LONDON (Reuters) - Despite being one of the country’s highest-paid sportsmen Luol Deng remains largely unknown in Britain.
On July 31, Deng signed a multi-year, 71-million-dollar extension to his contract with NBA team the Chicago Bulls, yet the news got little more than a mention in British papers.
The Sudanese-born 23-year-old hopes basketball can make its mark in Britain, though he knows there is a long way to go.
“The focus is not there, it is on football and other sports,” Deng told Reuters at a British team training session in London attended by a handful of journalists — on the same day that more than 14,000 fans turned up to watch a training session at Premier League soccer side Chelsea.
“A lot of kids play basketball at a young age but as they get older the attention and the facilities are not there so they go in a different direction.”
Deng however can only talk positively about the future of basketball in Britain, the country he came to as a refugee 15 years ago from war-torn Sudan.
“I believe the game is growing here in the UK, which is going to help a lot of kids with a lot of talent so hopefully they’ll have a brighter future,” he said.
With home and away qualifiers for the 2009 European Championship (Eurobasket) in Poland being played between September 3-20 against Israel (world-ranked 24), Bosnia (38) and the Czech Republic (56), Deng is confident about British prospects.
“We have the talent and the pieces to qualify. (Head coach) Chris Finch seems excited at the position we’re in,” he added.
As the most high-profile player in the team, Deng will undoubtedly be the key to securing a berth at the championship.
Former Sheffield Sharks player and coach Finch knows qualification is crucial if they are to have any hope of getting into the London Olympics in 2012, where automatic status is not guaranteed due to Britain’s lowly world ranking. The team do not feature among the 73 world-ranked nations.
“One of the things we’re missing in our program is a collective experience of basketball at the top level. We’re going for wins and qualification for 2009, 2011 and then the next Olympics,” he said.
Former NBA player John Amaechi, a member of the England team that won a Commonwealth Games bronze medal in 2006, believes Britain can succeed.
“The general public has never had the opportunity to see these talented youngsters with great stories that the country could really get behind. I think they will do us proud,” he said, speaking from Los Angeles.
One such youngster is Deng.
Deng’s family fled civil war in Sudan for Egypt when he was four because his father had been a government minister. Four years later they were granted asylum to live in London.
It was there that Deng’s basketball skills became evident and at 14 he took up a scholarship in New Jersey.
Now one of the NBA’s hottest properties, Deng is just pleased to be plying his trade in the best league in the world.
“I am happy that I get to stay with the Chicago Bulls and that the organization has that much trust in me,” he said.
Since joining the Bulls in 2004 Deng has become a leading player on the team. Although last season was blighted by injury he has an overall average of 15.6 points in 284 games.
The 2.06-metre forward thinks the team, who missed out on the playoffs last season, are well placed for the new season starting on October 28.
“With new staff we feel like the chemistry is going to be better so we are looking forward to it,” he said, referring to coach Vinny Del Negro who replaced Scott Skiles in June.
“So far he has been great at communicating with all of us. Everybody is talking about him being a first-time coach but the organization has done a great job and brought in good staff around him with a lot of experience, so that should help him out a lot,” he said.
Basketball aside, Deng has set up a foundation in his name that works with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and uses his money to help others, most poignantly the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ in Chicago.
During the 1983-2003 civil war that forced Deng from his homeland, 27,000 boys were orphaned or displaced. In 2001 almost 4,000 were granted refugee status in the United States.
Every year Deng hosts a thanksgiving dinner for Chicago’s ‘Lost Boys’ and takes them Christmas shopping.
“I’m happy I’m in a position to give a hand,” he said, grinning infectiously.
Editing by Clare Fallon