Luol Deng strolled down a United Center hallway, hugging Joakim Noah one minute and Derrick Rose the next.
In some ways, it felt like a golden era of Bulls basketball all over again.
But time marches on. And Deng returned Wednesday night to be honored for his decision to sign a ceremonial one-day contract and retire as a Bull last month.
“It’s what makes sense. Chicago means a lot to me,” Deng said pregame. “When you look back, just my career as a basketball player, coming here as a young kid, a young man I should say at (age) 19, it’s a lot of history here and I wanted it to end the right way and the best way to do it is with familiar faces and with people who know me very well.”
Acquired in a draft-day trade in 2003, Deng made two All-Star games and landed in the top-10 of virtually every major statistical category for all-time franchise leaders before getting traded to the Cavaliers in his 10th season.
Deng also played for the Heat, Lakers and Timberwolves. But he’ll always be associated with the Bulls.
“It’s so many good memories,” Deng said. “When you are going through it, you really don’t see it that way. You’re in the league, you’re trying to prove a point, you’re trying to the best player you can be. Every day ‘you can do this, you can’t do that, we need this, we don’t need that.’ You kind of forget the relationship you have and what you are building.
“And then you think back and what it meant to the organization, what it meant to the fans. I know we never won a championship, but there’s a lot of good memories of how hard we played, how hard we battled growing up in front of the fans. Those are things you look back on. I can’t have it anywhere else. Everywhere else where I went and played it’s after I’ve accomplished certain things. I’m [a] grown player. I’ve been in the league for awhile. For me to be here 10 years is such a blessing.”
Deng teamed with Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Andres Nocioni and Chris Duhon to help change the culture and qualify for the 2005 playoffs, the franchise’s first appearance since the dynasty dismantled.
Gordon attended, as did former teammates Aaron Gray, Jannero Pargo, John Lucas III, Tyrus Thomas, Nazr Mohammed and Joakim Noah.
“I think the love in Chicago is different than everywhere else,” Deng said. “Anywhere that you get drafted I think people are attached to you. They watch you grow up and they kind of know who you are, your character. You’re not just a basketball player anymore. You become part of the city. I miss that. I just miss the city. I miss going to certain places.
“I remember I lived in Northbrook, but I had a place in the West Loop. And now you drive around and you see it and you see the changes and everything. So you miss it. You miss friends, family, all that.”
Deng and the Bulls picked the night in large part because Rose and the Pistons were in town.
“What we did together -- Jo is here also and some of the guys from that team – I think for me, it’s weird,” Deng said. “When I was playing with the Bulls, I was watching Derrick back in high school and I was actually going to the games. Derrick ends up being on the team.
“And seeing Derrick, you know, MVP, from the city, it’s almost like you’re a teammate but I was rooting for Derrick with those guys and the team. I know last year when I was with Derrick (in Minnesota) I spoke with him a little bit about it, that I’m thinking about doing this. I didn’t know where he was going to be. But it means a lot to me that you know, those guys are here and that he’s here and Derrick is from Chicago.”
Deng, Noah and Rose were instrumental in leading the Bulls to the 2011 Eastern Conference finals. Deng revived an old debate as to whether or not the Bulls could’ve beat the Heat, who prevailed in five games, if they had stayed healthy or won the 2012 title if Rose hadn’t torn his left ACL.
“Everyone has their own opinion and I’m not taking anything away from the teams that won it that year,” Deng said. “There’s two incidents that happened. The first one was obviously, we know about Derrick’s injury that year. But before that, people don’t remember with Omer Asik, when we had Omer, that season I think we won 62 games. Every time we had Omer play the whole fourth quarter, we beat Miami that year (three) times during the season and we won the first game (of the conference finals). But in the last few minutes of that game Omer broke his leg. I don’t know many people know that story, but we really couldn’t beat the Heat without him after that. We all knew it in the locker room and we had a hard time doing it, and I felt like we could’ve won that year.
“And then obviously the year when Derrick got hurt I think mentally we didn’t prepare ourselves what would happen if that happened. Because you just didn’t think of it happening. You thought about maybe ankle sprains or something. But to have your best player, which your whole team was built around, go down like that, we just couldn’t come back from it.”
Deng’s favorite individual highlight came when he made his first All-Star game in 2012.
“It’s crazy because when it happened for me it was like, ‘OK, I’m an All Star, I’m going to the All-Star, I felt great about it.’ I loved it. But it means a lot when you look back.
“With people saying Thibs (former coach Tom Thibodeau) playing guys a lot of minutes---for me, I think when Thibs came to Chicago it changed my career. As well as I’ve done in the past, I think it gave me almost like a label where people started to believe in how hard I played. And because we were winning, everything I was doing was highlighted a lot more than it would be when we were losing. So I appreciated that, and those teams under Thibs, when I go back, all those minutes that I played I’m so thankful for. Because not only did I play better and perform well under it, but it also, for the city, people appreciate night in and night out how hard I was playing with all those minutes.”
Deng said he came to terms with retirement recently and has plans to do more work with his foundation, which was powerful in Chicago when he played for the Bulls. Asked how he wanted to be remembered, Deng smiled.
“I want it to be more than just the game,” he said. “I know I am a professional basketball; I was a professional basketball player. But I think I tried to be, really, the best teammate that I could be. I tried to do a lot of stuff off the court. With the stuff that I’m doing now with my life and everything, I think I tried to do as much as I can while playing.
“The stuff that we did with the organization within the city---to me, it was a lot more than just basketball. So I want people to remember it that way.”
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