It was the middle of a beautiful day and Luol Deng was barding an airplane equipped with luxury seats, food, beverages and a DVD Player for his viewing pleasure. As the plane ascended into the blue sky from O’Hare in Chicago Deng looks out the window, pondering where is he, where he’s going and tracing it all back to where he came from.
Born on April 16, 1985 Luol Deng started his journey far from the shores of Lake Michigan and instead in landlocked Wāw, Sudan. The war ravaged country was battling itself, trying to free the great Sudanese people from oppression and genocide.
“I don’t remember anything about my homeland.” Deng recalls. “I had to leave there with my mother and eight brothers and sisters when I was only three years old.”
Luol’s father, Aldo Deng, was an acting government minister in the Sudanese parliament and saved Luol from the Second Sudanese Civil War by moving him, along with his mother and family to Alexandria, Egypt in 1988.
It would be the second of four different countries Deng would call home for significant periods of time.
“The whole family was crammed into an apartment with only three rooms.” said Deng. “I missed my father and was worried about him, but we helped each other keep strong.”
While in Egypt, Deng was introduced to NBA great Manute Bol. It was Bol who became Deng’s first and most important basketball mentor teaching Deng the fundamentals of the game and building the basis for what would one day be an NBA skill set.
Private jet with WI-Fi to Orlando. Wow. The Refugee kid has come a long way. But never forgotten where he came from. #Blessed
— Luol Deng (@LuolDeng9) February 23, 2012
“I used to go along to a dusty outdoor court to watch my older brothers play and sometimes they would let me join in.”
The common thread that helped bring Deng together with Bol was their Dinka heritage. Deng’s father Aldo was left behind in Khartoum and was eventually arrested by Omar al-Bashir’s military coup and thrown in jail until 1993. Bol acted as a sort of father figure for the young Deng during his time in Egypt.
Upon his father’s release from Sudanese prison, Aldo reunited with his family, fleeing to the United Kingdom for sanctuary. Reunited with his father, Deng experienced little culture shock going from the dusty desert basketball courts of Egypt to the paved roads and modern technology of Britain.
“I was so excited. [My father] had managed to get himself out of Sudan and claim political asylum for all of us in England. We were given a home in South Norwood in south London. It was amazing to be surrounded by so much modern stuff, such as the cars and the tube.”
The transition to a modern lifestyle wasn’t easy but Deng recalls that it wasn’t bare of it’s hearty and easy family moments.
“The only problem I had was that I didn’t speak English, but I soon learnt it and my brothers would laugh at my new accent.”
In England, safe from the civil unrest in Sudan, Deng began to further discover his love of sports. But it wasn’t basketball that Deng was initially attracted to. Instead it was the native sport of football (better known to American audiences as soccer) that drew the most interest from Deng.
“I stuck a poster of Ian Wright on my bedroom wall. I was pretty good at the game, too, and all the other kids wanted me on their team in the school playground.”
But as Deng grew taller, he realized that another sport was available to him: basketball.
Luol would make his way to the Brixton Recreation Centre where he began playing for the Brixton Topcats. Since Deng’s passage through the Topcats, it has become a sort of jumping off point for other refugee basketball players such as Deng’s brother Ajou and later Ogo Adegboye.
“That was really important because it was a place I could go to express myself. It helped me fit in and I liked being good at something”
While at the Brixton Centre, Deng caught the attention of an American basketball scout who offered Deng a scholarship to Blair Academy, western New Jersey high school 70 miles outside of New York. Although excited by the idea of moving to America to pursue a life of wealth, at the age of just 14 Deng was moving for the fourth time to a new home in a new country.
“I was homesick.” Deng admitted. “But I was determined not to waste the chance I had been given. I made sure I worked harder than anyone else. If you’re from England you can’t be just as good as the Americans, you have to be better. I woke up at six every morning to get in extra practice before a day of classes.”
Filled with the will to succeed Deng rose to the top of the national basketball scene and by the time he reached his senior year at Blair he was the second best high school player in the country, out ranked only by one LeBron James.
The players guard each other on the court but they took very different paths to glory. While James went straight to the NBA and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Deng was courted by hundreds of colleges, some of whom harassed Deng constantly trying to seduce him into attending.
Deng chose the one college he felt showed him the most respect, Mike Krzyzewski and Duke University.
Although he opted to experience all levels of education by attending Duke and by-passing the NBA straight out of high school, Deng played just one year at Duke before entering the NBA Draft.
It was a warm evening in New York in 2005 as a lean Luol Deng, dressed in a designer suit far from the rags he wore in Sudan, entered Madison Square Garden. He didn’t know where he would play in the NBA, but it didn’t matter. He was going to play in the NBA, a dream he never thought would ever come true. The little boy from Sudan was waiting to hear his name called by David Stern.
It was called by the Phoenix Suns who then traded him to the Chicago Bulls.
“In that moment I felt like I could finally breathe.” Deng recalled. “I felt like I had been holding my breath for so long. The NBA had once seemed so far away, but I never doubted I would make it.”
That November Deng made his NBA debut inside the United Center in Chicago, with the banners of champions hanging above his head, and thousands of paying fans ready to watch him play.
“I couldn’t help looking around the United Centre and thinking: ‘Man, this is where Michael Jordan played!'”
Deng would be a mainstay in Chicago, signing two contracts during his time there. The going wasn’t easy, Deng was the scapegoat for the Bulls troubles in the last half of the decade. But in 2009 Chicago drafted hometown kid Derrick Rose and with his arrival, Deng’s game excelled and his support grew.
The plane lands in Orlando and Deng exits, breathing in the fresh air of south Florida. He was on his way to the 2012 NBA All-Star Game
for the first time in his career. He exited the plane with luxury seats, fancy drinks, gourmet food and person DVD Players but he wasn’t thinking about the short journey from Chicago to Orlando, instead the little refugee from Sudan was thinking about the journey he had been on for the last 26 years.
“I don’t like to think what I would be doing if I had stayed in Sudan. I could have had to fight a war. My life would have been very different. I have been so fortunate to be given this opportunity when others are struggling to survive. Sometimes I do see myself as the chosen one.”
Deng is the ultimate success story; rags to riches. But he’s quick to point out that he’s one of hopefully many examples of children escaping not just Sudan’s darker territories, but all war torn African countries and building successful and meaningful lives for themselves. It doesn’t have to be a carbon copy of Deng’s rise from the dusty desert of Sudan to the flashing lights of the NBA All-Star Game, it can be merely a child escaping with their life and making the world a better place because of it. A doctor, a lawyer, a teacher even a car mechanic, if it’s a life that is worth living, Deng wants that to be the fate of the children of Africa and the children of Sudan.
“My life has been a tough journey, but a good one. It has helped me mature that much quicker. I see what I have been through as a blessing. It is a gift to help me see things more clearly. I know that it would be such a waste if I didn’t use my position to help other people. This is why it is so important that I now help raise awareness of what is happening in Sudan.”