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Luol Deng

Growing Up ... Luol Deng

February 24, 2014
by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer

Several NBA players have grown up and succeed despite some difficult childhood circumstances, but few players and their families have endured the international obstacle course that Cavs forward Luol Deng did.

Deng, a nine-year vet and two-time NBA All-Star, spent his early years with his family escaping the Second Sudanese Civil War. His father, a high-ranking government official, was forced to move Deng and his eight brothers and sisters to Egypt, where he lived in a refugee camp until finally relocating in London when he was 10 years old.

The 6-9, 220-pound Deng came to the States when he was 14 years old, starring at Blair Academy in New Jersey before attending Duke for a season, guiding the Blue Devils to the Final Four in 2004. He was drafted No. 7 overall by the Suns in 2004 and traded immediately to the Bulls.

Deng was traded to the Wine and Gold on January 7, and in 21 games with the Cavaliers has notched double-figure scoring in all but five games, averaging 15.1 ppg and contributing to Cleveland’s longest win streak in almost four years.

In today’s installment of Growing Up, the decorated forward looks back on his early days and the unusual route that led him to the NBA …

I can honestly say that …Manute Bol taught my family the game of basketball.

How it happened was, my family and I … were refugees in Egypt – from when I was about five years old to about ten – and we used to go to Sunday school. When Manute came, I was about seven years old.

When Manute was still playing in the NBA … he took a vacation back to Egypt and he knew there was a large Sudanese community, a large refugee camp there. So he came over and did what he does – give back. And he started teaching my older brothers how to play basketball.

At the time, my brothers … were playing, but they didn’t know much of the rules. They just knew how to shoot the ball in the hoop and that’s pretty much it. And the court we played on was an outdoor court, and not the greatest court.

And Manute just took his time … he even extended his vacation and taught my brothers how to play.

After that, my oldest brother … took it upon himself to teach me. He would have me on the court doing drills and running laps. They weren’t the greatest drills, but at least I was around the game.

My oldest brother – his name is Deng Deng – played … professional basketball in Europe for a long time. He’s around 36 now, I’m pretty sure. [Because I’m one of nine children, when I’m asked the age of my brothers and sisters, I have to go two (years), two (years), two, two, two …]

My second oldest brother is … Ajou Deng, who played at UConn. Then he went over and played in Europe also. My other brother also played in Europe and then there’s myself.

Ajou was probably the most … talented and the best ballplayer, he just had injuries. But he was, by far, the best of all of us. The game came so easy to him.

My brothers and I haven’t played together … in forever. They’re retired from basketball now, so it’s been a long time – probably when we were in England. We would all practice; all four of us would be on the court at the same time. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but it was special.

My brothers were always … tough on me. Because I was the youngest boy, I was always my mom’s favorite – and my brothers were always tough on me.

Only one of my sisters … played basketball. My other sister played in high school, but she didn’t like it. I have an older sister that played in Delaware and also went on to play in France for a while.

The only other sport I played … was soccer. That’s the only thing I brag about. I was really good! So I brag about soccer.

Soccer was my … first love. I really didn’t want to play basketball for the longest time, but I just wouldn’t stop growing. But I always wanted to be a professional soccer player.

My parents were … my greatest role models -- what we went through, how they were always positive. They never lost their edge or showed frustration with anything. My mom is very religious and we always just always believed it was going to get better.

Now that I look back on it … a lot of people could have panicked. There were nine of us and none of us got into trouble or did anything we weren’t supposed to.

My mom raised … every child as if it was her only one. And my dad, to make that decision – when we were living in Sudan – to leave everything behind and just flee and become a refugee when he was a rich man himself, to leave everything behind, that’s a big decision for your family, knowing that the family was in danger.

Before we fled, my father was … the minister of Education and Transportation in the whole of Sudan, and now he’s part of the Parliament – he’s one of the guys who wrote the constitution.

When I first came over to high school in America … my high school coach did my family a favor. They really wanted my sister for basketball.

I told my brother, who was at UConn at the time … that I might come over, because my dad wouldn’t let my sister come over by herself.

So I came over to … look after my sister, but also knowing that I was going to play soccer and basketball and be out of the bad neighborhood we lived in back in England. It was easier for my parents. I just always felt like, we were struggling and if I was able to get a scholarship and a good education, why not?

I came to the States … with the mindset to play soccer and basketball. I came over with just one bag to stay for the whole year. So when I got over and started playing basketball, I had no idea how good I was.

I started scrimmaging … with the varsity team right away when I got there, and my high school coach asked: ‘Are you sure you want to scrimmage with the older guys?’ I was 14 years old and used to scrimmaging with older guys, so I said yes.

So I started playing with the varsity guys … and my coach stopped the game and pulled me aside and said: ‘Are you kidding me?!’ He asked, ‘Son, do you know how good you can be?’

Later, he told me to pick … five schools that you think you want to go to. I remember I said Duke, Syracuse, Kansas – all the top schools. And he said: ‘Well, I want to tell you that it’s going to be up to you whether you want to go there or not.

I was all excited after that, but … I was just 14 years old. So I just started playing and things started to change.

And that … was it for my soccer days.

I remember that I was … ranked highly in high school, but I didn’t even know there were rankings or how it worked. Guys play AAU, then all of a sudden you’re 195th, then you’re 175th, then top 100, then you make top 50, then you get a letter from Nike you go to Nike, on and on …

But my high school coach … didn’t like any of that and didn’t get me into any of it. And it shaped me as a 14-year-old, the way he really carried himself and the team kind of became a part of me. He was always about ‘no-spotlight’ – none of that stuff.

I remember EXACTLY where … I was when I first dunked!

I was with my friends and … I was 12 years old. I was 6-1, maybe 6-2 at the time. We were in the gym in a high school in England – a school called BTG.

I remember that year … everyone used to make fun of me because I had no muscles in my legs. I was just a lanky kid, just tall. And I took the ball – I was just frustrated, tired of being made fun of – and I dribbled down the court – 1, 2 – and I dunked hard.

I stayed in the gym that night … probably for two or three hours – just dunking, dunking, dunking.

And now I laugh … to myself: After practice in high school, we would finish practice and everyone would start dunking – everyone started showing their dunks. Now, it’s like I don’t even dunk in practice because it takes a lot out of you.

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