Luol Deng fled South Sudan and became the voice for Africa while playing basketball in the NBA.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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