After spending 10 years with the Bulls, and being in the franchise's alltime top 10 in seasons played, games, points, three pointers, free throws, rebounds, steals and blocks, it was only fitting that Luol Deng retired as a Bull and gave the United Center one last chance to honor him. Against the Pistons, Deng, surrounded by former teammates, got to formally retire the way most can only dream of.
Luol Deng Wednesday in the United Center was wearing a black and white sport coat that looked like a TV test pattern. But the picture of Deng as a Bull was clear and bright, one of the great figures in franchise history who after a 15-year NBA career came home to retire as a Bull.
"Chicago means a lot to me," Deng told reporters before enjoying a standing ovation from fans during the Bulls victory over the Detroit Pistons. "When you look back, just my career as a basketball player, coming here as a young kid, a young man I should say, 19, it's a lot of history here and I wanted it to end the right way and the best way to do it is with familiar faces and with people who know me very well. I was blessed to play for so long and I wanted to walk out my way, healthy. I felt it was the right time.
"It's so many good memories," said Deng of his decade with the Bulls from No. 7 pick in the 2004 draft until a 2014 trade to Cleveland. "When you are going through it, you really don't see it that way. You're in the league, you're trying to prove a point, you're trying to be the best player you can be. Every day, ‘You can do this, you can't do that, we need this, we don't need that.' You kind of forget the relationship you have and what you are building. And then you think back to Chicago and what it meant. I know we never won a championship, but there's a lot of good memories of how hard we played, how hard we battled growing up in front of the fans; those are things you look back on. For me to be here 10 years is such a blessing."
Though Deng was not one of the more celebrated Bulls players, even in his time as the Bulls had Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, Deng's perseverance and hard work often mirrored the community. Deng was an immigrant who fled Sudan, emigrated to England and then came to the U.S. for basketball. He went to a high school academy in New Jersey and then spent one season at Duke before the Bulls purchased a draft pick from the Phoenix Suns to select Deng after using their own pick for Ben Gordon.
Gordon was among several former teammates who were in attendance to honor Deng, including Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas. Deng had signed a one-day contract before the season so he could retire as a Bull. But he asked the celebration be delayed until the Bulls were playing the Pistons so Derrick Rose could be a part.
In Deng's 10 years with the Bulls, he ranked in the franchise's alltime top 10 in seasons played, games, points, three pointers, free throws, rebounds, steals and blocks. Typical of his nature, he did so quietly but forcefully. He always flashed that internal pride, and admitted he was so proud of being able to represent the Bulls twice as an All-Star player considering his humble beginnings.
"It's crazy because when it happened for me it was like, ‘OK, I'm an All Star, I'm going to the All-Star.' I felt great about it, I loved it," Deng admitted. "It means a lot when you look back. And for me, I think when Thibs (coach Thibodeau) came to Chicago it changed my career. As well as I'd done in the past, I think it gave me almost like a label where people started to believe in how hard I played. And because we were winning, everything I was doing was highlighted a lot more than it would be when we were losing. So I appreciated that, and those teams under Thibs, when I go back, all those minutes that I played I'm so thankful for. Because not only did I play better and perform well under it, but it also, for the city, people appreciated night in and night out how hard I was playing with all those minutes."
Deng became the poster child for Thibodeau's playing commitment that Deng handed off to Jimmy Butler. Thought there were varying opinions about the utility of such use, Deng prospered and believed it also reflected the hard working nature of the city.
"I was a professional basketball player, but I think I tried to be, really, the best teammate that I could be," Deng said. "I tried to do a lot of stuff off the court. With the stuff that I'm doing now with my life (real estate investing, humanitarian aid), I tried to do as much as I can while playing. The stuff that we did with the organization within the city, to me it was a lot more than just basketball. So it means a lot when people come back and say. ‘He was this kind of guy' more than ‘He played hard.' I know that's what I'm labeled as, ‘He played hard, and he played all these minutes.' It's more than that for me."
Luol Deng talks with Chuck Swirsky
But Deng did believe the Bulls would get that championship, and he believed it was in 2011 when they lost that conference finals to the Miami Heat or in 2012.
"Everyone has their own opinion and I'm not taking anything away from the teams that won it that year," Deng said. "But there's two incidents that happened. People don't remember with Omer Asik that season I think we won (62) games. Every time we had Omer play the whole fourth quarter, we beat Miami that year four times during the season and we won the first game (of the conference finals). But in the last few minutes of that game Omer broke his leg. I don't know many people who know that story, but we really couldn't beat the Heat without him after that. We all knew it in the locker room and we had a hard time doing it. I felt like we could've won that year. And then obviously the (following) year when Derrick got hurt I think mentally we didn't prepare ourselves for what would happen if that happened. You just didn't think of it happening. You thought about maybe ankle sprains or something. But to have your best player, which your whole team was built around, go down like that; we just couldn't come back from it."
Deng tried to come back, moving on from Cleveland to Miami, where he emerged as a modern stretch four three-point shooter and playoff star again. He signed a big contract with the Lakers, but they immediately changed course and he was benched an entire season. Thibodeau took him back in the Timberwolves former Bulls halfway house for a season, which Deng said gave him time to think. And to realize it was a good time after good times.
"The hardest thing as you get older is in your mind you were so competitive and your ego's so big that's how we build from day one," said Deng. "Since you're a kid you're competing and you're fighting. And as you get older you get comments here and there from people, like, ‘Oh man, that's a nice play from the old guy,' or ‘You had a lot more energy tonight' or whatever. You stop fighting it because in your mind you think you can still do the same thing. There's different ways to be effective. But I think it depends on your situation and how everything is going. Some guys are OK with it. I just realized I'm really blessed from where I came from to play 15 years at a level that I did. It's not something that when I was drafted I thought I was going to do. So I had to look at my blessings instead of keep on pursuing. It was more what I got. I'm happy with that."