|Long journey brings Deng leading role with Bulls|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 19 April 2007 11:26|
Luol Deng was 14 and making quite an impression at Blair Academy, a prep school in Blairstown, N.J. - one of several stops on a remarkable journey that began in war-torn Sudan, wound through Egypt and England, and included a layover at Duke before arriving at a leading role with the Chicago Bulls.
Yes, he has come a long way.
``Things just happen,'' Deng said. ``I think you just live your life. I'm just living my life, and it's just getting better as I'm getting older. For me and my family, it's been great. We've stuck together through thick and thin.''
The Bulls think so highly of Deng they balked before the February trade deadline at dealing him for Memphis' Pau Gasol or another inside scorer - the final piece that could push them to the top of the Eastern Conference.
They're close now, anyway.
Chicago finished the regular season with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, earning a first-round playoff matchup with Miami. At 49-33, the Bulls posted their best record since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen led the 1997-98 team to 62 wins and a sixth championship in eight years.
In his third year, the 6-foot-9 Deng enjoyed a breakout season.
He averaged 18.8 points - up from 14.3 last season. And his field-goal percentage jumped from 46.3 percent to 51.7 percent, in part because he ditched the 3-point shot in favor of more mid-range jumpers and cuts to the basket, attempting just seven from long range (and making one) after going 21-of-78 last season.
``There aren't many 21-year-old guys that can average 18-plus points per game, shoot over 50 percent from the field and play 37 minutes for a winning team,'' Bulls coach Scott Skiles said. ``He's doing a lot of things guys haven't been able to do.''
The forward's progression has been long and steady, a process built on a maturity that belies the fact that he just turned 22 on Monday.
``He's been through a lot,'' said Bulls guard Chris Duhon, Deng's teammate at Duke. ``He's seen a lot since he was young. That maturity level is what he gained at a young age, and he's always kept it with him. That's definitely an asset for him.''
Deng had to grow up quickly, moving from Sudan to Egypt and England before spending his high school and college years an ocean away from his parents.
His father, Aldo, was a member of the Sudanese parliament and served as the country's minister of transportation before the government was overthrown during the civil war. Luol was 5 when the family was forced to flee, and spent the next four years in Alexandria, Egypt, where he got his first exposure to basketball.
``I really didn't like basketball,'' said Deng, who preferred soccer.
Fellow Dinka tribe member Manute Bol stopped by one day and started showing the area boys some drills. Luol didn't participate, but his older brother Ajou did and started teaching him. It was Ajou who helped get Luol involved with the Brixton Topcats basketball club in London when he was 10, after their father was granted political asylum in England.
``He, along with his brother, just showed up at the gym and wanted to play basketball,'' said Jimmy Rogers, Brixton's coach.
After the first practice, Luol considered quitting. Rogers said the kid told his father the coach was too tough and Aldo's response went something like this: Too bad.
Rogers saw a quick study with good natural instincts. And the more Luol played, the stronger his addiction to basketball became. At 13, Deng was selected to England's 15-and-under national team in basketball and soccer. But he also came to the realization around that time that ``I liked basketball more.''
A year later, Rogers told Aldo: ``It's time to go now.''
Ajou, nine years older than Luol, was already in the United States, where he played at the University of Connecticut and Fairfield. Their sister, Arek, then 16, was a good player, too. She and Luol wound up at Blair Academy, where Joe Mantegna immediately realized he had a special player.
He saw a boy wearing ``parochial school clothes, doing things I'd never seen a 14-year-old do'' in a 3-on-3 game during open gym. And he was doing it after arriving late the previous night from England, barely sleeping and then going to classes.
``The kids were in there messing around,'' Mantegna said. ``He's in there slinging 3s in his tie.''
After about five minutes, Mantegna turned to Royal Ivey, a senior who went to Texas and now plays for the Atlanta Hawks, and said, ``Everybody in the country is going to be visiting.''
Deng made a similar first impression on Duke assistant Chris Collins a few years later at an AAU tournament. The coach was there to scout another player when he saw a kid with long arms and legs on a team with beat-up jerseys. At the end of the day, Collins called coach Mike Krzyzewski and told him: ``You need to get down here.''
The next day, Krzyzewski got an up-close view of Deng.
``He was our guy,'' Collins said.
The Blue Devils had Deng for one year before he jumped to the NBA, but it was a good one. He was the second-leading scorer and rebounder, and Duke went to the 2004 Final Four.
``We always felt like Luol was on a mission,'' Collins said. ``He was on a team mission and a mission to get better.''
At Blair, he got homesick, considered leaving shortly after he arrived, but thought twice about that. Having his sister around helped, and having that drive did, too.
``I just felt like I've got to do what I've got to do,'' said Deng, one of nine children.
He'd wake up teammates at 6 a.m. for early work. If he didn't have the coach's key to the gym, he'd get one from a custodian.
One of four finalists for the NBA's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, Deng's dedication extends beyond the court.
Chicago, and often brings them to games.
In Chicago, he funded a reading center. And last year he returned to Africa for the first time since he was 9 to participate in the NBA's Basketball Without Borders tour in South Africa. He sees untapped talent on that continent and in England, and sees himself as an example for children there.
Deng has another goal after becoming a British citizen last year: to lead England to a gold medal when London hosts the 2012 Olympics.
It would be another stop on a remarkable journey.
``You've got to be excited for him now, but you've also got to be excited for him long term,'' Skiles said. ``When he's 25, he'll be in his sixth, seventh year and not even technically be in his prime yet.''