Recently Liam and I had the opportunity to sit down and have a chat with 2 time NBA All-Star Luol Deng. He is one of the most impressive athletes I have ever met, in fact he is one of the most impressive people I have ever met.
Deng’s background is truly remarkable and gives you a good understanding of how he finds himself at this point in his life. He was born in Wau, South Sudan and is a member of the Dinka ethnic group. When he was young, his father moved the family to Egypt to escape the Second Sudanese Civil War. In Egypt, the Deng family met former NBA Center Manute Bol, another Dinka, who taught Luol and his older brother how to play basketball. When they were granted political asylum, Luol and his family emigrated to Brixton, South London.
At the age of 14, Luol moved to the United States to play high school basketball in New Jersey. During his senior year, Deng was considered the second most promising high school senior in America after LeBron James.
Deng has gone on to become a two time NBA All-Star and one of the league’s most respected athletes for his work on and off the court and through his various charities and foundations. Luol established The Luol Deng Foundation, in the UK and the USA, to help benefit the lives and places that have touched him and his family and to give back to the places that have contributed and played a huge role into his life’s journey and success. Luol has also been a recipient of the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the United Nations, received the the 2007 NBA Sportsmanship Award and was an Olympic Ambassador for the London 2012 Olympics.
So now you know where Luol started and how he arrived at this stage. Once we sat down and I got past being amazed that I was having breakfast with an NBA All Star, I managed to order a coffee without sounding like a 14 year old boy with a break in his voice. I then managed to punch out a few questions.
Deng explained that he is out here for a week helping to promote and educate the Sudanese kids at the South Sudanese Australian National Classic (SSANC) Tournament. The whole thing came about while he was speaking with a lady on a social media site who informed him of the Tournament and the emerging Sudanese population in Melbourne and Australia. Luol has tried to keep a low profile while visiting Australia for his first time, which seems to be quite unusual for a NBA star these days. He didn’t mentioned why the low profile visit, however it became increasingly evident that he was here for the kids and not for a holiday or any personal gain.
Without any prompting Luol went on to talk about the amazing amount of talent he had come across whilst visiting the Tournament. He said the quality of athlete and the amount of raw athletic ability amongst these kids was unbelievable. “There has to be at least two or three kids at the tournament who, if they received the right coaching, could be legitimate NBA players in the coming years,” Deng said. He went on to say the major problem he sees in developing the kids is the coaching. He said that junior coaches need to be focused on development. Although a child may not be the most skilled kid in his age group, a 6’9” or 7ft wingspan is something you cannot teach. These are the kids who need coaches to put in the time and effort developing them. Deng said coaches often get too caught up in winning and forget to put the time into developing kids who may have potential go a lot further in the game. Junior basketball has to be about development first and wining second. This was not just a throwaway line for Deng – he is passionate about working with Melbourne’s South Sudanese community, teaching the fundamentals of the game and giving kids the guidance and advice they need to have the opportunity to take their games to the next level.
We went on to talk about Australian hoops and the amount of young players coming through that could really put Australia on the map when it comes to International competition. Players like Matthew Dellavedova, Dante Exum, Ben Simmons, Joe Ingles and Chris Goulding. All these guys are looking to break into the NBA within the next few seasons. This would give Australia a great presence in the best basketball league in the world, especially when you then include Patty Mills, Aron Baynes and Andrew Bogut who have already cemented themselves in the league. Deng mentioned he was a big fan of Joe ingles and his game. He felt that if Joe was given the opportunity he would prosper in the NBA. I mentioned Patty Mills was a teammate of mine a few seasons ago and Luol chuckled… I asked what was so funny about that and he said “That guy” with a big smile on his face. “Every time I play him, whether it be internationally for Great Britain or against him for the Spurs, he spends the whole game ribbing me about the fact he gave great Brittan a torching during the Olympics.” He went on to say that at one point even the coaching staff got in on the act and started giving it to me as well. I can only assume that must have been Brett Brown (former Boomers Head Coach and current San Antonio assistant Coach under Greg Popovich). Deng said he just laughed it off at the time and said that he thought Patty Mills looked as though he would be one of the best teammates you could ask for. I told him I could vouch for that one.
I asked Luol what he thought of Australia and if he was managing to squeeze in any sightseeing while in town. He said “whenever I’m in a new town I like to get out and about and see what’s going on.” He said that Melbourne seemed sports crazy and that he couldn’t believe all the facilities and world-class stadiums and arenas we had. He mentioned that he got to watch a game of AFL the other night and loved the experience. We spoke about the fact that some AFL players run up to 15km a game and he was blown away by that. He said that AFL players had to be some of the best athletes in the world as they need to have the endurance to run long distance but also the explosiveness to jump and burst through packs. Not to mention having the ability to take and give a solid hit.
I went on to say that I thought NBA players were the best athletes. Having to come out 4 or 5 times a week and perform at the highest level for 82 games in a season is unparalleled in such an athletically demanding sport. I mentioned to Deng that we play a 28 game season here in the NBL and sometimes find it hard to pull up for a game three or four days later. I asked what his secret was? Firstly he said training can sometimes be harder on your body than the games, so although NBL players may only be playing once or twice a week you are training everyday and that can take its toll. Secondly he said that he puts everything down to his diet. Two seasons ago he readjusted his diet and found that he was pulling up from games much quicker; he felt he slept better and thus had more energy for games and training sessions. He went as far as to say that it’s the reason he was an All Star these last two seasons.
By now it was about time for Luol to leave the hotel and get out to the kids at the SSANC Tournament. By this point I was extremely proud of myself as I had been able to keep my NBA fanatic alter ego hidden throughout the entire chat. While we were standing to leave I couldn’t help but make sure that I got a photo with the NBA superstar, can never hurt to chalk up another profile pic….
Sitting down with Luol put a new ceiling on how I thought a pro athlete should behave. The way he trains and looks after his body is world class no doubt. However that was not the thing that impressed me the most about Luol, as I feel as a pro athlete looking after your body is expected, all pro athletes should be doing those things (diet, lifting, training etc). It was the way he conducted himself when talking to everybody from the concierge, to valet and myself. The amount of work he puts in behind the scenes and out front of all the charities and foundations he is a part of, with no thought of self-promotion or personal recognition. His passion for both his charities and the game he loves is what resonated with me the most. I wish more people and especially more pro athletes could take a leaf out of Luol Deng’s book. He has certainly inspired me to become better at what I do, both as a professional athlete and as a human being, and I thank him for that.