PHILADELPHIA - Fighting back his emotions on the podium when talking about Thursdays Game 6 defeat to the 76ers, playing in pain throughout the season and his teammates, when the subject turned to his injured wrist and the upcoming Summer Olympics in London, Luol Deng turned defiant.
No, he said, voice steady and unwavering. Im going to play in the Olympics.
Before letting his own words explain the reasoning behind it just moments after the his season ended at the hands of an eighth-seeded team think about this: Deng, a native of South Sudan - a nation in its infancy - and his family were exiled when he was a child. After a stint in Egypt, he ended up in London for his formative years, the city where he began to excel at basketball, leading to him coming to a prep school in New Jersey, developing into one of the nations top high school prospects, starring at Duke for a season and then coming to the Bulls, where he reached All-Star status this season. And in his mind, he traces that journey back to emigrating to England.
Its expected that Deng will join Derrick Rose on the injured list to start next season, since hell play for host country Great Britain in the Olympics, meaning that surgery for torn ligaments in his left wrist, something hes played with all season, will be postponed. To some, that might seem selfish, but its not just about the glory of playing on the big stage for the 27-year-old.
I just know that Im looking forward to playing the Olympics. Im excited about it, something I wanted to do since I was a kid and Im going to prepare myself for it, he explained. Ive got to see how my wrist feels throughout the Olympics, how it feels from now going into the Olympics and right after the Olympics, Ill make the decision, whether my wrist is good enough that I dont need the surgery or if I need it, so I havent really ruled out not getting the surgery or getting it. I just havent made that decision. Just know that Ive got the Olympics ahead of me. Since I was a kid growing up, its something I always wanted an opportunity to be a part of and the fact that its in my hometown that I grew up in, in a country that gave me the opportunity to even be here, Im looking forward to it.
But just because he might decline surgery doesnt mean that it isnt still bothering him. However, the sacrifice it took to play through the injury, to Deng, was its own reward.
Honestly, my whole career, its the toughest thing Ive done and I look back at it, and Im glad I did it. I really hope, in the long run, its going to make me a better player, he said. I learned a lot of things to be capable of doing that in the NBA, but Im glad I made the decision. We had the best record and we were going into the playoffs with the best team, so it was definitely a great decision. Unfortunately, other things happened.
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, arguably Dengs biggest fan, understands and appreciates the versatile players importance to the team, perhaps even more so after this series, in which, the last two games at least, he did everything humanly possible to give his undermanned squad a chance. Thats what hes not putting any pressure on him to make a decision.
You can never overlook this: Luol is a terrific player. To play a majority of the season with torn ligaments says a lot about him. He couldve chosen to sit out. Hes a great leader with great toughness. He does whatever is necessary to help you win. I thought he improved a lot from last year. Even though his scoring dipped a bit, his all-around game was terrific, said Thibodeau. I really havent talked to him yet about next year. I want to have a chance and sit down and see what his thoughts are. I know he has given us everything that he has. I have a lot of respect for that. Well come up with a plan.
That plan, whatever it is, should be respected.
With Rose already sidelined to start next season, Deng will be missed if hes also shelved at the beginning of the campaign. But what he gave up this season, even if it didnt manifest itself in the teams ultimate goal due to other calamities, gives him the right to make a choice. And if that isnt enough, his significant connection to the country hes representing in the Olympics pushes it over the hump.