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Within the confines of the refugee centre where Luol Deng’s family camped out in Egypt, football and basketball were as much a part of the daily routine as the wait for news of the civil strife which was ripping apart their native Sudan.
The uncertain reality of this exiled branch of the Dinka Tribe was as far removed as one can imagine from the infinitely glitzy existence of a Premiership icon such as Thierry Henry, in which the sound which accompanies his every move is not va-va-voom but the kerr-ching of calculators struggling to keep up with his ever-increasing wealth.
Yet when Deng pitched up last week at Highbury, it was Henry who could be forgiven for casting a covetous glance. The Chicago Bulls forward, who is shortly to begin his second year in the National Basketball Association, confesses that as a life-long Gooner he was expecting to be a little star struck when he met the Frenchman on a visit set up by their mutual sponsor Nike.
However, the fistfuls of dollars he is on the cusp of earning across the Atlantic will soon establish him among the UK’s wealthiest sportsmen and complete his journey from rags to untold riches.
When we talk, he is the middle of a whirlwind tour. Part-ambassador, part-salesman for Nike, who pay millions annually to top NBA stars to endorse The Swoosh, Deng has been criss-crossing Britain ever since he returned here. There have been clinics in Manchester, Brixton and Birmingham, before hosting his very own camp.
“A lot of it’s about raising attention for basketball and hopefully in future years, I’ll do more of it. The focus is on kids and spending time with them, answering their questions or teaching them basketball.
“I enjoy coming back and doing it because coming from here, I want to see more players succeed. Even if it’s not basketball, you’re helping out because some of the kids who come along are not in great situations. And if they see me, they can learn that hard work will get them anywhere.”
Such an approach served Deng well, first at Brixton Topcats, then at high school in New Jersey and at prestigious Duke University. By last summer, he had flourished enough to be chosen seventh in the NBA’s annual draft which took him to Chicago. Averaging 11 points per game, he led a renaissance for the Bulls. The fame, the easy money has not gone to his head. “I’ve got a big TV but I even got a deal on that,” he jokes.
Perhaps Arsenal’s youth chief, the former Celtic manager Liam Brady, should have had him lecture his young charges on dealing with the sporting limelight. Like all new professionals in America’s major leagues, Deng was put through a rigorous programme to help ease the transition.
“I don’t follow football here as close as I used to but I’m sure they could learn from what the NBA or those other leagues do. There are guys in the Premier League who are great guys but because of how people perceive things as a whole, it effects everybody.”
Matters like autograph sessions and fan interaction are mandatory in his contract. There are clauses which compel him, if it were necessary, to undertake work in the community in addition to training and playing. Formalising the system of support simplifies matters.
“Especially in Chicago, everybody knows you. You’re treated like a celebrity and all that came on so quickly. It’s part of the sport, part of being on the Bulls. I was drafted, I signed there and all of a sudden I had all this responsibility thrust on me and all this attention to deal with.
“I really admire David Beckham. There is so much to deal with, more than people think. Every thing you do goes under the microscope so you have to be careful how you act because you have so many followers.”
One thing which will loom soon will be his own future in Chicago. All this summer he has had to listen, like everyone else, to the constant to and fro of contract talks with Bulls management.
Chris Duhon has re-signed, much to Deng's delight. "We went to Duke together and I’m happy to hear he’s still my team-mate." So too Tyson Chandler while Eddy Curry is still procrastinating over a fresh deal, decisions which the Brit will have to make soon enough.
“You always have to know it’s a business. It’s basketball sure but it’s my career. There will come a time soon when I have to negotiate and go through the same things they’re going through. I can’t get too worried about it now, or then. My agent will deal with it and I’ll see what happens.
Deng’s inaugural campaign brought him sufficient plaudits to earn a spot on the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team, an honour which provided some consolation for the wrist injury which brought his participation to a premature close and saw him miss the Bulls’ first play-off run since the departure of Michael Jordan.
“It was very frustrating. I wanted to be out there helping the team and I couldn’t do it. All I could do was watch and just hope that we could go as far as we could. We lost to the Washington Wizards in six games, a team we thought we could beat easily. So it hurt."
The injury was something new. "My rehab is going well. I’m back to playing now, since about three weeks ago. It was a tough spell, the longest I’ve ever been away from the game.”
Perversely, it has had its plus points. “When I got hurt, I had to start using my left hand so now it’s stronger than it was before and I’m a better player as a result,” he reveals. “It’s something I’ve been telling the kids about, how unbelievable the things that you can do if you just stop doing only what you’re already good at.”
As a role model, Deng fits the bill perfectly. While Nike has hinted at raising his profile still further, he is certain to be recruited as one of the faces of London 2012. Potentially, the UK could field a team in seven years time which could hold its own among the world’s best. There is the Scottish pair of Kieron Achara and Robert Archibald who will then be in their primes while others are on the cusp - like another Brixton prodigy, seven foot teenager Eric Boateng, who will succeed Deng at Duke next month and is certain to join him in the NBA.
“I actually spoke to Coach K after he went down there and he said ‘this kid is going to be unbelievable’. He used to play football so his footwork is incredible for a seven footer and I think he’ll take Duke by storm. People will start hearing about him soon.”
“We already know what great players we have now and who knows what young players will come through by then,” he enthuses. “I’m very excited about the Olympics. Even just talking about basketball, the whole country will get to realise just what great players we’re producing and how much the sport is growing. 2012 is a great opportunity to represent.”
He should savour the anonymity while it lasts. Until he returns to Chicago next month, there will be some semblance of normality to enjoy and a chance to melt into the Highbury crowd. “I wasn’t too impressed with us against Newcastle but a win is a win,” he shrugs.
One best kept to himself.
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