Meet Luol Deng, The Man From Sudan

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

A lifetime of struggle has forged a sense of determination in the Heat's new forward. It has carried him from war-torn African and now, under the shadow of LeBron James, to the glaring lights along Biscayne Bay.

Luol Deng, the newly-acquired forward for the Miami Heat, doesn't recall anything from the first years of life in his homeland yet he is still defined by them. He would soon learn a completely foreign game, flee Africa and become skilled enough to earn a scholarship to one of the most storied collegiate programs in the United States.

And it all began with a lopsided hoop beside a church in Alexandria, a makeshift court and a worn basketball that would make him a hero in a land he can't quite remember.

***

A civil war tore apart Sudan and the only life that Deng had ever known, forcing this family into exile. He was just 3 years old.

Deng's father was a government employee and believed his wife and eight children would be safer away from Wau, the close-knit village where the future NBA All-Star was born in 1985. The family moved everything they could, leaving behind their community and the stability that would evade them for years to come. As Deng himself says in this 2008 interview, "I was too young to remember, but I have heard the stories. We had to leave, so we fled - crossing over the border to Egypt."

Eventually they settled in the city of Alexandria, along the Mediterranean coast. The family was packed into a small apartment. It was a cramped, restless time but at least they were safe. They tried to reestablish familiar patterns and went to a nearby church with a large Sudanese population. It was there that Deng was introduced to the game of basketball.

"I used to go along to a dusty outdoor court to watch my older brothers play and sometimes they would let me join in," said Deng. It seems a fitting tribute to basketball's history and expanding global appeal that Deng took up the sport the same way so many Americans have; just needing an excuse to go out and play.

But Deng's father had gone back to Khartoum and was imprisoned following a military coup. Eventually released but unable to reach his family, he was extradited to Great Britain. There, he was able to claim political asylum for himself and his family, still in Egypt. Luol Deng would see his father again and begin a new life in London when he was 8.

"We immediately felt welcomed in London...we felt comfortable and safe," recalls Deng. "I never felt like an outsider. This was my new home. The only problem I had was that I didn't speak English, but I soon learnt it and my brothers would laugh at my new accent."

He overcame his social awkwardness by excelling at athletics. Being in England, soccer was the sport that mattered most. On the grassy pitch, he was fast and fluid, a natural athlete. But as he grew taller than everyone else, he decided to concentrate those skills to the hardwood floor.

Playing at a local recreational center, he excelled right away. "That was really important because it was a place I could go to express myself. It helped me fit in and I liked being good at something."

"Good" is definitely an understatement. Deng was noticed by an American scout and offered the opportunity to go to a high school in New Jersey. The choice wasn't an easy one - he'd be alone and away from his family. But he showed the kind of determination that would soon make him a star and accepted a scholarship to the Blair Academy, about 70 miles away from New York City.

"At the beginning I was homesick, but I was determined not to waste the chance I had been given. I made sure I worked harder than anyone else. If you're from England you can't be just as good as the Americans, you have to be better. I woke up at six every morning to get in extra practice before a day of classes."

It worked and, by his senior year in 2003, Deng was ranked the second-best prospect in the country.

The first? A young man by the name of LeBron James.

***

Fast forward 11 years and Deng might find himself being second fiddle to James once again. He's in a difficult spot but he's chosen this path.

That determination - the quality that took him from the dusty courts of Alexandria to the NBA - will likely be on display for Heat fans that are still reeling from James' announcement to rejoin his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"The King" made the immediate leap to the NBA, missing out on the college experience that he likened to spending the past four years in Miami. Deng attended Duke University, averaging 15 points per game and leading the Blue Devils to a Final Four berth in 2004.

He was drafted by the Phoenix Suns but was immediately traded to the Chicago Bulls, where he would spend nearly all of his 10-year career. He was a superb athlete, still embodying grace in a 6'9" frame. He established himself as a defensive stalwart, part of a team that prides itself on grit and determination. Ironically, Deng's ability to defend James was a major reason that the Bulls were often seen as challengers to Miami's rule over the Eastern Conference throne.

By last season, injuries had taken their toll on both Deng and the Bulls. They didn't seem like a legitimate threat early on and, with Deng's impending free agency looming in the distance, a decision was made to trade their longtime star. Both Chicago and the Cleveland Cavaliers were looking to clear salary cap space for this summer's free agency period and a deal was struck.

The Bulls received the bloated albatross of Andrew Bynum and his non-guaranteed contract while the Cavs rented the services of Deng for a failed playoff run. Again, the irony is too rich; as Deng's contract came off the books, Cleveland found itself poised to retain the services of James, whose representatives had long expressed a desire for the Akron native to return to his former team.

And now Deng is here in Miami, agreeing to a two-year deal while facing the shadow of James yet again.

It's an unfair burden that Heat fans are likely to place on Deng's sinewy shoulders. While no one can replace the great singular talents of James, Deng is meant to continue Miami's commitment to excellence. Four straight trips to the NBA Finals set lofty, unattainable goals for a fan base that has come to expect - and has witnessed - the impossible becoming reality.

But Deng's life has taken too many a twisted turn and this is likely just another stop in the amazing journey of the 29-year-old. As he himself explains, "My life has been a tough journey, but a good one. It has helped me mature that much quicker. I see what I have been through as a blessing. It is a gift to help me see things more clearly."

The Man From Sudan, Deng's rhyming nickname, must surely understand the challenges he'll face this season, filling the sizable gap left by the league's four-time Most Valuable Player. That kind of perspective is a life preserver to fans left drowning in the wake of James' unexpected departure.

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