SAN ANTONIO Olajuwon. Mutombo. Deng?
Think about it: Bulls All-Star Luol Deng might not be the flashiest player in the league, but theres not a more high-profile African NBA player. Yes, future Hall of Famer Steve Nash was born in South Africa, but hes regarded as Canadian, where he grew up.
But although Deng spent much of his childhood in London before relocating to New Jersey in high school, theres no doubt that he represents not only his homeland of South Sudan, but the entire continent of Africa. For proof, rewind to Sundays All-Star Game in Orlando where Deng, when introduced, sported a T-shirt featuring a map of the continent, something Deng regards as the highlight of his weekend.
For me, I think when my name was called and I had my T-shirt on, it meant a lot to me, something that I felt great when I was doing it and Im sure theres a lot of kids back home who saw that, that had a big smile on their faces, he explained. I had the T-shirt with me and I just felt like it was the right time to do it.
I wouldnt do something thats negative and if you look at the T-shirt, its not a logo of anything, Im not advertising anything. I just felt like being where Im from and where I came from, its something that I always wanted to see as a kid. Now that Im here, I had a chance. Im sure theres a kid out there or a lot of kids, who really enjoyed it and it kind of made them happy to see that, continued Deng, who added that it would be worth it if the league office fined him for his individualism. We always say Africa. Thats what we do. Thats what Africans do. It wouldnt make sense for me to just be just Sudan. I want to do a lot of things for the whole continent of Africa in the future and I dont look at it as just one region.
While Deng hasnt reached the stature of the aforementioned all-time centers, his influence amongst fellow African players is evident when the Bulls face the likes of Oklahoma Citys Serge Ibaka and Milwaukees Luc Mbah a Moute, both of whom visit the Bulls locker room to pay their respects to and seek advice from both Deng and teammate Joakim Noah, who has roots in Cameroon. Deng takes the responsibility of being an African-born All-Star seriously, especially when its taken into consideration that unlike his predecessors, Deng isnt a big man.
Its a lot of responsibility. I appreciate the fact that Im in the position that Im in to do so. I just feel like its been Olajuwon and Dikembe and both were big men. Being a perimeter player, it hasnt happened before and I just felt like I didnt want the kids just to see it and just go by. I wanted them to remember where I came from and get something out of it, he explained. The whole thing was a great experience, for my family, for my friends to get experience the whole thing, the whole hype about the All-Star weekend and for them to see it youre always going to hear about it; you heard about it in the past, theyre going to hear about it in the future but they can always say they were here and experienced the whole thing.
While Deng was honored to be selected for the first time, he admitted that his fundamentally-sound game wasnt exactly a perfect fit for the highlight-filled exhibition.
I pass, I shoot, whatever. For me to be selected meant a lot more to me the whole weekend, being selected and being recognized as an All-Star meant a lot a lot more than what I was going to show or do tonight on the floor, he acknowledged. We planned to play more minutes to begin with. I knew I was going to play the last six minutes of the first quarter and I was going to play again in the second.
There was a play at the end of the quarter where I was backpedaling and I kind of tripped up, and nothing that didnt hurt or anything and he asked me about it, and I said, You know what? If its something that we could avoid and just get back to practice tomorrow, continued Deng, who tweaked his left wrist, but was obviously no worse for the wear as evidenced by his 14-point, 11-rebound outing in Tuesdays home win over the Hornets. But I really enjoyed myself out there, the time, the experience that I had out there.
However, as awkward as Deng may have felt on the court in that defense-optional affair, he knew that at least one other Bulls representative in Orlando was going through a similar experience: Tom Thibodeau.
I was feeling for him, man. Im not a flashy kind of guy; I dont think hes an All-Star type of coach. He got through it, he quipped. You could see at the end, we all wanted to win, but Im sure for him, hes more happy than anyone to get back to tape and coaching the Bulls and the positive out of this is I think hes going to appreciate us even more.