Luol Deng sat in the Lakers locker room Friday while outside his Lakers teammates played his Bulls successors. Deng doesn't play basketball anymore; well, at least in the NBA. He's on the Lakers roster as one of their highest paid players. But as a 32-year-old, 14-year veteran he's not part of the Lakers hoped for renaissance. Signed by the previous management team but with a relatively unwelcome contract averaging about $18 million through 2020, he's been told he won't play again for the Lakers. He's been typically professional, though hopeful for some resolution.
"They made it clear I'm not wanted here," Deng said evenly before the game. "It's been hard. It's not easy not to play. But at the end of the day, I'm trying to control what I can control. I'm still there with the team, I'm at practices. I'm trying to help the young guys as much as I can. In terms of me: I'd love to play. I don't know if it will be here, to be honest with you. Just keep working on my game and see. I'm not really a guy that's going to speak all day and try to get people to feel for me."
Luol Deng knows hardship, a child of South Sudan, a refugee in Egypt and eventually England and then into the United States for high school, Duke U. for a season and then a 19-year-old Bulls rookie facing hard knocks. He knows no one feels sorry for someone making $18 million, and knows no one should. But that spirit of pride and competitiveness to play and please also is what enabled Deng to help overcome the hardships of his youth and become an NBA star and Bulls legend.
It's probably not viewed that way by many, but if one looks at the all-time Bulls franchise records, Deng is top 10 on just about every list.
He's tied for fourth most in seasons played as a Bull with 10 and sixth in games played. He's fourth overall in total points, fifth in field goals made and steals, ninth in rebounds, 10th in blocks and top 10 in free throws made and attempted.
"No matter what I do for the rest of my career, I think I'll always be a Bulls guy," Deng said. "The thing about it is I don't think there are a lot of players who can say they played in one place for that long. At some point when I was in Chicago for maybe eight years, I never thought I would leave Chicago. I wish it would have happened that way, but everything happens for a reason. If you talk about financially and what the game gave me, I don't think I would ever have gotten there if I stayed here. So there's a give and take in both ways.
"I think a lot has to do with always working hard," said Deng. "I've always been honest in saying I've come across so many players way more talented than me. I think I always had the desire in answering not just to myself, but I always wanted to almost please the city. It got to the point where I came here when I was 19 and there was point I was saying I never lived anywhere longer than I lived in Chicago; lived Sudan five years, Egypt five years and then London. Chicago became something I played hard for not just a basketball game, but ‘I have to please the city I grew up in.' So going to other teams, the city was always welcoming. But it didn't feel the same."
Deng was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers late in 2013-14 before LeBron James' return. He then went to Miami, where he said he tremendously enjoyed his two seasons and then for his career payday in Los Angeles, which in a curious way could lead to the close of his playing days. Out of sight quickly leads to out of mind in the NBA, though Deng still hopes for a resolution.
Though his unrequested repose also has given a more open Deng time to reflect as his 10 years spanned the two primary and most successful eras since the Bulls 90s championship teams. First it was with the young draft picks along with Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon and later with the near championship group with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.
Most are either out of basketball or limited through age, injury or personal issues, which Deng notes demonstrates even more vividly the importance of appreciating the moment.
"Being here with a young team, I try to explain to them when we had that group it seemed like it was yesterday," said the 6-9 forward. "So what you're doing right now, time will fly by so fast. It's really about appreciating and working hard. Where everybody is now, you couldn't predict it, you couldn't think this would be the situation within 14 years. At the end of the day, really enjoy what you're doing today. It's not going to last and for every locker room, there's always going to be a new story. So for these young guys, it's about enjoying it right now and keep doing what you're doing.
"When I look back at 19 coming here to Chicago, some of the things that were said, some of the stuff that you deal with, at 19 years old, it's a lot of pressure. As you get older and you look back, you wish you would have just said 'F you' to all of these people," said Deng with a smile. "For a lot of young guys, the pressure gets to you. It ruins your mood, how you act with your friends and everything. At the end of the day, honestly, just play the game and let that speak. It's a lot of pressure for these young guys. A lot of people don't realize it. The older you get, maybe that's why you just don't give a (crap) anymore. You realize these people don't matter. As a young kid, you worry so much about the guy that has the pen. It shouldn't be that way."
Deng knows he could be moody at times, but when you come to a city like Chicago with that sort of athletic responsibility—and all that money, of course—well, hey everyone else would play for nothing. Right? Yes, but it's not that easy, and certainly not for a teenager.
"There were six of us as rookies; that makes it a lot easier, all of us going through it," Deng recalled. "Now when you're looking back, it was really a unique situation to be part of that Baby Bulls and going back to the playoffs for the first time since the Jordan era. For my career, I was really lucky. As you guys remember, I had a lot of up and downs with Scott Skiles. As I think back, I really appreciate everything he put me through (with) Ron Adams. There were games when Scott Skiles didn't play me the whole second half and there's games where he didn't run a single play for me. Later on, when I look at those things, those were the things that kept me in the league because coming in, he wanted me to play better defense. I didn't play defense in the beginning. Later on, I became known as a guy who plays defense. So it was who you come under coaching-wise really matters.
"With the first group with Kirk and Scott Skiles, we started 1-9 (0-9) and then won in Utah and that was when we changed the lineup and we ended up making the playoffs that year (2005); so for me that was something special and then later on beating the Miami Heat in the playoffs after they won the championship," Deng recalled about the 2007 playoffs. "That was the team the year before pretty much bullying us. They beat us every time and then when the matchup (came), I think it was four and five in the papers and it was, ‘We got what we wanted.' So it was to me a great memory I would never forget.
"For me," Deng added, "Thibs was finally the coach that had a system I really wanted to play, a system where I could actually play almost the whole game and focus on my defense and really, offensively, did what I could because I was on the floor. That was the most fun times of my career because I played with no pressure. Also winning 61 or whatever games we won (62) and Derrick getting MVP, I think the whole team felt something special that year where the whole world's attention was on on our group; everyone was watching the Bulls."
Perhaps it will happen again. Luol Deng knows those were great times and times to appreciate even without that ultimate success. You are proud he played for your team.