Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012 at 12:24 pm  |  14 responses

Spirit of a Champion

Luol Deng and the debate around his commitment to the Olympics.

by Ben Taylor / @benitaylor

You’ve probably seen the discussion around Luol Deng representing Great Britain/the UK at the Olympic Games this summer—with some fans and media questioning his loyalty to Chicago, others hitting back by praising his loyalty to Britain, where he grew up.

As a Brit, it is hard to be impartial, but I thought someone out there might be interested in my take on the issue.

I can totally understand where Chicago Bulls fans are coming from. You’ve had a brutal season. Your number one player faces a lengthy spell in the treatment room, and now Deng wants to play through the summer, despite a wrist injury that needs surgery. You’re rightfully worried about his ability to start next season injury free, not to mention the fact that he is paid handsomely to play for the Bulls. Fans of any team in any sport can sympathize with that.

I guess it would make you feel a tiny bit better about the whole thing if you knew that the whole of the UK was at fever pitch awaiting Deng’s return to lead our team into battle—his availability dominating the front and back pages of the newspapers, 24-hour news coverage dedicated to analyzing his every movement.

But the truth is, most people in this country don’t have a clue who Luol Deng is, and it wouldn’t make the slightest difference to them if he played for Great Britain this summer or not.

He’s not the ‘David Beckham of basketball,’ as some have suggested—not because he’s not worthy of hero status, but because sadly, basketball just isn’t that popular here. He could walk the streets of London unnoticed, aside from the fact there aren’t too many 6-8 guys walking the streets of London.

The British public doesn’t know him. It doesn’t know that he grew up in Sudan, escaped civil war, and was granted asylum here—not to come and ‘take our jobs’ or accept a hand-out, as would fit the picture some of the British media paint of our immigrant population, but because we were the only country who offered his family the chance to get out of a situation in which they could have been killed.

They don’t know that when he got here, he fell in love with our culture and our national sport, and would spend his days kicking a football around with his friends, trying to emulate Arsenal legend Ian Wright.

They don’t know that he started playing basketball with a local community team, the Brixton Topcats—without whom hundreds of kids over the last 20 years could have taken the kind of path the media would like to have you think all young kids from inner city Britain take—and showed such talent that he was given the chance to develop his game in the US.

They don’t know that when he got to the States, he worked his ass off, every minute of every day, becoming one of the best high school players in the US before playing for one of top college programs.

They don’t know that this kid from Brixton, South London, got drafted to the NBA, and is now one of the most respected and loved players with one of the most successful teams in sports (with a contract worth $71 million).

They don’t know that he played through injury for an entire season because his team needed him, and that last year’s MVP would have given the award to Luol.

They don’t know that he took a personal moment in the spotlight, his introduction at the 2012 All-Star Game, to celebrate his African roots.

They don’t know the stories of the kids who benefit from the amazing work of his foundation, or who take part in programs at the London School of Basketball, that without Luol’s support (financial or otherwise) would not happen.

They don’t know that there are hundreds (maybe thousands) of basketball-obsessed Brits who would give anything to see our guy take on the best in the world this summer, and they don’t know that it doesn’t matter if we lose every single game, because with Luol on the team, we’ll have given it everything we’ve got and have a team to be proud of.

What he means to the UK, or more specifically, what he might mean if he plays this summer, is so much more important than just new fans and jersey sales.

It’s about inspiring young people not to give up, even when it looks like the odds are stacked against them (and with rising unemployment and the expense of attending college, it seems like the odds are firmly stacked against a lot of kids). It’s about sharing a positive story, for once, about a guy who came to this country seeking asylum, grew up in inner-city London, and is now set to take on the best in the world.

If Luol doesn’t play this summer, your average Brit will never know any of this. And that would be the biggest loss of all.

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  • OneShot

    Nobody wants Deng to do himself harm. We want to see him succeed in his career because, as you say, it’s a wonderful example for others. However, i desperately want him to play for us for the same reasons as well as his prescence improving our chances and this would be on the biggest international stage there is.

    With regards to the Bulls and their fans, if it were Rose in a similar situation (best wishes on his own recovery), that is to say as a central cog for team USA success (not that you guys don’t have an absurd wealth of talent but please just imagine), would they be so set against it? Would any fan anywhere if it meant a better chance at success for your country?

  • joshpr12

    @BenTaylor, you hinted at the incredibly work that the Brixton Topcats organisation has done for young people in South London over the years, but did not, in my opinion, give enough credit to Jimmy Rogers who founded the Topcats over 25 years ago. Without him Luol’s rise to stardom could never have happened and many of today’s young people would be without direction in life. Jimmy is not only a legendary coach but an inspiring leader.

  • http://nba.com GP23

    Nice write-up.
    First of all – This needs to be posted on a major British sports website, i.e. BBC Sport, ITV Sport or something of the like.
    Secondly – Scoop Jackson wrote a great piece on this issue a few days ago, and it was brilliant.
    Thirdly – For Basketball to get a lot bigger in the UK, Britain have to succeed or suffer more years with low interest in the game. At least winning a medal will raise the profile of Deng, and most importantly, the game itself.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Slick Ric

    Lu-tenant Deng.

  • http://slamonline.com Ben Osborne

    Really nice piece, Ben.

  • LA Huey

    Nice piece. I actually learned some cool stuff about Deng. Wish more publications would write about players with interesting backgrounds and not just “LeBron this” and “Kobe that”.

  • real

    Thanks for reppin the UK hard Ben, not just giving exposure to UK hoops but also for your excellent stories, very well written piece.

  • Jeff

    Great piece. As much as I understand and sympathize with Lu’s desire to play for his country he needs to have the surgery. He was hurt all year and at the end of the day the Bulls pay his salary. By prolonging the surgery he could miss part of next season and that just can’t happen. Love the guy, but surgery right now is the best option.

  • T Bone

    great read. really think that Luol playing will make a big difference in the uk. without him we really dont have too much chance of producing results in this competition, but with him we can increase interest in the sport in ways never possible before.

  • http://www.slamonline.com/online/blogs/adventures-of-the-catford-saints/ Ben Taylor

    Thanks for the comments, guys. Appreciate the love, for the piece and for Luol.

  • dumski

    Anyone with an interest in seeing Basketball grow across the world and particularly in the UK wants him to play and represent GB.
    I bet you a dollar Stern wants him to play. Heck even the owners don’t care that much as they agreed to it during the lock out.
    We need Deng and the whole squad and the rest of the squad to win some games, get some media coverage and inspire the kids to pick up a ball and become the next Loul Deng

  • http://hoopistani.blogspot.com hoopistani

    Great write up Ben, I lived in the UK for four years and the country definitely has potential of becoming a major hoop fanbase in the future. With Deng on the host team, they’ll finally have a superstar they can call their own.

  • http://slamonline.com TBRK

    great piece. One of the unsung heroes in sports in general

  • Grenners

    Furthermore, the Olympic games are in Dengs home town. How many athletes ever get the chance to represent their nation at in Olympic games a stones throw away from the place they first learnt their chosen sport. All his childhood friends, family and old acquaintances looking on and cheering him on. Can’t front, that’s a hell of a story for his grand kids one day.