Commentary

Luol Deng redefining on-court image

Bulls forward flourishing under Tom Thibodeau, silencing critics

Updated: November 17, 2010, 7:46 PM ET
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

Everything, they say, happens for a reason. The quest for all of us is to discover that reason. Find the answer to the question: Why?

In the case of Luol Deng, the why can range from "Why isn't he living up to certain people's expectations?" to "Why is he still in a Bulls uniform?"

Deng What really bothered me the most was the, 'Luol got his money; he's shutting it down.' I really heard that. … If you see how I live, and when you see what I try do with the money I have, you will realize that money doesn't mean that much to me.

-- Luol Deng

In Rhonda Byrne's book "The Secret," the author outlines how, "The mind is shaping your outcomes in real time." Meaning, what you are now is a result of your past thoughts and feelings; what you think and feel now will match your future result; and what you focus on, whether you want it or not, is manifested.

Deng's "real time" seems to be occurring now. Manifest destiny. After two years of having his game questioned by everyone from people at the Starbucks on 35th Street in Chicago to some of his followers in Brixton back in the U.K., he has silenced some of the noise that at one point seemed to be an accurate -- albeit unfair -- assessment of his career.

Finally able to come into his own, Deng is discovering -- just like you and I are discovering about him -- the answer to his life's "Why?" and why he's had to go through so much to get to this point in his basketball career.

Scoop Jackson: People all around the city coming into this season would personally walk up to me and say, "Luol needs to do this, and Luol is not aggressive enough, that he's soft, that maybe the Bulls need to use him as trade bait." Called you all types of "bums" and everything. Then when you dropped 40 in the second game of the season, all of that stopped. People stopped coming up to me saying those types of things, and it's been quiet ever since. I looked at the Portland game as the "tipping point" game for you. Maybe for your career. Tell me what I'm seeing wrong or tell me what I'm seeing right.

Luol Deng: I think what you are seeing right is, uh, I wouldn't be surprised if I have another 40-point game, to be honest. I think a lot of people might be, but I wouldn't be and the people that know my game wouldn't be. I honestly feel that the system, the system with Coach Thibs [Tom Thibodeau] now is really allowing me to be a basketball player. It's just the [kind of] basketball that I like to play. You know, some systems are for you and some are not. I really feel like I kind of limited my game a little bit the last few years. The way we were playing had a lot to do with what we were trying to do. What we are trying to do now is different, so it's really allowing me to really use my basketball IQ.

Is it more organic for you now as far as your playing is concerned? Is that what I'm hearing? You know, as opposed to you having to think or overthink everything that you do, it's more of a flow you are in now?

LD: You really just said it. It's more like now I'm just playing. I'm not overthinking things. You know, I'm just playing basketball. And I think the team, we're not there yet, but the team, the way we are trying to move the ball, playing such unselfish basketball, really allows me to move, cut, set screens and just play again.

Do you think Thibs is putting you in a better position to succeed with the way this system runs?

Deng: Yeah.

Does that apply to everyone or just you? I ask only because so far this season it seems like every night someone goes off and has a big game. Pooh [Derrick Rose] had 39 one game, you dropped 40, then Joakim [Noah] comes and has a 26-point, 12-rebound, then a 19-rebound game, then you come back and have a 26-point, 11-rebound night the same night Derrick goes for 22 points, 13 assists. It seems that we are seeing something different every night and the system is working for everybody, not just you.

LD: And that's what [Thibs] said when he came in. He said, "I'm going to put in a system, and every night it's going to be somebody different [leading us] in scoring." But what he is really trying to teach us as a group is that every night we are going to have a different task. That's the system. Some nights I'm going to be so tuned in defensively my offense might not be there; I might be guarding someone who's getting the ball every time in their system. Every game is really going to be different for us. It's just a matter of how consistent can you be to bring something to the team every time?

How different is it now than it has been in the last couple of years?

LD: A lot different. A lot different.

Have you noticed a change in yourself because of that?

LD: Nothing bad against anybody, I mean, every coach comes in with a different system, everyone has a different mindset of something different they're trying to do, but yes, I've changed. Personally, I can be more positive. You know, I think sometimes when you are struggling or you don't like the system that you are playing in or it doesn't fit you, I think you tend to start thinking too much. And that's when you start thinking negatively. You know, second guessing everything. Right now, personally, I'm really happy. Even when I'm missing shots or playing bad, I just know I have good looks. And I always work on my game, always in the gym, so if I'm missing [shots] I don't get down. I'm hard on myself but I'm not down on myself.

[+] EnlargeLuol Deng
Ray Amati/Getty ImagesLuol Deng said that under Tom Thibodeau, he is no longer overthinking the game; he just plays.

Do you feel that you are underappreciated? I mean, you hear all of the talk about how people aren't sold on you, how the Bulls should get rid of you, how you aren't living up to your contract, all that stuff. And still, coming off of an injury last year, you still averaged 17 and 7 [17.6 and 7.3, actually, which are .7 off his career high in scoring and .2 below his career high in rebounds] and around the city people were still …

LD: The way I was raised, I'm not the kinda guy that lives by the saying, "Don't bring yourself down to the level of whoever is talking about you." What I mean by that is, I heard a lot of bad things about me. I heard a lot of things that I don't agree with. But I've always believed that God has a plan, and the minute I allow myself to come down to their level, that's when everything will hit the fan. I always feel that I'm going to come back up. No matter what anyone says, I'm going to come back up and they're going to like me. Or appreciate me. That's how I feel. I swear to you. And I feel that way because I never short cut. I mean, I had my injury and the injury I had, the way it came out is what killed me most.

What do you mean?

LD: I had a fracture. One that to this day still hurts. And I was told that it's going to be sore for a while. Ask anyone here -- I sat down and got opinions from five different doctors. Two said no surgery; three said surgery. One wanted to put a rod in [my leg], to stabilize the fracture from getting bigger. The other two wanted to close it with a pin. One of the doctors that didn't want to do surgery and wanted to just give it time to heal, he didn't even think it was a fracture. I got so many options, and what really hurt me, was that I couldn't fight what was being said. I was really hurt. But I believed my time would come. And I heard a lot of stuff.

So you heard what was being said, too? What did you hear about yourself that made you … think twice?

LD: What really bothered me the most was the, "Luol got his money; he's shutting it down." I really heard that. And what really hurt me [about that] is that, if you know me, you know that even though I made a lot of money -- that's no secret -- if you see how I live and when you see what I try do with the money I have, you will realize that money doesn't mean that much to me. It really doesn't. And from where I came from, I lived with, where we were eating bread and only bread every day. You know, I've been at the bottom. So for people to say that … I never played basketball to begin with to make money. I didn't. I played basketball because I like it. Still do. So for me to be put in that [category] really, really hurt more than anything.

Did it hurt or did it piss you off?

LD: No, it hurt. It didn't piss me off. There's other things that piss me off [laughs]. So many things that go on in this world that piss me off, for someone or people to say that about me, that just hurt.

But don't you think timing had as much to do with it as anything? I mean, if you hadn't signed when you did and a [close to max level] contract wasn't attached or so closely related to an injury and expectations …

LD: No, I think money plays into it.

That's just the nature of this business?

LD: That's just the nature of human beings. That's the way it is. The more money you make, the more people are going to hate on you. No matter what, you are always going to have people that hate. It's how our world works, unfortunately. But that's Ok. Because I really believe that for every one bad fan, there are 20, 30 or 50 great ones.

Is there a part of you that wants to prove those haters wrong? Like when you play now, is there any part of your mind that …

LD: Naw. Naw. I thought about that a lot. My dad even spoke to me about it. I was down, upset one time, and he was like, "Why are you walking like a defeated man?" And I didn't know what he meant. And he was like, "Stand up straight." He was looking at my body language. In my culture, there's a lot of that. In our culture at 12, at 13, you're going to war. You're in the army, you're a man, you're going to fight. So what my dad was saying was, "Don't try to prove anyone wrong. You'll never win." He told me the only thing I can do is to compete with myself. Meaning, I gotta be the best I can be. Whatever that is, at the end of the day, if I focus on trying to play well, I think I'm good enough to have a good season. As soon as I start playing for those haters, trying to prove them wrong, that's when I lose. I'm fighting them every day; I don't want to get into their world.

Would you be surprised, even with how you've played so far this season, if you got traded?

LD: No. This is the NBA. I've seen it all. [Remember] I'm the last one here. I would not be surprised. Now, I don't want to get traded. I want to be here; I want to see how good I could get as a ball player being in Chicago the whole time. I think it's going that way now. Whether it's my mindset or the system or whatever it is, I really feel great about it. But if I was to be traded, I would not be surprised.

OK, then why are you still here? Why are you the only player from when you joined this team that they haven't, for lack of a better term, separated themselves from?

LD: I think, one thing, is that I'm really consistent. I think off the court, I am who I am. I respect everyone; I treat everyone how I'd like to be treated. But more than that, I'm always in here [The Berto Center]. I'm always trying to get better. I don't know where my best is going to be, but I'm really trying to get there. And I think [VP of basketball operations John] Paxson has seen that [from me] since day one; I think [Bulls owner] Jerry Reinsdorf sees that. I think they see that, like I said, I'm really not trying to take any short cuts. I've always worked hard, but I don't think a lot of people know the definition of hard work. I think it can be mistaken. I used to be in here for hours, working. Now, I can be in here for one hour and get more done than I used to get in, say, three [hours]. I think I'm really understanding what it takes. When I'm tired and struggling, I try to do something that's not as physical but somehow will make me better, and I think [the Bulls] see that.

[+] EnlargeTom Thibodeau
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty ImagesTom Thibodeau handed out DVDs of "The Secret" to the Bulls' players to stress the importance of staying positive.

I'm trying to find out if there's been some drastic transition between last season and what you are coming in to do this season that has nothing to do with Coach Thibs or anything associated with the Bulls' organization.

LD: Yeah, I worked hard on my game this summer, not just working to rehab from an injury. See, when I had the fracture, I sat out the whole summer. I wasn't clear to be on the court until six days before training camp. And somehow I still came in in shape. Honestly, going into last season, I had no idea what I was going to do with my leg. This summer, I was in the gym, working out, I played with the national team, so I was playing live, real basketball and I was able to spend that time really focusing on things that I couldn't do well. I worked on my 3 [point shooting], my ball handling, and I think it's really paying off so far.

Is there something cultural or native to your culture [Deng is from the Sudan in northeastern Africa] that you keep with you that helps you deal with everything from the haters to overcoming the physical and mental obstacles that have taken other players out?

LD: Appreciation. Just always appreciating. Because of where I'm from, the war and everything, everything came hard, nothing was easy. Water, home, land, people getting killed in front of you, just life was hard. I know I'm getting off topic, but I went to Kenya and Sudan this summer to a refugee camp where I stayed in that refugee camp for like seven days. And nothing came easy to them, but they were so happy. They were sleeping on the floors, walking hours to get water and once they got that water, they appreciated it. So when I came back, I was just like, "Man … ." You know? I'm sitting in my house drinking bottled water, and these people are out there walking for hours just to get water. After seeing and being reminded of that, come on man, I can't let these little things out here get to me.

Is there a saying or philosophy that you keep with you at all times to maintain that belief and attitude?

LD: Just stay positive. I never used to stay with that, but that's something now that I … you ever read the book "The Secret"? Well, a couple of years ago, a friend told me about "The Secret" and I was all about it, and when Coach came in this year, he gave everyone DVDs of "The Secret." To me, that was mind blowing. It just shows how crazy [coincidental] things can be and how they work out if you are positive. It's hard to stay positive. It's hard. But if you stay positive, a lot of things will go your way.

There's always been a problem with people appreciating what they have instead of always wanting more and never taking into consideration of how soon or how fast all of [this] can be taken away from them.

LD: Yeah … [there's] nothing wrong with trying to be on or at the top, trying to be the best. But you can't let, don't let the glamour, the money, don't let that be your motivation. That's going to die quick. And that's where it hurt me when people really felt that my motivation was the money. I mean, it happens; it happens, some people you know, it happens. But it hurt me because my love for basketball didn't die just because I got paid. I love the game. And out of everything, that's what bothered me the most. And another thing, even when all of that was going on, I never thought I'm the guy that everyone hates. Because I've seen that happen. I've seen it happen to other people. To be honest with you, some part of me liked it. This summer, sometimes, I was like, "I can't wait to get back. OK, I'm being put down [by the media], but I can't wait to get back up and just play my game. Just to show people how much I really love this game."

Explain to me why you love this game so much?

LD: It's hard for me to say why we love something. It's one of those things like when you are with a good friend and time flies and you are just enjoying yourself, you're not thinking twice, you're not thinking of anything else. With basketball, since my brothers and I started playing over in Egypt, it always gave us that feeling. With so much going on over there -- the struggle, the lifestyle -- when we played basketball, everything kinda went away.

Has Chicago, the city, been fair with you?

LD: Yeah. I think the city has been fair. It's a lot of talk on radio, but the positive messages when I talk to people, the support, I've been in Chicago more than I have any other city in my whole life, and I really feel like I've gotten to know the city. I really feel like the people of the city appreciate me.

Not to be negative, but hearing all that's been said about you, I'd like to know from you what is the worst thing that anyone can -- not has, but can -- say about you?

LD: That I don't … I don't know how to put it into one word, but it's the same thing they said about me and the money, that I'm satisfied. I'm not; I'm really not. I've never been satisfied. I'm always trying to get better, trying to get up there. But that relaxing thing? When people say that, it still bothers me, man. You can say whatever you want [about me]; you can say, "Luol is not that good;" you can say, "Luol is not going to get where we thought he was going to get." I'm OK with that. As long as you know I'm really putting in the work. Anything else you want to say, go ahead. But don't say that I'm satisfied.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.

Scoop Jackson | email

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