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The NBA Player Standing Tall For Africa

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It is a warm August day in Nairobi, Kenya, as I make my way to Emmanuel Jambo’s Emms photography studio to meet with two-time National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star Luol Deng. As celebrated photographer Jambo shoots Deng, the basketball star strikes poses with his brother, Ajou, who is also a professional basketball player. Standing at a not-too-shabby 5ft10, I feel diminutive next to them. The atmosphere in the studio is vibrant and it is obvious that family is paramount to the Deng brothers. The jovial session continues for a while as he tells me “…I was always taken care of by my family… we are tight, there is a lot of joy and we are always laughing.”

Deng’s story is an inspirational one crisscrossing three continents. His journey began in South Sudan, where he was born 32 years ago. Tumultuous politics forced his family to flee to Alexandria, Egypt, when he was five years old.

Five years later, the exodus continued with the family being granted political asylum in London. These years saw a metamorphosis from a nonchalant happy go lucky child raised in Egypt into a quiet and intuitive pre-teen.

“I became more reserved and tried to figure out the new culture and language,” says Deng.

The move from Egypt to London led Luol to begin internalizing life lessons, and cultivating the level of drive and discipline that defines him today.

“My mum was working two jobs and, at the time, I didn’t know what they were, but all I noticed was her working and working. I told her that I never wanted to see her overworking again and made a commitment to save my bus fare, walk to school and find a job,” he recalls.

Deng propelled himself into gaining work experience. He secured a part-time job at a bakery, where he would sweep the floor at closing time for a meager wage. He put these small earnings into a small personal business where he bought tubes of sorbet and resold at a profit to his schoolmates. At the end of the week, he would hand his profits to his mother.

That work ethic is probably the reason he has been so successful in his basketball career. The current 2017-2018 season is Deng’s 14th year as an NBA player, having played with four of the association’s major teams.

Luol Deng (Photo by Emmanuel Jambo)

His career began with the legendary Chicago Bulls, where he spent a decade before bouncing from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat and, in 2016, signed a four-year, $72-million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. This lucrative deal brings his reported career earnings to about $150 million.

Deng’s career has been blessed with highs as well as plagued by pitfalls. The All-Star is candid about his journey, and the challenges that have marked one of the most successful African NBA careers.

The story returns to his earlier memories in Egypt, where his elder brother participated in a short but crucial basketball training clinic run by the great Sudanese-born Manute Bol. His brother passed the lessons down.

“At a young age, say about seven, I started to play basketball and doing everyday drills that an NBA player taught my brother.”

Deng excelled in sports and at the age of 14 was awarded a scholarship to play basketball at Blair Academy in New Jersey, United States. He thrived at Blair and went on to attain yet another athletic scholarship, south of New Jersey, at Duke University in North Carolina. After a year at university, he decided to turn professional. It didn’t start as he’d hoped though. A wrist injury in his shooting hand saw him subjected to multiple doctor probes that eventually led to surgery.

“I had just turned 19, and one of the doctors I was seeing told me to start thinking of an alternative to basketball. Luckily the doctor that ended up doing the surgery assured me that though it would be a long road to recovery, there was hope.”

Fortunately, his recovery was faster than anticipated and he impressed on the court.

Three seasons later, he suffered another injury. This time the injury was both physical and emotional.

“I remember the media just destroying me as I kept missing games.”

Another series of doctor consults revealed a fractured tibia. This time he sought the holistic route and let his body heal naturally, rather than undergo a surgery that would have seen a metal rod placed in his right leg. The arduous trek to get a clean bill of health took almost a year and a half, and it paid off as Deng was announced as an All-Star the following year.

READ MORE: Basketball Bully Boys

Conscious of his roots, Deng was sending a message to African youth across the globe. He galvanized the world’s attention. A young African man that had lived as a displaced refugee, overcame supposed career-ending injuries and rampant media scrutiny, stood in front of the world as one of the best players in the NBA.

“I felt the need to show where I am from.”

When his All-Star tracksuit came off, a t-shirt branded with an African map was revealed, violating the strict NBA uniform regulations. Aware of the repercussions he was to face from the league, Deng warned his coaches beforehand.

“I basically said, ‘coach, I don’t want to disrespect you but there is something I just have to do, I’m probably going to get fined but this is bigger than what they are going to fine me’,” he says.

“For me, this was my biggest moment because of what it meant to all these kids that were watching the All-Star game and that they got to see Africa put on the map… I am proud to be African.”

During his career, Deng has participated in the NBA and International Basketball Federation (FIBA) initiative, Basketball Without Borders (BWB). He credits the NBA Vice President and Managing Director for Africa, Amadou Gallo Fall, who he fondly refers to as “Godfather” for introducing him to this program. During off seasons, he and other NBA players visit Africa for a series of training workshops for selected youngsters. Some of these youngsters have received further training in the US and a few, such as Joel Embiid of Cameroon, are playing in the NBA.

The sport is taking off on the continent.

“Time and technology is really helping the game in Africa, in terms of people realizing that there is a lot of talent here that can compete at a high level,” says Deng.

Luol Deng of the Los Angeles Lakers scores a basket over Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz during the basketball game at Staples Center December, 27 2016, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

In 2015, the first NBA exhibition game was played in Johannesburg, South Africa. The second match, also in Johannesburg, was played in July 2017 and plans are underway for more exhibition games to be played across the continent in the coming years.

READ MORE: The Kenyan Hercules Stomping The States

Deng also does his part for Africa through the Luol Deng Foundation. The Deng Top 50 Camp takes place every year, where talented youth train and compete.

As Deng enters the twilight of his playing career, he has recently turned vegan and appears slim and fit. His plans for the future? Deng says he has no political ambition, but wants to help build “the Africa we want”.

“I am very pro-Africa and throughout the course of my career, through my foundation and other business endeavors, I have started a series of things and hopefully when I retire I will be able to tie in all the activities I am passionate about and help contribute to a better way of life in my homeland and Africa as a whole.” – Written by Laura Rwiliriza

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30 under 30

Applications Open for FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 class of 2020

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FORBES AFRICA is on the hunt for Africans under the age of 30, who are building brands, creating jobs and transforming the continent, to join our Under 30 community for 2020.


JOHANNESBURG, 07 January 2020: Attention entrepreneurs, creatives, sport stars and technology geeks — the 2020 FORBES AFRICA Under 30 nominations are now officially open.

The FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list is the most-anticipated list of game-changers on the continent and this year, we are on the hunt for 30 of Africa’s brightest achievers under the age of 30 spanning these categories: Business, Technology, Creatives and Sport.

Each year, FORBES AFRICA looks for resilient self-starters, innovators, entrepreneurs and disruptors who have the acumen to stay the course in their chosen field, come what may.

Past honorees include Sho Madjozi, Bruce Diale, Karabo Poppy, Kwesta, Nomzamo Mbatha, Burna Boy, Nthabiseng Mosia, Busi Mkhumbuzi Pooe, Henrich Akomolafe, Davido, Yemi Alade, Vere Shaba, Nasty C and WizKid.

What’s different this year is that we have whittled down the list to just 30 finalists, making the competition stiff and the vetting process even more rigorous. 

Says FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil: “The start of a new decade means the unraveling of fresh talent on the African continent. I can’t wait to see the potential billionaires who will land up on our desks. Our coveted sixth annual Under 30 list will herald some of the decade’s biggest names in business and life.”

If you think you have what it takes to be on this year’s list or know an entrepreneur, creative, technology entrepreneur or sports star under 30 with a proven track-record on the continent – introduce them to FORBES AFRICA by applying or submitting your nomination.

NOMINATIONS AND APPLICATIONS CRITERIA:

Business and Technology categories

  1. Must be an entrepreneur/founder aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Should have a legitimate REGISTERED business on the continent
  3. Business/businesses should be two years or older
  4. Nominees must have risked own money and have a social impact
  5. Must be profit generating
  6. Must employ people in Africa
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Sports category

  1. Must be a sports person aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be representing an African team
  3. Should have a proven track record of no less than two years
  4. Should be making significant earnings
  5. Should have some endorsement deals
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Creatives category

  1. Must be a creative aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be from or based in Africa
  3. Should be making significant earnings
  4. Should have a proven creative record of no less than two years
  5. Must have social influence
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Your entry should include:

  • Country
  • Full Names
  • Company name/Team you are applying with
  • A short motivation on why you should be on the list
  • A short profile on self and company
  • Links to published material / news clippings about nominee
  • All social media handles
  • Contact information
  • High-res images of yourself

Applications and nominations must be sent via email to FORBES AFRICA journalist and curator of the list, Karen Mwendera, on [email protected]

Nominations close on 3 February 2020.

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Sport

The Springboks And The Cup Of Good Hope

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After their epic win beating England at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan on November 2, the Springboks returned home to South Africa, undertaking a nation-wide tour, in an open-top bus, holding high the Webb Ellis Cup. In this image, in the township of Soweto, they pass the iconic Vilakazi Street with throngs of screaming, cheering residents and Springbok fans lining the street. The sport united the racially-divided country. For the third time in history, the South African national rugby team was crowned world champions.

Image by Motlabana Monnakgotla

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Déjà vu: South Africa Back to Winning

Our Publisher reflects on the recent Springbok victory in Yokohoma, Japan

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Rugby World Cup 2019, Final: England v South Africa Mtach viewing at Nelson Mandela Square

By Rakesh Wahi, Publisher
FORBES AFRICA

Rugby is as foreign to me as cricket is to the average American. However, having lived in South Africa for 15 years, there is no way to avoid being pulled into the sport. November 2, 2019, is therefore a date that will be celebrated in South Africa’s sporting posterity. In many ways, it’s déjà vu for South Africans; at a pivotal time in history, on June 24, 1995, the Springboks beat the All Blacks (the national rugby team of New Zealand) in the final of the World Cup. The game united a racially-divided country coming out of apartheid and at the forefront of this victory was none other than President Nelson Mandela or our beloved Madiba. In a very symbolic coincidence, 24 years later, history repeated itself.

South Africans watched with pride as Siya Kolisi lifted the gold trophy in Yokohama, Japan, as had Francois Pienaar done so 24 years ago in Johannesburg. My mind immediately reflected on this extremely opportune event in South Africa’s history.

The last decade has not been easy; the country has slipped into economic doldrums from which there seems to be no clear path ahead. The political transition from the previously corrupt regime has not been easy and it has been disheartening to see a rapid deterioration in the economic condition of the country. The sad reality is that there literally seems to be no apparent light at the end of the tunnel; with blackouts and load-shedding, a currency that is amongst the most volatile in the world, rising unemployment and rising crime amongst many other issues facing the country.

Rakesh Wahi, Publisher Forbes Africa

Something needed to change. There was a need for an event to change this despondent state of mind and the South African rugby team seems to have given a glimmer of hope that could not have come at a more opportune time. As South African flags were flying all over the world on November 2, something clicked to say that there is hope ahead and if people come together under a common mission, they can be the change that they want to see.

Isn’t life all about hope? Nothing defies gravity and just goes up; Newton taught us that everything that goes up will come down. Vicissitudes are a part of life and the true character of people, society or a nation is tested on how they navigate past these curve balls that make us despair. As we head into 2020, it is my sincere prayer that we see a new dawn and a better future in South Africa with renewed vigor and vitality.

Talking about sports and sportsmen, there is another important lesson that we need to take away. Having been a sportsman all my life, I have had a belief that people who have played team sports like cricket, rugby, soccer, hockey etc make great team players and leaders. However, other sports like golf, diving and squash teach you focus. In all cases, the greatest attribute of all is how to reset your mind after adversity. While most of us moved on after amateur sports to find our place in the world, the real sportspeople to watch and learn from are professionals. It is their grit and determination.

My own belief is that one must learn how to detach from a rear view mirror. You cannot ignore what is behind you because that is your history; you must learn from it. Our experiences are unique and so is our history. It must be our greatest teacher. However, that’s where it must end. As humans, we must learn to break the proverbial rear view mirror and stop worrying about the past. You cannot change what is behind you but you can influence and change what is yet to come.

I had the good fortune of playing golf with Chester Williams (former rugby player who was the first person of color to play for the Springboks in the historic win in 1995 and sadly passed away in September 2019) more than once at the SuperSport Celebrity Golf Shootout.

Chester played his golf fearlessly; perhaps the way he led his life. He would drive the ball 300 meters and on occasion went into the woods or in deep rough. Psychologically, as golfers know, this sets you back just looking at a bad lie, an embedded or unplayable ball or a dropped shot in a hazard. For a seasoned golfer, it is not the shot that you have hit but the one that you are about to hit. Chester has a repertoire of recovery shots and always seemed to be in the game even after some wayward moments. There is a profound lesson in all of this. You have to blank your mind from the negativity or sometimes helplessness and bring a can do and positive frame of reference back into your game (and life). Hit that recovery shot well and get back in the game; that’s what champions do.

We need to now focus our attention on the next shot and try and change the future than stay in the past.

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