Great Britain, Deng a partnership based on commitment to each other
You're in charge of hoops in Great Britain. A 27-year-old NBA All-Star, 6-foot-9 and versatile, is a patriotic Brit eager to play in the Olympics, which are coming to your country. But his NBA team won't let him do so unless you cough up more than $400,000 in extra insurance premiums to cover his wrist and back, a sum that would blow a hole in your budget. The American professional league -- its we-are-the-world willingness to spread the hoops gospel overseas at any cost now mostly a thing of the past -- won't help you with a waiver, much less financial support.
What do you do? Spring for his services at the risk of shortchanging other talent on the national team, as well as grassroots programs crucial to the long-term growth of the sport in the U.K.? Or pass up a chance to field, on the stage of a home Olympics, an elite player whose immigrant tale embodies the slogan of the London Games, "Inspire a Generation?"
OK, it's not that much of a dilemma. If you're British Basketball, you damn well better make sure Luol Deng, the Chicago Bulls forward, suits up in London. But there it is: the cost that Chris Spice, Britain's performance director for basketball, had to weigh, and ultimately chose to swallow. Without Deng, who led all scorers with 25 points, Team GB might have lost to LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Co. by 60, not 40, in Manchester last week.
This little exercise in cost-benefit analysis is worth recounting on its own merits. But it risks obscuring the extraordinary human story behind Deng's determination to play in the forthcoming Olympics, in the city where he and his family ultimately found sanctuary.
Deng thought nothing of slogging through the backwaters of European basketball with the British team during its four-year odyssey to qualify for London. At one point he played on a court girdled by gun-slinging guards in Belarus; at others, he folded himself into budget airliners to travel with the team to qualifiers in Bosnia, Holland and Switzerland. But then he has known much worse.
Deng's father, Aldo, had been a minister in the government of Sudan when that country descended into chaos at the beginning of the 1990s. He chose to send his wife, Martha, and Luol, then five, and 11 brothers and sisters to safety in Egypt. For five years the Dengs lived in a sparse, two-bedroom apartment in Alexandria. Many of them slept on the floor. While his elder siblings scrambled for work, pooling what they made to buy food to share, Luol found a nearby basketball court. There he discovered productive ways to use the height with which his Dinka bloodlines had blessed him.
After a coup back home Aldo Deng served a prison term. But upon his release he was granted asylum in Britain, and in 1995 sent for Martha and their children. The family settled in the London neighborhood of South Norwood, where Deng hooked on with a program called the Brixton Topcats. Soon, as a 12-year old, he had qualified for Great Britain's under-15 national team.
Even after he lit out for the U.S. -- to attend Blair Academy in New Jersey and play a season at Duke -- Deng made sure to return to England every summer to play for his homeland. Soon after London was awarded the Olympics, Great Britain formed a national team with the goal of proving to FIBA, the international federation, that it deserved the automatic qualifier usually granted routinely to Olympic hosts. FIBA required that Britain work its way through a secondary tier of European countries to earn its keep. But the Brits, under Houston Rockets assistant coach Chris Finch, won every qualifying group they participated in to advance to "A" status and secure FIBA's blessing.
To reach the Olympic medal round Britain will need to place at least fourth in a pool-play group that includes Australia, Brazil, China, Russia and Spain. It will be tough, but as Deng says, "We've come a long way. There's not a lot of recognition for what we've done, but British basketball has taken great leaps and strides. Now Spain, France -- those teams prepare for us."
Overall, Deng has given 15 nearly unbroken years of service to one or another of Britain's or England's national teams. "Luol's commitment to our program has never wavered," says Finch, who has been coach since the re-establishment of a Great Britain program in 2006. "He missed playing that first summer because he didn't get his passport until October. But he came to training camp and got young people active. A lot of the guys on the team, he grew up with. He's a genuine guy who's doing this for all the right reasons."
The $400,000 tab that British Basketball has picked up was as much an honorarium for that extraordinary record as it was an insurance payment.
In January, after he tore a ligament in his left wrist, the Bulls prevailed upon Deng to delay surgery until Chicago had played out its unsuccessful championship run. Then, with the season over and the Olympics looming, it was Deng's turn to dictate the terms: No way was he going to have the surgery now and miss the Games. Playing in the London Olympics, modeling top-level basketball for a generation of young Brits who might someday pick up the country's banner, was Deng's way of repaying the debt he feels to the nation that took him in. "I don't see how he wouldn't be playing for Great Britain," says U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski, Deng's coach at Duke. "It's not unusual that the NBA calls for [supplemental insurance]. What's unusual is Luol. He's a beautiful guy who's a world-class player when he's healthy. He's not just a great story, he has a great spirit. And what you want in a program is that kind of commitment."
And that's why British Basketball ultimately matched that commitment with one of its own. In 2008 Deng had just signed a six-year, $63 million contract with the Bulls. "That first year it cost us more to insure Luol for a month than it cost us to run the whole program for a year," says Ron Wuotila, the national team's general manager. "People were shocked by our willingness to put that money up, but we were at a make-or-break moment. Chris Spice was the bravest of all. I was scared off by the numbers, but Chris said, 'We only get one shot at this.'"
The good news: The deeper into the contract Deng gets, the lower Team GB's insurance bills will go. But as he puts more miles on the odometer -- no one in the league logged more minutes last season -- some other body part is likely to require what the eyeshades call an "exclusion."
"If FIBA and the NBA and the insurance industry could all come together," Finch says wishfully, "it might make this a little less painful."
But by simple dint of who he is, Deng is doing much to lessen the pain.