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In a tangle of giant limbs in a minibus sits a man who has made perhaps the most improbable journey in the National Basketball Association. Luol Deng, 6ft 9in tall, born in Sudan, raised in south London, and possibly the NBA’s only Arabic-speaker, starts the new season with the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday. “He has this belief,” his agent will tell me, “that he can be the best of his era.” And that belief makes today’s bus journey an ordeal for Deng because he cannot bear being away from work.
The minibus is taking Deng, several other NBA players and a French boy with cancer out of Paris. The boy has been granted this day out by the French branch of the “Make A Wish” charity. His parents and little brother are here with him. However, the boy is too shy to talk to the players and instead gazes out at the passing highway. We are heading for a high-rise suburb of Paris to meet local kids who play basketball, under the NBA’s “Basketball without Borders” scheme.
Deng was born 22 years ago into Sudan’s Dinka tribe, the world’s tallest people. Dinkas like basketball. “Height has a lot to do with it,” says Deng. But because of where they are, few Dinka stars get discovered. “If you’re going to Africa on a scouting trip, hey, good luck,” comments one NBA scout. Once cattle herders, the Dinka have had a terrible 50 years during Sudan’s civil war and Dinka marriages now feature promises of cattle to be given in the future rather than actual dowries. Deng’s father was Sudan’s minister of transportation until a military coup landed him in jail. Later, the large Deng family – Deng has eight large siblings – became refugees, first in Alexandria in Egypt, then South Norwood in London.
That day in the ghetto outside Paris, a few dozen kids sit politely through the stars’ motivational speeches. Rain has ruined all the planned drills. Deng is anxious to hurry back to Paris. On the bus back, with his agent Josh Nochimson, he spreads his limbs and muses: “I bet you those kids have been waiting all year since they announced that the NBA was going to do something.”
Deng should know. “He was taught the game in a very special place,” says Nochimson reverently: “Brixton Rec Centre.” But as a kid in London, Deng could barely even get the NBA on TV. “I had tapes of players,” he recalls. “We would exchange those tapes among each other. But one tape I really had for a while was the Grant Hill tape.”
In London, Deng had two competing career plans: to play basketball in the NBA and football for Arsenal. Is it true he was a midfielder in the mould of Patrick Vieira? “Yeah, you could say that. But I didn’t like the fact that I was the tallest player on the pitch when I played soccer. For some reason, I didn’t like that. With basketball, I wasn’t always the tallest.”
Thus are careers decided. Deng won a scholarship to a high school in New Jersey. The only subsequent blip came when the US briefly barred him after 9/11 for having been born in Sudan.
Deng became the US’s second-highest rated high-school player after LeBron James, or the highest rated mere human. The comparison with James has always stayed with him, says Nochimson. After a year at Duke University, Deng followed James to the NBA in 2004. Since Duke, Deng says, “I ain’t really taken time off. My first two years, I’d always come in at night and shoot.” A day after the season ends, he is usually back in the gym.
Nochimson confides that Deng almost skipped Paris, because he couldn’t face missing the gym for four days. In summer, Deng shoots 500 or 600 baskets a day. Is that necessary? “I enjoy just being in a court by myself, shooting.” He admits it’s harder to find the Zen of basketball during games. Particularly as a rookie, he says, you concentrate so hard that you rarely enjoy playing.
Now he is a star, who reportedly wants more than $50m from the Bulls to sign a new five-year contract this week. Armed with Deng, the Bulls this season intend to better their recent forays into the play-offs.
Deng is also meant to lead Britain’s national team to the 2012 Olympics in his hometown. Has his rise done anything to make British basketball less sorry? Deng and Nochimson exchange significant glances. They just visited London, where they saw giant posters of Deng around Brixton. “When I was a kid, there wouldn’t have been a poster. Not even if it was Michael Jordan,” Deng marvels.
The instant we reach the Paris Hilton – the hotel, not the phenomenon – Deng leaps from the bus. Being in the gorgeous eighth arrondissement means nothing to a man so tethered to the gym that for two years he barely noticed Chicago. “If they don’t have a gym,” he is telling Nochimson as they leave, “maybe at least they have a treadmill. Or something.”
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