Spirit of a Champion

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.