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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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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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The NBA’s Highest-Paid Players 2019-20: LeBron James Scores Record $92 Million

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NBA salaries have skyrocketed in recent years, but the biggest stars have earned more off the court than on it to this point in their careers. LeBron James, who tops the ranking for the 2019-2020 season, has made more than twice as much from endorsements than his $270 million in playing salary over his first 16 years. Kevin Durant’s on-court earnings of $187 million in 12 seasons is dwarfed by his current ten-year, $275 million Nike deal.

At $92 million, including salary and endorsements, James is the NBA’s highest-paid player for the sixth straight year. It is a record haul for an active basketball player. Nike is his biggest backer, and the company is naming a new research lab at its Beaverton, Oregon, corporate campus after James. Last month, the 17th iteration of his Nike signature shoe, the LeBron XVII, hit stores.

The four-time NBA MVP added a pair of endorsement deals in 2019 with Rimowa luggage and Walmart, which joined Coca-Cola, Beats By Dre, Blaze Pizza and NBA 2K in his sponsorship stable.

He also has a budding digital media company, Uninterrupted, and a production firm, SpringHill Entertainment, which will release a sequel to the 1996 Michael Jordan vehicle Space Jam in conjunction with Warner Bros. in 2021. All of the off-court work is worth an estimated $55 million for James this season.

The Los Angeles Lakers star’s comments about the NBA’s geopolitical mess in China also reveal the precarious position everyone in the league is in as political unrest in Hong Kong shows no signs of abating.

As the league’s 74th regular season tipped off Tuesday night, the NBA was still reeling from the crisis set off by a tweet from Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.

Commissioner Adam Silver backed Morey’s right to free speech, but some players didn’t, including James, who called Morey “misinformed or not really educated” on the situation. “We love China,” said Rockets point guard James Harden.

It was a rare misstep for two of the league’s more media-savvy stars, both of whom have close ties to China. Adidas, which has Harden as the face of its basketball business, generated more revenue in China last year than in North America, and the Rockets are China’s most popular team after drafting native son Yao Ming in 2002.

Nike’s China revenue topped $6 billion during the last fiscal year, and the country is a growth leader for the brand. James has represented Nike on 15 off-season trips to China. The sports giant pays James more than $30 million annually to pitch its products around the globe.

And the threat of losing its growth trajectory in China could have far-reaching consequences for team valuations.

But back at home, the financials of NBA franchises remain solid, which is good for player salaries. The league’s salary cap is soaring, fueled largely by the nine-year, $24 billion TV deal with ESPN and TNT signed in 2014.

NBA players are entitled to 51% of the league’s “basketball-related income” as laid out in the collective bargaining agreement. The rich TV deal and budding international business means 46 players will earn a playing salary of at least $25 million this season, according to Spotrac. The $25 million club had zero members five years ago. And unlike in the NFL, every dollar is guaranteed upon signing.

The NBA's Highest-Paid Players
The Highest-Paid NBA Players - Dataviz

On-court salaries in the NBA are capped based on a player’s number of years in the league and accolades earned in cases in which an award like MVP entitles them to a bigger percentage of a team’s salary cap.

So the pecking order for the elite stars is ultimately determined by their off-court income, with the shoe deal the biggest component of those earnings. There are ten active NBA players who will make at least $10 million from their shoe contracts this year, by Forbes’ count.

Stephen Curry comes in at No. 2 on the earnings list this year and is expected to generate $85 million this season, including $45 million off the court. Under Armour represents nearly half of his off-court income.

Curry’s $40.2 million salary from the Golden State Warriors is the highest in the history of the NBA; he’s in the third season of the five-year, $201 million contract he signed in 2017. Curry’s production company, Unanimous Media, has a development deal with Sony Pictures.

Unanimous’ first movie, Breakthrough, was released in April, with Curry playing a role in marketing the Christian-oriented film, which grossed $50 million on a $14 million budget.

Durant has the NBA’s second-biggest annual shoe contract after James’ at an estimated $26 million this season. His total earnings from his playing salary and endorsements is $73 million. Nike sells more KD shoes in China than in North America, according to Durant’s business partner Rich Kleiman.

Like James and Curry, Durant has his own production company, which is co-producing a new basketball-themed drama, Swagger, that is inspired by Durant’s youth basketball experience and will air on the Apple TV+ streaming service.

The NBA’s ten highest-paid players are expected to earn a cumulative $600 million this year, including $250 million from endorsements, appearances, merchandise and media.

A Closer Look At The NBA's Highest-Paid Players
#10: Damian Lillard

Lillard signed a four-year, $196 million supermax extension in July with the Portland Trail Blazers that kicks in for the 2021-2022 season. The final year is worth $54.25 million for the 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year and four-time All-Star. Lillard’s Adidas shoe deal is worth roughly $10 million annually.

#9: Giannis Antetokounmpo

The “Greek Freak” is eligible for a five-year, $248 million contract extension next summer with the Milwaukee Bucks. It would be the richest deal in the history of the sport. In June, Nike unveiled the first signature shoe, Zoom Freak 1, for the 2019 NBA MVP.

#8: Chris Paul

Only Curry will earn more on the court this season than Paul, who was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in July. Paul was an early investor and ambassador for Beyond Meat, whose stock price has quadrupled since its initial public offering in May.

#7: Klay Thompson

Thompson’s coach, Steve Kerr, says the sharpshooter is likely to miss the entire season after tearing his ACL during the NBA Finals in June. But he’ll still collect his full $32.7 million salary—almost double last year’s—under the first season of the five-year, $190 million pact he signed in July. Thompson is the basketball face of Chinese shoe brand Anta.

#6: Kyrie Irving

Irving joins his third team in four years this season. His four-year deal with the Brooklyn Nets is worth $136 million and includes an additional $4.3 million in potential incentives. A viral Pepsi ad campaign featuring Irving as the elderly Uncle Drew eventually led to a 2018 feature film; Irving has partial ownership of the character. Irving is another Beyond Meat investor.

#5: James Harden

The 2018 NBA MVP purchased a minority stake in the Houston Dynamo of MLS this summer for $15 million. Harden also holds equity stakes in BodyArmor, Stance socks and Art of Sport. His salary with the Rockets jumps $8 million this season with the start of a contract extension he signed in 2017.

#4: Russell Westbrook

Westbrook’s five-year, $207 million contract is the largest deal in the NBA right now. The eight-time All Star extended his deal with Nike’s Jordan brand in 2017 for another ten years and in 2018 received his first signature shoe, the Why Not Zer0. Westbrook has averaged a triple-double for three straight seasons.

#3: Kevin Durant

Durant is likely to miss the entire season recovering from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in June during the NBA Finals. He’ll still pocket his full first-year salary from the Brooklyn Nets under the four-year, $164 million deal he signed in July. He’s invested in more than 30 startups, including Postmates and investing app Acorns.

#2: Stephen Curry

The two-time MVP used some of his hoops money in June to buy a $31 million home in Atherton, California, with his wife, Ayesha. He also made a seven-figure donation this summer to Howard University to help launch a golf program at the school and recently signed an endorsement partnership with Callaway Golf. Curry became the only player to win the NBA MVP unanimously when he won his second of back-to-back awards in 2016.

#1: LeBron James

James signed an endorsement in 2019 with Walmart that is rooted in community work. He worked with the retail giant on its Fight Hunger. Spark Change. initiative, as well as the company’s back-to-school campaign. James is part of an investment group that owns 19 Blaze Pizza franchises across Illinois and Florida.

-Forbes; Kurt Badenhausen

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