Luol Deng returns to Britain to rescue basketball before 2012 London Olympics Print
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Monday, 20 August 2007 12:11
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 BIRMINGHAM, England (AP) - After helping the Chicago Bulls get to the NBA playoffs, Luol Deng is now working hard to try to bring a similar bounce to Great Britain's basketball hopes.
He's back in Britain and hoping to lead the national team to a berth in the 2012 London Olympics.
The 22-year-old native of Sudan moved to London as a child to escape the conflict in his homeland, and eventually worked his way up to the NBA, where he plays for the Chicago Bulls.
``Britain couldn't ask for a better ambassador, not only for all sports, but the country in general,'' Britain coach Chris Finch said. ``He's extremely professional and takes what he does seriously. Whether that's campaigning for humanitarian issues or playing for GB or being a better Chicago Bull.''
The hard part is getting the kids in Britain to take an interest in basketball.
``It's not just going to happen overnight - it's going to take some time. The better we do the more attention the sport will get,'' Deng said Monday. ``With 2012 and the GB team we have a chance. When kids see us play I think it will inspire then and motivate them to take the sport seriously.''
The 6-foot-9 forward is scheduled to make his competitive debut in Britain for the national team on Tuesday in Birmingham, with victory against Slovakia in the EuroBasket Division B qualifier crucial to playing in the 2012 Games.
If they get through the group and the playoffs, the team will move up to EuroBasket Division A - the final step en route to the Olympics.
The women's team, featuring Deng's sister and University of Delaware student Arek Deng, faces a similar predicament.
Deng's mission in Britain has been compared with David Beckham's hopes of making soccer more popular to Americans since his move to the United States. But Deng's commitment will ultimately be futile if the sport doesn't receive a noticeable cash injection.
``It definitely starts with facilities,'' said Deng, who coaches British children in the summer. ``Growing up here was really hard to find a lot of facilities to practice and a lot of kids only practice may one, twice, three times a week.
``That's not enough to develop your game and also the league in the UK a lot of players are leaving the country at young age, going to Europe or going to the States where there's more attention for the game and more potential of making something out of the game moneywise.''
Finch, a Texas native, is aware of the problems in Britain.
``Basketball is perceived as an inner-city sport, but if you look at the numbers in the UK, it's more of an upper-middle class sport because those are the only people who can afford to use the facilities,'' he said. ``It's cost prohibitive for the average inner-city kid to afford.''
As a 5-year-old boy, Deng's family sought political asylum in London after fleeing Sudan's civil war via Egypt. He left home at 14 to play basketball at a prep school in New Jersey.
Deng then spent a year at Duke University before being drafted by the Bulls in 2004.
Although Deng hasn't quite reached the star level achieved by Beckham, a new contract looks to make him one of Britain's highest-paid athletes.
``There's a lot of excitement in Chicago,'' Deng said. ``We're a young team and we're making great progress.''
Deng was cleared to represent Britain after FIBA, the sport's world governing body, lifted its ban on English players competing on the British team after a funding dispute was resolved with British sports bodies.
``To have such a quality player makes a big difference. He is certainly someone you can build a team around,'' Finch said. ``He brings us a lot of class and maturity for someone so young.''
Deng, who scored 26 points in an 87-59 win over Ireland last week, is giving up a potential break after a standout season with the Bulls in which he set career-highs in scoring average (18.8 points), rebounds (7.1) and shooting (51.7 percent).
``Every season the main goal is to really improve, to show the organization and the fans you have a great group of guys willing to work hard and take a step ahead,'' Deng said. ``After what we did last year, we really have a big step to cover. Next year our focus is to be one of the forceful teams in the Eastern conference and hopefully try to win the Eastern Conference.''
The Bulls advanced in the NBA playoffs for the first time since 1998, when they won the last of three straight NBA titles.
Now the soft-spoken, unassuming player wants to help Britain advance all the way to the Olympics.

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