Ask a child who their favourite British sportsman is and they will reply with some footballer’s name or perhaps Andy Murray, Mo Farah or Sir Bradley Wiggins. But Croydon’s Luol Deng, could most likely walk past the school he attended without garnering much attention.
Deng, whose family fled from conflict in Sudan to start a new life in Britain, is one of the stars of American basketball team the Chicago Bulls, whose season began last week amidst great excitement. They are expected to mount a serious challenge for basketball’s biggest prize, the National Basketball Association title.
Aged 28, Deng has just entered the final year of a $71 million six-year contract, giving him an annual salary that only Gareth Bale and Wayne Rooney can eclipse.
Bulls fan President Barack Obama has said Deng is ‘an inspiration’ and his favourite player. His status as one of the league’s top players has also been acknowledged by NBA fans, players and coaches, who have voted him into the prestigious NBA All-Star game for the past two seasons.
Yet despite his American success, Deng still returns regularly to Croydon where his mother lives, and is currently helping fund sports projects for local young people. And while his name may not resonate among most British sporting fans, it is well known enough for him to have persuaded the government to reverse its decision to reduce funding for Team GB basketball after last year’s Olympics.
Before last year’s London Games, Deng gave his explanation for basketball’s low profile in the UK: “I think it’s a caring question: the funding can be found and the organisation could be better if people care, but I don’t think they do.”
Only his impassioned letter to David Cameron caused the government to reconsider. Deng wrote:
“We all heard about the ‘legacy’ that London 2012 was going to bring to sport in the UK and I refuse to sit back and let that legacy be completely demolished for basketball.”
Deng continued: “I, along with other people involved in the game, have put too much in and care too greatly to let this happen.” £7 million was granted in March 2013 following the appeal.
Deng, one of nine siblings, moved to Croydon when he was nine, when his family fled the dangers of the Civil War. Originally an aspiring footballer, he was persuaded to take up basketball by his brothers, and joined the Brixton Topcats aged 13.
Jimmy Rogers, Head Coach for the Topcats, believes his ex-pupil is extremely under-appreciated at home. He said: “When the Americans (USA basketball team) were over here last year for the Olympics they were shocked to see he didn’t have a bigger face with the Olympics.”
Rogers was keen to point out: “That’s not to do with Luol, it’s to do with the sport and the negative British attitude towards basketball.”
Aged 14, Deng was scouted and offered a scholarship to New Jersey’s Blair Academy, an opportunity he could not turn down.
Blair’s Head Basketball Coach Joe Mantegna remembers Deng’s time in New Jersey fondly, most notably describing the All-Star as “a better person than he is an athlete.”
He went on to star for Duke University, North Carolina from where he was drafted to the Phoenix Suns, but immediately traded to Chicago, where he has remained since 2004.
Deng returns to London every summer to see his family – his mother still lives in South Norwood – and to attempt to inspire British youths through his Luol Deng Foundation, which he established in 2005.
Students at St Mary’s Catholic High School, Croydon, which Deng attended, benefit from free weekly coaching sessions arranged by the LDF. The foundation aims to ‘increase participation in basketball whilst addressing issues of education, health, crime and social inclusion’.
The LDF is also active in Africa, where its mission is to provide adults and children with shelter and water.
Deng will continue to fight for the future of basketball in the UK both on and off the court, but would an NBA championship for British basketball’s ambassador change the views of the government and media? Topcats coach, Rogers doesn’t think so: “The British establishment favours elitist sports – Cricket and Rugby, the people who would be excited by the Bulls’ success do not make the decisions.”
He continued: “The media portray basketball as being an American thing, which is not true, it’s the most popular sport in the world after soccer.”