07 period in which GB sought elevation to the A Division, because of problems with his British passport. He returned in 2007 and they sailed through, winning six from six.
The Olympic odds are challenging for a reason. Finch's men must beat one of China or Australia – not unthinkable – just for the honour of meeting the USA in the quarter-finals. "The only thing I would say is if there was a league, I think the USA would win it easily. But the thing about the Olympics is it's a knockout. Against Spain, Brazil, these tough teams, you have to be sharp. One bad night and it could be over – even for them."
Finch, for whom Kyle Johnson put in an extraordinary display in the defeat of Portugal at the weekend, feels that the demands of qualifying has damaged the Olympic programme. "We kept having to put out resources into just trying to get nominated, where we could have been targeting those resources a bit better, thinking a few years ahead," he says.
The Australian Maher is the more fiercely realistic of the two GB coaches. In fact, he's fierce, full stop. "You're b*********** me," he yelled to one of his women's squad after a misdemeanour during yesterday's open training session, which isn't quite what you get from Roy Hodgson. His pragmatism is borne of the fact that Cheshire-born Jo Leedham, who has been in the WNBA draft and plays in the competitive Australia league, is the only marquee player in his ranks.
"A couple of years ago I was just hoping we could win a game," says Maher, surprised to be told that an unexpected preparation game win over eighth-ranked France meant his squad had beaten five of the world's top 12 teams, heading towards these Games. "You've got to dream about winning but you've got to get a lot of upsets. You can get carried away with that and you forget where you need to be. Four years ago, we were totally naive and at such low levels. Our reservoir of experience was ridiculously down, and it still is."
The question of whether the men's side could win tomorrow against a USA team who were sent on their way to a wet welcome in Manchester by Barack Obama is almost an oversight. "Of course, I think we can win," Finch replies, as he takes his leave. "It's my job. I get paid to think that."
The great divide: Dream Team v GB
The men: LeBron James v Andrew Sullivan
A Miami Heat forward, 27-year-old James is one of the best-known figures in American sport, with a slew of public endorsements, including over £65m of support from Nike, Sprite and McDonald's, and total career earnings of over £60m. Team GB captain Sullivan, 32, is also sponsored by Nike, yet receives complimentary trainers rather than million-dollar endorsements. He is paid £20,000 a year by Leicester Raiders.
The women: Candace Parker v Jo Leedham
Parker is a standout player for the US, plying her trade for Los Angeles Sparks and Russian side UMMC Ekaterinburg. She earns $97,500 annually, with a salary cap of $100,000 for all WNBA competitors. She has won a Russian Cup and Russian League and after her successes in America she holds the record for being the only woman to win the WNBA MVP and WNBA Rookie of the Year Award in the same season.
Team GB will be looking to guard Leedam, 25, to find the impressive form that cemented her starting-five spot in Australian WNBL side the Bulleen Boomers, where she was coached by Team GB head coach Tom Maher. She has made 48 appearances for GB.
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