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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.

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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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The South African Who Wants To Be The Fastest Man In The World

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Recovering from a knee injury, Wayde van Niekerk was all set to defend his title at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. In lockdown in South Africa, the Mo Salah and Liverpool fan is instead working on his endurance and finding positivity in chaos.

A good sportsman can never be locked down.

Just ask Cape Town-born Wayde van Niekerk, who made history at the 2016 Rio Olympics with a record-breaking performance as a track and field athlete.

In a way, the lockdown in South Africa has been an extension of Van Niekerk’s own time away from the limelight, when he was already living and training indoors, building on his physical and mental strength, after a serious knee injury in 2017.

The injury that kept him away from the track had meant “hibernation” of a different kind when he was steering himself for the next big competition in returning to the field again in 2020.  

This was also going to be the year he was going to defend his 400m world record at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

“I came out of an injury, and it led to me entering a hibernation period of my life where a lot happened, internally, indoors, away from the TV screens,” says Van Niekerk in a Zoom interview with FORBES AFRICA from his home in Bloemfontein in South Africa’s Free State province, a day after the country lifted its stringent five-week lockdown with Level 4 restrictions.

“As this year started, I had shifted my mentality to becoming an athlete again, and getting ready for the next major competition, and then Covid-19 started, and that led to me taking a step back and shift back to the hibernation stage of training and strengthening myself.

“I am blessed and privileged to have equipment around me and a gym setup at home. So I was well-prepared even before the pandemic… but you do miss the track, but this pandemic is something we all have to face together.”

The 28-year-old, who showed promise from an early age, and who was also listed as one of FORBES AFRICA’s 30 Under 30 achievers in 2019, says he has been using the time to find peace in chaos.

“What I have learned is to try and find that peace, that positivity and calm in this storm. It’s a mentality shift I had to meditate on, that I build a positive foundation, that I reap every strength and positivity invested in me, that once I come out of the injury, I  come out stronger. Now, I am making sure my physical and mental strength can complement each other.”

From 200-meter events as a junior athlete, to becoming a 400-meter specialist later, Van Niekerk is among the most versatile sprinters in the history of the sport.

For now, he says he also taken the time away from the track to commit to the less fortunate around him.

“I find it difficult to focus on just me… I am very passionate about helping those around me. I am not a fan of wanting to do things that become a media event.”

The transition from indoor fitness to outdoor training, once the lockdown regulations fully lift, is not going to be easy. “There are a lot of technical things in terms of getting 100% race-fit for an international stage and trying to do some competitions; to just shake off that rust and get the legs going and the body moving and the blood flowing again. There will be a whole few months before we get to be at the level and shape where we can improve ourselves as athletes,” he says.

The ardent Mo Salah and Liverpool fan has also been engaging with his network of sports stars around the world. Jamaican former sprinter Usain Bolt is a good friend.

“I communicate with most, but Usain is more about the banter. He’s always teasing me about the Premier League not going to finish, so they keep trying to tap into that nerve of mine as I am a passionate Liverpool supporter. So I am trying not to entertain that side of them,” laughs Van Niekerk.

As a child, Van Niekerk dreamed of becoming the fastest man in the world. It’s a dream that still keeps the speedster going.

“It is what I have been investing in ever since I was young, and what I want to achieve. With the barriers I broke came confidence, and why not believe in what I can achieve? I am invested 110% to want to improve the 100m, 200m and up to 400m. I am more hungry and determined than ever!”

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Staying Flexible: With The Postponement Of The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, This Gymnast’s Goal Hasn’t Changed

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The 19-year-old South African gymnast was all set for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in July, for which she had qualified. With the event’s postponement, her goal hasn’t changed, she says, only the timeline has. 

At just 19 years old, Caitlin Rooskrantz is South Africa’s gold medal-winning international gymnast.

From Florida, a small suburb in Roodepoort in Johannesburg, and currently in lockdown in the country, if the Covid-19 pandemic hadn’t happened, Rooskrantz would have now been intensely training for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in July, for which she had qualified.

 “I qualified for the 2020 Games being the first woman in South Africa’s gymnastics history to have achieved an outright qualification at the world championships,” she told an audience of female powerhouses at the 2020 FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban on March 6.

Even as a child, when she first took to gymnastics, she had been set on making it to the Olympics one day.   

The news of the Games’ postponement has been quite upsetting, but says Rooskrantz: “It is in the best interest of all the athletes because our health comes first, always!” Her favorite quote, in particular, comforts her at this time: “The goal hasn’t changed, just the timeline has, keep going!”

Her training has continued through the lockdown and it has kept her afternoons busy.

“We have set programs to keep up our strength, fitness and flexibility. To try and keep up my mental game, I watch videos daily of any past successful competitions. I analyse my training videos and try to mentally put myself in the video,” she says.

2019 had been “a spectacular year” for her.

“I managed to pass matric well with two distinctions and university entrance while training for my childhood dream. Not only did I bag South Africa’s first-ever gold medal on uneven bars on an international stage, but at just 18 years old, I made history,” she said at the summit, to an applauding audience. 

In an interview with FORBES AFRICA, Rooskrantz reflects on the days when it all started, as a young child, when she was a bundle of energy and her parents knew early on that they had to redirect that energy to sport.

A teenager now, but if Rooskrantz has already seen much success, she has also experienced tragedy and hardship.

When she was just eight, her father, from whom she inherited her deep love for sport, passed away. He took his own life.

She had been training at a gymnastics center a few kilometers from home, but that had to stop because of the tragedy and transportation issues. But her former trainer took it upon herself to regularly drive her there.

“Everything started escalating and things took a turn. I dropped all my school sports because I didn’t have any time for them; I had to pick one, especially with the high demand of gym,” she says.

Rooskrantz was placed on a high-performance program and soon started traveling; training more than four hours a day six days a week at the age of 11. This was the intermediate level of her tumbling (a gymnastic feat including the execution of acrobatic feats) profession and the best was yet to come.

Her first overseas trip was to Australia for a training camp in 2012. A few months later, Rooskrantz competed in Serbia for her first international competition. It might have not been the best competition for her, but it was great exposure.

In 2014, South Africa hosted the African gymnastics championships with Rooskrantz the youngest member of the junior team.

“I did well, I don’t remember falling and I made it to the bar finals and that was the time I started to realize my potential on the asymmetric bar. I left that with a big boost to my confidence.” 

The young student was progressing quickly, reaching new heights.

On her last year as a junior in the 2016 Junior Commonwealth Games in Namibia, she made three apparatus finals; asymmetric bar, vault and the balancing beam.

An injury kept her away from the Commonwealth Games in Australia in 2018, when she went in for surgery and was off the apparatus for months.

“I was in bed after my operation but back at gym a week after, still on crutches, working on my upper body. In a sport like gymnastics, when you are that injured, it is critical to do something because you lose strength, flexibility and fitness. I was also working on my mental state,” she says of those hard days. Her coach told her the surgery was either going to make or break her career. She was determined to return stronger. She did, and how.

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All Home And No Play: Not Since World War II Has The Global Sports Industry Faced Such A Crippling Crisis

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Not since World War II has the global sports industry faced such a crippling crisis, which is likely to cost billions of dollars in lost revenue and could yet see the permanent extinction of some teams and competitions.

The coronavirus pandemic that has spread across the world has the potential to change the face of sports forever, and Africa will not be spared, with one administrator suggesting the outbreak could set their game back 20 years.

The severity of the impact will be determined by how long it takes for society to live alongside the pandemic, but even if that were to happen in June, there has already been significant damage done.

Confederation of African Football (CAF) President Ahmad Ahmad has tried to provide a positive outlook, but knows the complexity of the situation on the continent is dire.

None of the 54 domestic leagues in Africa was still running in May, as Burundi was the last to close up shop the month before, but just when cross-border competitions such as the lucrative CAF Champions League, and qualifiers for the Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup, can resume, is anybody’s guess given travel restrictions are likely to be in place for some time, and vary from country to country.

“CAF is already focused on the conditions for relaunching our competitions and our events,” Ahmad said in comments supplied to FORBES AFRICA.

“Never has a crisis of such great magnitude crossed the world, never has world sport decreed so many postponements of its programs and never has such a tsunami struck the most basic sporting practice.

“We are now condemned to rebuild the basics, or at least to reinforce them, to energize them so that at the time of recovery, we will be the best structured and best disposed to conquer or re-conquer, the dry territories of sport and football.

It is Ahmad’s way of saying that any thought of returning to pre-coronavirus levels of engagement and sponsorship are fanciful in the short-term, or perhaps even medium-term.

His suggestion of having to “rebuild the basics” is a key admission and will be the same for many sports that face a sponsorship vacuum from some of the world’s leading brands.

When airlines, major sponsors of African sport, have been laying off staff and cut their schedules to next to nothing, can they justify pumping millions of dollars into sport?

The same for car manufactures, loss-making banks and oil companies hit by the drop in the price of crude.

The health conditions to allow play for many sports in Africa may return this year, but the question is whether there will be the financial support vital to being able to play the game.

Selwyn Nathan, commissioner of South Africa’s Sunshine Tour and a leading expert on global golf, suggests the pandemic may return the sport to the year 2000 in terms of financial capabilities.

“It could be like starting a business all over again, you can’t have an attitude that people [sponsors] will just come back,” Nathan says.

“It’s not something unique to Africa, or sport anywhere in the world, but we are going to have to change the way we do things.

“Players will have to accept that they are not going to be playing for the same money, and organizers must accept they will have to ask for less [money] and possibly do more just to retain sponsors.

“It is going to fundamentally change the way we operate and we have to adapt to that.”

Winners in some co-sanctioned Sunshine Tour and European Tour golf events can earn upwards of $1.5-million per tournament, but Nathan believes those numbers will be fanciful for the foreseeable future and it is likely to be a fraction of that.

The pandemic could be the death knell for ailing Super Rugby, the southern hemisphere club championship that has been hanging on for dear life, as it was, due to dwindling interest and its format that sees players criss-cross the globe between Argentina, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Japan.

In the case of world champion Springboks, that could actually work in their favor and see them looking north to Europe for club and country competitions, where the TV revenues are greater and load on players less, according to respected Stormers coach John Dobson.

“I believe there will be a restructuring of the game and that could be at Super Rugby’s expense,” Dobson says. “There could be stronger focus on domestic competitions with less travel and more tailored for television, because ultimately, that is where you get the revenue to run the game.

“It’s critical you have a product that is appealing to rugby fans, and after this period, maybe that will rather involve South African teams playing in the [European] Heineken Cup. I don’t know, but something has to change.”

Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard, who is chairman of the APO Group, a communication and business consultancy in Africa, says he has seen first-hand the toll the virus has taken on sports federations almost across the board.

“I think, unfortunately, it will have a devastating effect for many. First of all, athletes cannot train properly and when you are at the level of international competition, just a few percentage points off can compromise your body,” he says.

“Added to that, there is no competition and the longer this goes on, the longer it will take for athletes to return to peak performances, so in the near term, you will have a poorer product for television and sponsors.”

Pompigne-Mognard says cross-border competitions are vital in Africa and it is in these multi-national tournaments where many federations across different sports make most of their revenue.

“Each African nation is unlikely to return to full health at the same time, so, for example, the Basketball Africa League, which involves 12 teams from across the continent has to be put on hold until travel is possible.

“It will go ahead, but the question is when and what are the financial consequences of this? It is something that we cannot quantify now, so we live in this state of uncertainty and that is not good for anybody, sport or business.”

The postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games to 2021 has brought much relief for many athletes, who had seen their training regimes brought to a halt, or at best conducted in the confines of their own home.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Chad le Clos had had to make do with what he has at home while in lockdown in South Africa, one of thousands of elite athletes from across Africa in similar situations.

“It is what it is and I am happy with the decision (to move the Olympics) that has been made,” Le Clos says. “I have a small pool at home, so I attach a cord that allows me to stay stationary as I swim.”

 “We cannot afford to take a break, even in lockdown. You cannot let yourself lose the months and months of work that you have put into your body.

“I don’t know where or when I will compete again, but you have to stay positive. You have to hope for the best, that is all we can do.”

-Nick Said

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