Triple Threat

Triple Threat

Posted August 30, 2004

Just minutes before Ben Gordon, Luol Deng and Chris Duhon entered the Berto Center for the first time to meet their new coaches and teammates, Bulls GM John Paxson and Head Coach Scott Skiles told the team’s 2004 Draft picks that they were counting on them.

“We need guys who are ready to come in, contribute, give us some minutes and help us win basketball games,” said Paxson to the trio. “I’m confident you three will do just that.”

The three newest Bulls were immediately dubbed “gym rats” by Paxson and Skiles. These are guys who love the game and don’t mind spending late hours in the gym, honing their skills. “All of us come from winning programs,” says Gordon. “We’re definitely going to bring that winning attitude here to Chicago, and hopefully someday soon we’ll be competing for a championship.”

Said Paxson on Draft night, “We need scoring, shooting, toughness, guys with a passion for the game and a high basketball IQ, and I believe we’ve found them.”

Now it’s your turn to get to know the Chicago Bulls’ 2004 NBA Draft picks.

Decked out in a gray suit highlighted by a pink silk tie and shirt the evening of the NBA Draft, the Bulls’ first pick (and No. 3 overall) declared with a grin that you have to be pretty to wear pink. Bulls fans are hoping that 6’3”, 200-pound Ben Gordon, a standout guard who helped lead the Connecticut Huskies to the 2004 NCAA title, will be a knockout in a Chicago Bulls jersey.

“He can really shoot the basketball, and he can break people down off the dribble. We’re going to have a very exciting backcourt,” declared Paxson.

Gordon, 21, was born in London, England, on April 4, 1983. Ten months later, he emigrated with his Jamaican-born mother, Yvonne, his sister, Ingrid (now a schoolteacher in New York), and two aunts to join his grandmother Avis in the United States. They first settled in the Bronx, and eventually the entire family moved to a three-story house on the outskirts of New York City in Mount Vernon, New York.

“Ben had love and affection all around,” says Yvonne, who, at the urging of her son, just retired from her long-time secretarial job at IBM. “Whenever he came home from school, there was always someone there to meet him. When he’d come home from grade school for lunch, his grandmother was there. And if I ever needed a sitter, there was always someone there to help out.” And, she adds with a laugh, “He got discipline from all angles.”

Ben Gordon was a studious kid who wasn’t allowed to play basketball until he finished his homework. His favorite subject in school was math, though he also enjoyed biology, dissecting all the insects and bugs he could find. According to mom, Ben used to say he wanted to be an ecologist or a surgeon when he grew up—not a basketball player.

But he loved basketball too. Growing up, young Ben hooped-it-up across from his house at the local park, at the local boys club, or at a spot down his street called the Tree Stump, where a hoop and backboard still adorn an old tree by the curb. Whenever he was running late for dinner, Yvonne always knew where to find him.

“He was a very focused, hard-working and obedient kid,” says Yvonne. “I didn’t allow much room for him to stray. I was always concerned with outside influences, whom he was with and where he was.”

Ben was also brought up in the church. And to this day, the family still attends the Tabernacle Church of God in the Bronx, where, as a child, Ben sang in the youth choir and attended Sunday school.

Gordon’s prep career flourished at Mount Vernon High School, which has a rich basketball history. He led his team to the New York Class A state championship and a 28-0 record as a junior, and to the state Class A semifinals as a senior. “No one ever outworked Ben Gordon,” insists his ex-high school coach, Bob Cimmino. “He was a coach’s dream.”

Gordon was twice named an All-State player and was two-time Westchester County Mr. Basketball. As a senior, he averaged 24.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 3.6 steals, shooting 53 percent from the floor, 39 percent from three-point range, and 80 percent at the charity stripe.

Gordon scored a total of 1,756 points during his high school career, passing six former NBA players and Mount Vernon High alums—Scooter McCray, Rodney McCray, Gus Williams, Lowes Moore, Earl Tatum, and Ray Williams—en route to the school record.

During his three-year career at University of Connecticut, where he majored in business administration, the versatile combo guard appeared in 106 games and scored a career 1,795 points, averaging 16.9 points per game, with 437 assists and 415 rebounds. He left UConn as the school’s sixth all-time leading scorer, reaching double figures 88 times in his career. He cracked the 20-point mark 39 times and scored 30 points or more on five occasions. Gordon also holds UConn’s 3-point shooting record with 246 career bombs.

“Being from New York, a lot of people [teased] me, but I’ve always been a Bulls fan,” says the mellow, low-key Gordon, who was named Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Final Four last season. “To hear my name called by the Bulls [at No. 3] was really exciting.”

Gordon’s not just saying that to be humble. As a kid, he openly admits that his bedroom was plastered with Bulls and Michael Jordan posters, and his pocket money was spent on Bulls and Air Jordan trading cards.

“We believe that Ben will be a good complement to Kirk Hinrich,” says Paxson. “We look at both of those guys as combo guards. The fact that both have the ability to handle the ball, get to the lane and create shots and openings for other people makes for a solid backcourt.”

Off the court, Gordon’s mom expects him to play an important role too. “I always wanted Ben to take his place in society and be a good man,” says Yvonne. “I’m going to keep encouraging him. We’re all just human beings, who need to keep our focus and do well in all aspects of our lives.”

“You don’t have to look much further than the story of his life to be impressed by this kid,” declared Bulls Head Coach Scott Skiles, the day after the team made Duke University freshman Luol Deng their second pick in the first round (and seventh overall) in this year’s NBA Draft.

The 6’8”, 220-pound forward with the big smile was born in the Sudan, has lived in Egypt, England, and the U.S., and speaks fluent Dinka, Arabic and English. Just 19 years old, Deng is the eighth of nine children and a member of the Dinka tribe, which also produced the man who taught Deng’s brothers how to play basketball, former NBA center Manute Bol.

Deng’s journey started when his family—father Aldo served in the Sudanese Parliament and was the Minister of Transportation—fled civil war in Sudan when Luol was six. They first went to Egypt, where his older brothers met Bol. Four years later, the family was granted political asylum and settled in London, and Deng’s athletic skills began to blossom. (His brothers and sisters are talented players too: Older brother Deng currently plays pro basketball in England, brother Ajou played college basketball at Fairfield and sister Arek currently plays college basketball at Delaware).

At age 13, Deng was invited to join England’s 15-and-under national teams in basketball and soccer. He concentrated mainly on basketball and played for England in the European Junior Men’s Qualifying Tournament in Portugal, averaging 40 points and 14 rebounds to earn MVP honors. He eventually led England to the finals of the European Junior National Tournament, where he averaged 34 points and was named tournament MVP.

Though he’s close to his family, Deng and his parents decided to try to make the most of his athletic talents by sending him to America to attend Blair Academy in Blairstown, New Jersey. He was terribly homesick that first year, but the youngster who stood 6’5” at the time and wore number 33 in honor of his favorite player, Grant Hill, stuck it out.

As a high school senior, Deng was named First Team All-America by Parade Magazine and USA Today and was selected to play in the McDonald’s High School All-America game. He was one of 10 finalists that season for the Naismith Prep Player of the Year Award, and ranked as the nation’s No. 2 prepster behind LeBron James. Deng averaged 23 points, 10 rebounds and six assists his senior year at Blair.

Deng went on to Duke, where he and Chris Duhon, the Bulls second-round draft pick, became close friends and roommates on the road. “He’s a great guy, a special kid,” says Duhon of Deng. “He’s real nice and genuine, just a great guy to know.

“Without Luol, it would’ve been real tough for us to win," adds Duhon. “He does so many things on the court. He knocks down shots. He rebounds. He moves the ball around. Luol’s really a terrific all-around player, and I’m excited to still be his teammate.”

Deng’s just as thrilled to be in Chicago. As a youngster growing up in London, he became a huge Bulls fan, religiously staying up until 5 a.m. to watch live broadcasts of the Bulls’ NBA Finals battles. Little did he realize that after agonizing over whether or not to leave college early for the NBA Draft, he would wear the same uniform as two of his boyhood idols, Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan.

“I believe leaving school early was the right decision to make, but at first I wasn’t sure,” admits Deng. “But my coaches told me to follow my heart and there wouldn’t be any regrets, and that’s exactly what I did.”

“Luol is a young guy with just one year at Duke, but a few years ago he was the second-best high school player in America behind LeBron James,” says Paxson. “He has the work ethic and capacity to play at a very high level. It may take a little time, but we’re confident that he’s a worker and will be a very good NBA player.”

A battered basketball hoop that’s just barely attached to a pole—the net’s shredded and long-gone—followed Chris Duhon throughout childhood, from the family’s first apartment in New Orleans to their eventual home in nearby Slidell, Louisiana. It once graced the driveway where he and other neighborhood kids would play for hours.

“It’s lopsided now and most of the screws are missing, but it’s still in Slidell,” says Duhon’s mom, Vivian Harper. “One day that goal will go back up in his own driveway. He was really attached to that thing.”

The former Duke University star has always been attached to basketball; In fact he had a habit of sleeping with a ball the night before games at Duke. Born August 31, 1982, in tiny Mamou, Louisiana, the 6’1”, 185-pound point guard moved with his mom to New Orleans, and then at age 10 to Slidell, where he excelled at basketball, football and track and field.

Once he reached Salmen High School, his mom offered advice and Chris took it. “I told him you can be good at three sports or great at one, and he picked basketball,” recounts Vivian. By the end of his high school career, he’d lettered four years for Head Coach Jesse Carlin III, who became a father figure to Chris and whose two sons became Duhon’s closest friends.

Among many honors, Duhon won the 2000 Morgan Wootten Award, given to the National High School Player of the Year, was a 2000 McDonald’s All-American, won the Naismith Sportsmanship Award at the McDonald’s All-American Game, was voted Mr. Basketball in Louisiana following his senior season, was named the 2000 Louisiana Player of the Year by USA Today and Gatorade, was a three-time all-state, all-parish, all-metro and all-district honoree, and set the school scoring record with 2,699 points. He also started a Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter while in junior high, which he carried on to high school.

After choosing Duke, Duhon asked mom and little brother Thomas, now 13, to join him in Durham. While Chris lived with roommates, Vivian and Thomas settled a few miles away. Duhon went on to have a sensational freshman season, helping lead the Blue Devils to the 2001 National Championship. It probably helped that he and his teammates had Vivian’s Louisiana home cooking—seafood gumbo and red beans and rice—a few times a month. She soon became known as “mom” to much of the team.

Vivian and Thomas attended nearly every Duke home game and as soon as Thomas was spotted in the stands, fans would start chanting his nickname, “Little Duhon.” It soon became a tradition to pass Little Duhon up and down the student section, which Thomas loved.

Chris Duhon thrived at Duke, although his junior year proved somewhat trying, as he was often criticized when the team didn’t play up to the fans’ expectations. “I wasn’t able to handle it to the best of my ability, and from that came a lot of criticism,” says Duhon, who was picked 38th overall by the Bulls. “But I rebounded my senior year. I proved I could compete with anyone. I grew a lot as a person from my junior to senior year.”

Besides graduating from Duke with a sociology degree, Duhon ended his career the same way he started: with a trip to the NCAA Final Four. Though Duke lost to eventual National Champion UConn (and Ben Gordon), Duhon was praised by coaches, fans and pundits alike as a leader. In the end, he was the only player in Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) history to record 1,000 points, 800 assists, 475 rebounds, 300 steals and 125 three-point field goals; he finished second in Duke history in assists (819) and first in minutes played (4,813) and steals (300); he was a part of three ACC Championship teams, and Duke was 123-21 during his tenure.

Triple Threat

“We feel we came out of the Draft with things we really needed,” Paxson confidently says of Chicago’s 2004 Draft Class. “We needed to start building this team up again. We needed scoring and shooting out of this Draft. With Ben Gordon, we get both. With Luol Deng, we get both.

“Both Ben and Luol are going to be able to step on an NBA floor, play well and contribute right away. And adding Chris Duhon to the mix is a real bonus. We’re really pleased with what we were able to do. Our goal was to get quality players out of this Draft, and we did just that.”

By Anne E. Stein