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Grateful Luol Deng puts character, skills on display for Great Britain

Luol Deng never has forgotten whGreBritadid for him his family. | Getty Images

Luol Deng never has forgotten what Great Britain did for him and his family. | Getty Images

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Updated: August 31, 2012 6:15AM

LONDON — I haven’t done a good job of walking in Luol Deng’s shoes, the shoes that have gone from Sudan to Egypt to Great Britain to the United States and back here to
London, where, against all odds, a boy began turning himself into an NBA player.

Those shoes have been to hell and back, with stops at hunger and deprivation in between.

On Sunday, those shoes were on the floor at the Olympic basketball arena, right where they belonged. I can see that a little more clearly than I could before.

A fiercely proud man played for Great Britain, a country he believes saved him. If Deng reinjures his wrist in this tournament and it affects next season or his career with the Bulls, as some of us fear, we’ll deal with that then. But on this night, as he carried the torch for basketball in this country and for the idea of rebirth in general, you would have had to be made of stone not to get goose bumps.

‘‘This is why I chose to do it,’’ he said after Great Britain’s 95-75 loss to Russia. ‘‘It’s just an experience that, for the rest of my life, can never, ever be taken away, just walking out into that stadium.

‘‘A lot of people were talking about [getting] the wrist surgery or not. And I could have done that, but I’d never, ever get a chance to do this again. . . . The Olympics is not something that’s given.’’

He played all but 63 seconds of the game Sunday. Bulls fans probably cringed at that, having seen coach Tom Thibodeau squeeze every ounce and minute from Deng the last two seasons.

‘‘I don’t know if [Great Britain coach Chris Finch] gave Thibs a call or not,’’ Deng said, smiling. ‘‘I’m used to it.’’

Deng took Great Britain’s first shot of the Olympics, swishing an 18-foot jumper, and it was right. He was in the perfect place, the only place for him, helping to grow basketball in a country that gives its love more freely to many other sports.

If anybody knows about growing, it’s Deng, whose whole life has been a series of replantings.

When he was 5, he and his family escaped a civil war in Sudan. They made their way to a refugee camp in Egypt, where they spent five years wondering where their next meal was coming from. His father found work in Great Britain, leaving the rest of the family members to cling to each other.

Great Britain was the country that would reunite the father with his family. Deng never has forgotten the miracle of that gesture when he was 10, nor the incredible kindness in it. The English didn’t have to do that. That one fact never has left him.

So seven years ago, when Great Britain won the bidding for the 2012 Olympics, Deng knew what he was going to do, given the opportunity: He was going to play basketball for his adopted nation.

He isn’t a man without a country. He’s a man with three countries, with strong feelings for all of them.

When South Sudan became an independent country last year, it was a source of tremendous pride for Deng.

Great Britain was his savior and his introduction to basketball.

Blairstown, N.J., Durham, N.C., and Chicago are where he grew up as a basketball player — first at the prep school Blair Academy, then at Duke, then with the Bulls.

And now London again.

When Deng made a jumper in the first half Sunday, the public-address announcer screamed, ‘‘Deng — bang, bang!’’ OK, it was over the top. But when a sport is trying to get noticed, nothing is too much.

‘‘Growing up here, basketball didn’t get much attention,’’ Deng said. ‘‘Now we’re playing against the best in the world, where basketball is everything in their country. We have dreams, and we’re just here playing. We want to develop the game. So hopefully we’ve got youngsters watching and following our footsteps.’’

The arena wasn’t sold-out, which means Great Britain has a lot more work to do. But most seats were filled, meaning Deng has done his part. The crowd knew this, which is why he got the biggest cheers Sunday. An NBA All-Star, a multimillionaire, had taken the time to play for his adopted country. That’s all they had to know. He finished with 26 points.

‘‘If I was home watching these guys go through it, I don’t know if it would be easy for me to live with that,’’ Deng said.

The torn ligament in his left wrist didn’t bother him Sunday, he said. No one but Deng seems to know whether he eventually will have surgery.

‘‘These games are helping me know exactly where it’s at,’’ he said. ‘‘So far, I really have had no trouble. For those who say I only drive right, I drove left a couple of times [Sunday].’’

Chicago is 3,900 miles from here, and it feels like all of that and more. The Bulls don’t feel quite so important from this distance. I know they are, and I know the Olympic spirit is having its way
with me.

But this night was so important to one man, and gratitude is a dwindling natural resource in the NBA. I can see that now.

‘‘I’m very thankful,’’ Deng said. ‘‘I had the opportunity to live the dream of playing basketball.’’

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