Luol Deng: ‘I’ll be proud to put on that GB shirt’

Following on from our last Olympics post here’s some interesting news about Luol Deng. He moved from South Sudan to the UK many years ago and now plays professional basketball in the US where he is a huge star. 

Deng has plans to support the renovation of hospitals in South Sudan, and having visited the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, he wants to do more work with refugees. Deng will also be competing in the Olympics so we should show our support!

Find out more by reading the following article from The Observer:

When the British Olympic squad was announced at the beginning of this month, a great deal of media attention was devoted to the absence of a certain US-based multimillionaire superstar by the name of David Beckham. Rather less was made of the presence of another US-based multimillionaire superstar: Luol Deng.

Although Deng is little known on these shores, in America he is far more renowned than Beckham, at least in terms of sport. He is also better paid. While Beckham was reported to have signed a mammoth $32m contract when he joined Major League Soccer club Los Angeles Galaxy, Deng’s current contract with the Chicago Bulls is worth an extraordinary $71m.

Both Deng and Beckham are hard-working patriots, going out of their way to fly the flag and promote Britain. Yet Beckham is one of the most famous names and faces in Britain whereas Deng is a stranger not just to the front pages but also the back pages of our newspapers. That’s largely because one plays football, the consuming national obsession, and the other basketball, one of those activities we tend to rank, along with volleyball, as a hobby rather than a professional sport.

But Deng deserves to be celebrated, and not just for his achievements in the NBA (National Basketball Association), where he is a champion and an all-star. If there were an Olympic competition for inspirational life stories, he would be among the favourites for a gold medal.

Although his name sounds Chinese, the 6ft 8in tall Deng comes from the Dinka, the southern Sudanese tribe famed for its height. He fled the war-torn country at the age of five with his mother, three brothers and eight sisters and lived for four years in impoverished conditions in Egypt. His father, who had been a senior politician, was imprisoned in Sudan, but on his release he gained asylum for the family in Britain.

Deng was nine when he arrived in England, and at the Regal basketball court in south London, not far from where he used to train as a boy in Brixton, he recalled his first impressions of his new home. “There was a lot of glass and it was very clean,” he says, laughing at his childhood perspective. “No disrespect to where I had been in Alexandria, but it wasn’t as clean as Heathrow. I’d never been on escalators before, stairs that did the work for you. I remember being scared to get on them.”

Despite the moving stairs and the fact that they didn’t speak a word of English, Deng and his family instantly felt at home in this strange new country. As he puts it: “We came to England and stopped searching for a better life because this is as good as it gets.”

He’s explained many times in the past that he retains an unbreakable bond with Britain because it was the country that gave his family a chance. Almost unfashionably, he views the granting of asylum as a debt that needs to be repaid. One means of repayment is his loyalty to the British basketball team which, until quite recently, languished so far down the world rankings that it looked as though it wouldn’t be invited to take part in Britain’s own Olympics. The team was made to qualify through a series of groups that involved visits to places like Bosnia and Macedonia.

For an NBA star used to luxury treatment, travelling halfway round the world from Chicago to play for a team that was far below his usual standard might have seemed like a less than thrilling prospect. Certainly his employers, the Bulls, weren’t overly excited by his far-flung commitments. But 27-year-old Deng was determined to guide Team GB’s basketball squad towards their dream of Olympic qualification.

Luol Deng in action for Great Britain.

“As kids we used to talk about how much it bothered us that there weren’t any players at the top from London, and how all these European countries had great teams,” he says, explaining how these long-held frustrations motivated the team. “But we qualified and now we’ve got to prove ourselves.”

His accent is laconic American but his sentiments remain hardcore south London. His mother still lives in South Norwood, where the family settled, but Deng’s strongest emotional ties are with neighbouring Brixton, where he learned to play basketball under the watchful eye of Jimmy Rogers, a tough Jamaican who enjoys exalted status in British basketball circles as an exacting coach.

Having been what he calls a “loud kid” in Egypt, he became a quieter personality at school in south London. “I kind of observed more than I ever did before. Reading body languages. Sport became my way of speaking.”

The sports language he was most fluent in was football, and until he was 12 that was his only love. He supported Arsenal, was a fan of Ian Wright, and had his sights set on becoming a professional. “When I started playing basketball I hated it because football had always been my sport. I always wanted to do stuff with my feet. I was very skilled at football at a young age in Egypt. I never played with a real ball. We used rolled-up socks or a balloon with a towel ducktaped to it, and we played on concrete in bare feet. When I came over here we had real footballs, grass, and I did really well and took it very seriously. I would stay behind after school and practise my skills.”

Pushed by his brothers, he half-heartedly took up basketball but would skip sessions to play football. His fast-growing body had other plans. By the time he was 13 he was 6ft 4in. One of his brothers is 6ft 4in, another 6ft 6in and the third 6ft 11ft. Deng feared he would be even taller. “At that height,” he says, “I thought it wasn’t going to happen in football so I should make it easier on myself.”

He began practising with the under-21s at the Brixton Topcats basketball team and quickly made an impression. All teenagers are confronted with distractions that lead them away from sport, but nowadays urban youth also have to contend with gangs and territorial disputes that can end in lethal violence. Was that a problem for him?

“It was just starting to happen. It wasn’t as bad as it is now. Back then there were really just two basketball coaches, Jimmy Rogers and the late Joe White, and guys would come all the way from north London to play for Jimmy, so we knew each other, even though we were from different territories, and that made it easier. But I have friends who are now in prison. Not everyone in your area is going to reach their goal. What helped me is that I had good friends that had a similar vision to mine. And I had my family who were very large but very close.”

When his sister was offered a basketball scholarship at the Blair Academy in New Jersey, Deng was allowed to join her. Initially he was homesick and asked to return to London but his coach said he should stick it out for a year. He did, and won a basketball scholarship to the prestigious Duke University in North Carolina.

College basketball is a huge business in America, and it was at Duke that the retiring Deng began to realise what it was like to be looked up to metaphorically instead of just physically. “Even in the cafeteria you’re a Duke player, and people are watching everything you do. You walk into a room and everyone turns their head. But I’d think, ‘I love basketball and I want to be as good as I can be at it, no matter what.’ That’s my way of releasing pressure.”

It’s an outlook that’s served him well, to the point where he is now one of the most admired and effective players in the NBA, able to dazzle with close-quarter virtuosity and stun with his trademark long three-pointer baskets.

For all his highly lucrative ability to jump, Deng has also managed to keep his feet on the ground. He’s not interested in celebrity, leads a low-profile life, and devotes considerable time and money to the Luol Deng Foundation, which funds basketball initiatives in Britain and the newly formed nation of South Sudan.

He also has plans to support the renovation of hospitals in South Sudan, and having visited the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, he wants to do more work with refugees.

He’s currently planning to build a facility in South Sudan “where the kids would not need to pay a single dime and would not need shoes or clothes. Basically they’d come in, pick up their workout stuff, pick up their shoes, think about nothing outside those four gym walls, work out, put their clothes in the net, leave their shoes in the locker, get washed and come back tomorrow.”

Back in his adopted home of Britain, the solutions are not quite so simple. What frustrates Deng most is that this country has a vast pool of African-Caribbean and urban talent currently going to waste. European countries from Spain to Serbia that don’t enjoy the same advantages regularly outperform the British.

It’s not even as if our preoccupation with football has delivered results. Euro 2012 proved once again that our elite players are embarrassingly skill-deficient. So why hasn’t it been happening in basketball? Is it a funding or organisational question?

“I think it’s a caring question,” says Deng. “The funding can be found and the organisation could be better if people care, but I don’t think they do. There’s football, then there’s rugby and then there’s cricket. At a young age a lot of kids play basketball in the UK but at a certain age they stop playing, or they stop caring, or they leave the country.”

It’s a bleak picture but Deng is not one to dwell on negative thoughts. He hopes that a successful run at the Olympics might give British basketball the boost it desperately needs. How well can the team do?

“Honestly,” he says, “I don’t know. I know we’ll do well. I don’t doubt that. I don’t know how well. But I fancy my chances with anybody that we play.”

If Britain were to outperform expectations and win a medal, would it be gratifying finally to gain some recognition at home?

“No,” he says firmly. “I don’t play for recognition. Here in the UK I want basketball to get better. I want the kids to have more playgrounds. I want the kids to have more attention. I want basketball to be on TV more often. But I really don’t care if I walk down the street and somebody recognises me or not. I just know that when I put on that GB shirt, it’s something I’m going to be really proud of.”


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