Out of Africa: The journey of Bulls star Luol Deng
By Herb Gould firstname.lastname@example.org March 15, 2011 12:15AM
CHICAGO - JANUARY 6: Luol Deng (2L) of the Chicago Bulls talks to Sudanese-American children during a Hope for Sudan Celebration hosted by Deng and CALBOS (the Chicago Association for the Lost Boys of Sudan) at Truman College January 6, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois. Deng, a native of Sudan, helped lead a celebration of the third anniversary of Sudan's Comprehensive Peace Agreement and official birthday of the refugee Lost Boys. Immigration paperwork marks January 1 as the birthday of all Sudanese boys. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2008 NBAE (Photo by Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Luol Deng
Updated: June 21, 2011 12:20AM
We are a nation of immigrants. How many of us wouldn’t be here if not for a potato famine or a pogrom, a religious inquisition or economic chaos?
For Luol Deng, it was a civil war — the civil war in the Darfur region of Sudan that would leave at least 200,000 dead and force his father to flee with his wife and children.
“If that wouldn’t have happened, I wouldn’t be here,’’ he said.
But it did, and he is here. And a lot of things are starting to fall into place these days in the world of Luol Deng.
And we do mean “world.’’
Not only are Deng and the Bulls having a banner year on the court, but after decades of deadly civil strife, his war-torn homeland will become the independent nation of Southern Sudan in July.
“It’s great,’’ said Deng, who hired two buses to bring Sudanese natives from Michigan to Chicago in January so they could vote on the referendum for independence. “There’s been civil war for years. We’re excited about the separation. We just have to keep the small rebels in control. But overall, I think it’s a great thing for both countries.’’
Deng, the eighth of nine children, and his family fled to Egypt when he was 5, eventually settling in London when his father, who had been a Sudanese government official, was granted asylum in Britain.
‘An amazing story’
When two decades of violence wound down around 2005, Deng’s family was able to make return visits to Southern Sudan. Now that the largely black Christian south will be separating from the Muslim Arab north, Deng’s family plans to spend more time in Juba, the capital city that once was home.
“My dad and mom are in south Sudan right now,’’ Deng said,adding that some of his siblings also are there. “I have some other family there. We just go back and forth.
“But the goal now is for them to move back. A lot of their friends that they grew up with are in Sudan.
“Having the option of doing both is great for them. It’s a blessing.’’
Because of his work habits, his unselfishness, his leadership and his multidimensional contributions on the court, Deng is revered by his teammates and coaches.
Factor in the obstacles he faced in his journey from the civil war in Sudan, which is bordered by Egypt on the north and the Red Sea and Ethiopia on the east, to become a basketball star in Chicago, and they are left groping for words.
“It’s a great story, an amazing story,’’ said coach Tom Thibodeau, who calls Deng an All-NBA defender and the glue of this Bulls team. “It says a lot about who he is. He’s a wonderful person to be around — a terrific player, but an even better person.’’
Assistant coach Adrian Griffin was a Bulls veteran when Deng joined the team in 2004-05, drafted seventh overall after one season at Duke. A member of the Dinka tribe “that produces many of the tallest people in the world,’’ as the Bulls media guide put it, Deng came to Chicago as a 19-year-old string bean.
“I was just in awe of the kid,’’ Griffin said. “When I was 19, I was a sophomore in college. For him to be mature enough to adapt to the NBA life, and succeed, I knew he was going to be a great player in this league.’’
Even though Deng is in his seventh season with the Bulls, he won’t turn 26 until April 16.
Bol, Hill special influences
What bowled over Griffin were Deng’s tales of Sudan and Egypt and the way he developed his game as he moved up the ladder from London to Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J., to Duke.
“Just listening to him tell the stories about how he had to persevere growing up in the situation in Africa,’’ Griffin said, “I’d tell him, ‘Lu, you’re meant to be here. There’s only a small percentage of people from where you come from who could ever do that. God put you here for a reason.’ ’’
Deng credits the influence of former NBA star Manute Bol, the 7-6 Sudan native who died at 47 last summer, with having a big impact on his basketball career. Deng’s brothers first came under the wing of Bol at a clinic in Egypt and passed along that influence to Luol, who later became close with Bol.
Another big influence was Duke star Grant Hill — or, rather, a how-to tape made by Hill.
“Lu said the way he learned to play basketball was, some kid got a hold of a Grant Hill VHS tape,’’ Griffin said. “They went house to house, knocking on people’s doors, asking if they had a VHS player so they could watch the tape. They watched that tape a hundred million times. That’s how he learned to play basketball.’’
Deng never loses sight of how many stars had to align for him to go from Sudan to Egypt to London to New Jersey to Duke to Chicago. And we never should lose sight of all the dedicated effort Deng put into overcoming obstacles and honing his athletic ability to make himself a star.
His teammates don’t.
Luol is a do-all who’s third on the team in scoring (17.6), fourth in rebounding (5.9), second in assists (2.8), third in three-point baskets (93), fourth in steals (.94). He also leads the team — and is fifth in the NBA — in minutes played (39.1).
“We joke about it sometimes,’’ Derrick Rose said, “saying Lu’s gonna be out there forever. I don’t see how, but he just keeps doing it. He’s not complaining or anything. He’s just balling. He’s been our most consistent player this year. We appreciate him for putting all that work in.’’
‘He’s one of a kind’
Another area where Deng is among the league leaders is his off-the-court contributions. His foundation is involved in a wide range of activities here and in Sudan and Britain, where he plays for the national team. He’s especially committed to food-assistance programs, has toured with the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders in Africa, Europe and Asia and has spearheaded a United Nations malaria-prevention program in Africa. He also has brought young Sudanese refugees from the Chicago area to Bulls games and visited with them afterward.
“He’s such an extraordinary kid,’’ Griffin said. “He does his foundation. He’s always in the community, always promoting, trying to raise money for his own country and for kids. He’s one of a kind.’’
Deng also is dedicated to taking care of himself off the court so his body can handle the rigors of an NBA schedule.
“He’s in the cold tubs, hot tubs, yoga classes, Pilates classes, the stretching,’’ Griffin said. “He’s active in the training room. All those things allow him to play 40 minutes a night.’’
When a thigh bruise last week threatened to end his goal of playing in all 82 games, Deng spent even more time in the training room. A game-time decision, he responded with 18 points, nine rebounds and seven assists against Atlanta on Friday.
“When I got the injury, I was really upset,’’ Deng said. “I really don’t want to miss any games. It’s a goal of mine, something I really want to do. I want to play every game. I don’t want to miss a beat.’’
He’s doing a pretty good job of that — on and off the court.