Rarely the face, always the heart: Luol Deng retires a Bull

As the Bulls sign Luol Deng so he can retire as a Bull, Sam Smith looks back at his career and what made him such a special player & man
by Sam Smith

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Luol Deng played for the Bulls for almost a decade, and in that time put himself in the 'top 10 Bulls' across a number of statistical categories. Beyond his on-court contributions, Luol also stood out during his career as a selfless teammate, and someone who frequently gave back to communities - both in the US and in his previous homes in the Sudan & the UK. The Bulls are honoring Deng by letting him retire as a Bull, but it is no less than he deserves after a fantastic career, as both a player and a man.

The Bulls are honoring Luol Deng by enabling him to retire from the NBA as a Chicago Bull.

"No matter what I do for the rest of my career, I think I'll always be a Bulls guy," Deng said last year during a stop in Chicago as he effectively closed out his playing career with the Minnesota Timberwolves after 15 NBA seasons.

But the honor really is for the Bulls that a player of Deng's worth and a citizen of Deng's dignity and accomplishment chooses to wear the Bulls white, black and red into hoops eternity.

Luol Deng's Rookie Photoshoot

The Bulls have had players more talented than Luol Deng, and we don't need to name names. But it's questionable whether the franchise has been able to embrace someone whose legacy of sacrifice, compassion, commitment, endurance, philanthropy and athletic achievement matches Deng's.

Perhaps former president Barack Obama put it best when Deng visited the White House.

"In a world rife with conflict, one of our most important obligations is to look after the innocent victims. And few understand this better than Luol Deng. His dedication to bringing hope to millions is an inspiration, as is Luol's own life itself. Both on and off the court, he sets a standard of excellence and service that all Americans can look to for inspiration."

Luol Deng at an NBA Africa Event in 2018

It's been almost six years since Luol Deng last wore a Bulls uniform, an uncomfortable parting coming when the Bulls presaging their reboot traded Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers mostly for draft picks. Deng left disappointed, though with a righteous sense of nobility knowing that he gave everything he could and he had to the Bulls during almost 10 seasons.

Deng still ranks among the top 10 in Bulls franchise leaders in Seasons, Games Played, Minutes Played, Points, Field Goals, Free Throws, Three pointers, Rebounds, Blocks, Steals, Opening game starts & All-Star game appearances.

Plus, Deng is the most honored Bull in franchise history for community service, and especially world wide, ranking with the likes of Dikembe Mutombo, who helped build a hospital, and players who funded schools like Wes Unseld, David Robinson and LeBron James. Deng is the only Bull player to be a recipient of the NBA's sportsmanship and citizenship awards.

Luol Deng at an NBA Cares Event

Surprised? Certainly. Because Deng has done so like his support of youth programs worldwide — and especially in his native war-torn South Sudan that has seen him honored by the United Nations — in the way he carried himself with the Bulls. He was the team's leading scorer when he had to be, that being after Derrick Rose was injured and missed most of the next two seasons. He always defended the best player on the opposing team while leading the league in minutes played, perhaps shortening his career without complaint.

Luol Deng never was the face of any of the Bulls team; he often was the backbone and the heart.

Deng is something of a paradox of sports, a sophisticated world citizen who was a refugee with his family of eight siblings from the civil war in South Sudan — "I would not be where I am today if not for the opportunity to find refuge in a safe harbor," Deng points out — who defines the so called blue collar of his team's basketball. Deng signified all the familiar cliches of glue guy, heart, lunch pail and hard hat, the working man totems that teams from Midwestern cities like to claim.

But Deng also was the link and common denominator for the Baby Bulls of the post-Jordan recovery that featured Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and Andres Nocioni through the electric elan of the near title era with Rose, Joakim Noah and Tom Thibodeau.

Luol Deng with Rose, Noah, Korver & Boozer

Deng first served as a wing man for the hard working upstarts under Scott Skiles and then the grinder who supported the celebrated brilliance of Rose and Noah. It was rarely smooth for Deng, rarely easy and not without second thoughts and second guessing. But as his family did as emigres and as he did as a guest in multiple countries, Deng endured, survived, prospered and bequeathed lessons of integrity, honor and dedication.

Organizations like to talk about culture changes. Its timing with the Bulls came with the drafting of Hinrich in 2003 and Gordon and Deng in 2004, the latter after a season at Duke. The lanky 6-9 Deng often wore an earnest, almost solemn expression. It seemed appropriate as he was overwhelmed at times by Skiles' demands. Though his peripatetic life even seemed representative of his game with the slashing and movement that helped open the court for Gordon's shooting and the Bulls doubled their win total to 47 that season. Luol Deng never stayed in one place for too long.

Deng had his moments, especially later teamed with Rose and Noah and freed by the confidence of achievement and the reliance of Thibodeau on his two-way prowess. There were game winners and game savers and the simple joy of being part of something that was great, if not ultimately triumphant.

Luol Deng dunks with LeBron defending him

Some of Deng's personal highlights were indelible memories of that wonderful climb.

There was the Christmas Day opener of the truncated and eventually ill-fated 2011-12 season when Rose made the winning shot in Los Angeles with a few seconds left and Deng saved the game with a block on Kobe Bryant.

Which typified Deng's Bulls career: No headlines, but essential.

There was a rare game winner at the buzzer over Toronto later that season, though again conventional Deng. He retrieved C.J. Watson's blocked shot/air ball to drop it in at the conclusion. He finished a Noah pass also that season for a game winning bucket against the Hawks.

The Bulls and Heat were headed for inevitable destiny in 2011 and 2012, the Bulls losing in the Eastern Conference finals in 2011 and then quietly ready until, well, we all know in Chicago what happened. Still, those regular season games were classics those two seasons. Deng's three was a winner in one of those games during the 62-win season when the Bulls dominated the regular season games over Miami. Later on with Rose out injured and Noah hurt for that one game, it was Deng with 28 points and five steals stopping seemingly invincible Miami when they were on the way to the all-time NBA wins record and had 27 straight victories coming into the United Center.

Though with the prosperity came pain, both abstract and diagnostic.

Deng was star-crossed almost immediately, a wrist injury knocking him out the last part of his rookie season. Though by his third season in 2006-07, he was the only starter for all 82 games despite aggravating the wrist injury. Playing through pain without pronouncements became both a badge of honor and a burden. Deng could be aloof with media at times, taciturn and enigmatic. Though his teammates knew him as a gregarious, insouciant soul fond of kicking a soccer ball after practice or kicking up his heels at a dance club. The exterior chill often masked the intense competitor and confused even team staff at times.

Luol Deng with Derrick Rose before an All Star Game

Deng agreed to a six-year contract extension before the 2008-09 season that also led to Gordon's free agent departure when the team made Deng a priority. Which was understandable. Well, to most other than Gordon. After the 2006-07 season when Kobe Bryant was raging about being traded. And to the Bulls, no less. His demand was that Deng couldn't be included in the trade because he wanted to play with Deng.

Deng would miss the close of that 2009 season and the celebrated multi-overtime playoffs with the Celtics with a stress fracture. The irony was that as Deng remained demure the chill became louder as he became something of a polarizing figure in the community. Whispers were he didn't want to play, which were both erroneous and perhaps even more painful than the injury. Luol Deng's life as a peripatetic refugee fleeing to Egypt and Great Britain and growing up without excess hardly suggested the soft label that was attached to him at times. It only hardened a resolve that would lead to All-Star status.

Deng flourished under Skiles with the coach's emphasis on geometric movements and then stagnated some with Vinny Del Negro's limited stye which relied mostly on Rose's ingenuity.

Luol Deng with Joakim Noah before an All Star Game

Deng emerged again amidst the embrace of Thibodeau, expanding his shooting to become a reliable three-point threat. Then when the Bulls believed they were ready to ascend past Miami, Deng tore ligaments in his wrist during the 2011-12 season. Still, he played on every game despite a surgery recommendation. Deng became an All-Star and all-defensive team player. Deng's second All-Star season when Rose missed all year in 2012-13 ended in misfortune when a virus led to a spinal tap and dangerous side effects which were life threatening. Deng recovered, but with his contract expiring and uncertainty about the team's direction, the Bulls traded Deng to the Cavaliers Jan. 7, 2014, just short of a decade with the team.

Deng as a free agent that summer was involved in a curious controversy from which Atlanta Hawks executive Danny Ferry lost his job because of a memo raising Deng's African heritage. Typically, Deng responded without rancor but rectitude.

"I'm proud to say I actually have a lot of African in me, not just ‘a little,' Deng wrote in response. "For my entire life, my identity has been a source of pride and strength. Among my family and friends, in my country of South Sudan and across the broader continent of Africa, I can do no greater privilege than to do what I love for a living while also representing my heritage on the highest stage."

Luol Deng wearing a shirt representing Africa before an All Star Game

Deng family was from the Dinka ethnic group in Sudan among some of the world's tallest people. Deng later would be mentored by Manute Bol when the family emigrated to England and to a life of hardship that didn't match the family of a parliament member in Sudan. The family initially fled to Egypt with their mother and would not see their father for four years. Then their mother was gone a year helping their father as the family eventually championed enough of a political asylum case to enter Great Britain. The family would move several times in England, where Luol struggled to speak English and fit in. Eventually he would come to represent England in international sports competitions and give back to this day in the numerous camps for children he runs and sponsors throughout England. From his nose pressed up against the window of respectability to being a valued part of the foundation, Deng's presence has been inspiring across the globe.

Luol Deng with Joakim Noah at an NBA Cares Event

After the Atlanta kerfuffle, Deng signed with the Miami Heat and in 2016 led Miami to a first round playoff series win with a franchise record scoring game in his debut. But the contract big pay day for Deng in the summer of 2016 was both financially fulfilling and professionally debilitating. The Lakers quickly changed management and Deng was relegated to unknown player status. He played one game in the 2017-18 season and was waived to start last season, reuniting in Minnesota with Thibodeau, Rose and Taj Gibson. While all this was occurring, Deng, now 34, was becoming a successful real estate investor with the help of the likes of Morgan Chase chief Jamie Dimon, whom Deng befriended when Dimon was with Bank One in Chicago. Deng even has become an advisor for NBA players including Rose, who has invested with him.

The Bulls are richer for having invested in the treasure who is Luol Deng.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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