Join Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng as he shares his diary from a summer of international duty with the Great Britain national team as they try and win promotion to the A Division of the European Championships.]
Hi, my name is Luol
Bradenton, Fla. (July 29-Aug. 4)
I had a few weeks in Chicago after our playoff defeat to the Pistons, chilling out, working out a little and hanging out with friends. But at the end of July, the GB team opened training camp at the IMG facility in Bradenton.
This was a cool week. I got the chance to meet everybody for the first time. Some of the guys I had known from my time playing for the England junior team -- Richard Midgley and our captain Andrew Sullivan, plus assistant coaches Tim Lewis and Tony Garbelotto. And from playing in London I knew Eric Boateng. Eric is at Arizona State, he's like a younger brother to me and spent time with me in Chicago at the end of the season so he became my roommate on the trip.
First impressions were we have a good bunch of guys here and I could tell we had some talent and were going to be good, but the problem was I couldn't compare us to anything because I have never played international ball at this level. Being in Bradenton we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so it was a question of working hard and the only socializing we did was with each other, which did a lot for team spirit.
The gift of giving
London, Paris and Pau, France (Aug. 5-11)
After Bradenton, our coach Chris Finch gave the guys a week off before we got down to the real business but there was not much rest for me.
I arrived home at my mum's in the London suburb of South Norwood on Sunday morning and, by the afternoon, I was on my way to Paris by train to help out at the NBA's Basketball without Borders program. I'd been to Paris before, but only on a quick shopping trip and I had a great time there along with a lot of the NBA's French guys -- Mickael Pietrus, Boris Diaw, Yakhouba Diawara, Ronny Turiaf plus a couple of others like Bo Outlaw and my old Duke teammate -- and currents Bulls teammate -- Chris Duhon.
The French guys were on their way through for Tony Parker's wedding outside Paris and it's interesting to meet guys from other teams, who you only see for a short time during the NBA season. When you have something in common, there's usually a sort of chemistry there, and most of these guys are from an African background, like me, so we have those similarities to relate to. I really hit it off with Diawara and we talked a lot about the playoffs -- obviously Boris had a lot to say about Phoenix and we were interested to talk to Pietrus after what Golden State had done to the Mavs.
I like what the NBA is doing with Basketball without Borders in terms of reaching out to kids all over the world, kids with the same dreams and hopes I had when I took up the sport in London. For these kids with big dreams, it makes their week to meet NBA players. Last year, I went to Basketball without Borders in South Africa but this year's visit to Africa coincided with the GB program. I was hurt I couldn't make it there, so I sent a bunch of my Bulls jerseys to give out to all the kids. My own experience of leaving Africa, the way it happened, was not positive. Going back to Africa last year and seeing the smiling faces of hundreds of kids meant a lot to me.
After three days in Paris, I went down to the south of France, to Pau in the Pyrenees where the GB team was reassembled for a couple of scrimmage games against the national team from Georgia.
My first ever game in a GB uni was a strange experience. The games were played behind closed doors, which made for a weird atmosphere and then Boateng and Georgia's NBA player Zaza Pachulia were ejected for fighting … in an exhibition game! Anyway, we lost by two points, which I didn't feel great about. A lot of things didn't go right and it didn't help that one of our best big men, Robert Archibald, was missing with an injury. But that's why you play friendlies, to iron out the problems, and the next night we came out and beat them by 20. That's when I could see the chemistry on this team really kick in.
London (Aug. 12-18)
The GB team headed for a minitournament in Croatia but, unfortunately, they had to go without me. Last year, before the GB program was even set or I had my passport, I had arranged dates for an annual basketball camp that I host in Reading, just outside London. When I was talking with British Performance Basketball, which runs the GB program, I made it clear how committed I am to the project. BPB and Finch were sympathetic so I was given a week of leave.
The camp is residential and has 300 kids, it's great. I guess I'm trying to reach out to kids and teach them through this sport and I think I could do a lot with it moving forward. While I was at camp, I had time to work out and my personal trainer, Elias Karros, who flew in from Chicago to work with me so it was not as if I was being idle.
The week in London also gave me chance to spend time at home with my mum Martha and enjoy some Sudanese home cooking and I also did some work with my sponsor, Nike. I attended a London streetball tournament called Midnight Madness, made an appearance at Nike Town in London and reopened a basketball court in a park near my home in South Norwood. That meant a lot to me because I spent a lot of my childhood in that park, mostly playing football. A couple of years before I left for high school in the States at 14, they put hoops up and it was nice to go back and reopen it. Even better, I got to meet a childhood hero of mine, Ian Wright, a legendary footballer who played for Arsenal, the team I supported as a kid.
Over the past couple of years I've become friendly with a few Arsenal players. A lot of Premiership soccer players in England love the NBA these days and, when I first moved to England, soccer was my sport.
I don't like to boast … but I was pretty good! It was one of my dreams to play soccer for England. But all of a sudden I started shooting hoops and basketball made more sense. With my friends at school, we played football so much. I never played with a real ball until we came to England, I had never even SEEN a real soccer match until we got here. Growing up in the Sudan and Egypt, we played with a tennis ball -- if we were lucky -- and we used rocks and bags for goalposts. So when we got to England and I started playing with a real ball, I was scoring with every touch. The goals looked so big to me and the ball was so much bigger and easier to control.
I know you're talking about different levels of soccer and I have no idea where I would be if I had kept playing soccer. Instead, I started to play basketball, loved it and got the chance to go to high school at Blair Academy in New Jersey. After that, on I went. It's amazing. I'm living a dream right now. The Bulls were always my team when I was younger. I had Michael Jordan posters on my wall like every other kid -- now I'm playing for the Bulls.
It was a strange feeling appearing at Nike Town this week because they had put up a window display with my picture all over the place. When I was a kid, I used to go into the store and gaze at the pictures and all the stuff I couldn't afford to buy, and now here I am with my photo in every storefront window.
In fact, there were a couple of things like that that really hit me on this trip. I'm not so aware of it when I'm in Chicago, but coming back to where I was brought up was different. I went back to Brixton, where I first learned the game, to catch up with my old coach Jimmy Rogers and talk to some of his kids, and seeing my poster at the bus stop where I used to stand was the weirdest feeling.
When we were kids, we searched all over for posters of MJ or Kobe or Shaq, anyone we could find who might inspire us. That wasn't easy in Britain. Now, I'm stood outside the bus stop, next to the KFC where we all used to hang out as kids, and Nike has a huge Zoom Air poster of me hanging there. That's when it hit me what has happened to me in a few short years.
At the end of the week, the guys came back from Croatia and I met them in Crawley, a town near Gatwick Airport outside London. We had two friendly games against Ireland and you could really tell that our team was coming together, improving on a daily basis. I think the guys had a tough time in Croatia, with injuries and me not being there, but we beat the Irish easily both nights.
These were also my first games playing for GB on home soil. In fact, they were the first competitive games I'd played in Britain since before I went to Duke. The facilities were modest, the crowds were small -- 300, I would guess -- but it gave me a great feeling of pride to pull on the GB uni. It's a privilege to play for your country. It doesn't really matter what level it is or what the sport is, when you're playing for your country there's just that great feeling of pride.
Birmingham, England and Mons, Belgium (Aug. 19-25)
We moved on to Birmingham for our first group game, against Slovakia and I didn't know what to expect. We watched a lot of tape and scouted them and we stuck to our game plan. It worked and I felt pretty comfortable. It was also nice to play in front of British fans. They gave me a loud cheer when my name was introduced and, even though the crowd wasn't huge (maybe 3,000) it made a decent noise.
A few of this year's guys didn't play on the team last year and GB went 2-2 in group play. That meant that to be certain of being one of the four teams to qualify for the promotion playoffs we knew we would have to go undefeated. There was no margin for error so this was a pretty good start.
Coach Finch certainly never lets us lose sight of what we need to do. I haven't played for a different coach for a long time … since Coach K, I guess. Chris is a really good coach. We prepare well for the teams we play. The way we've been beating teams, there might have been a danger of us relaxing, but he has done a great job of keeping us focused. We have good bigs inside and use them well and the plays we run suit the personnel well. But the real key has been our defense, even in practice we have focused so much on defense. It's been a great experience playing for him.
After the Slovakia game we had a week before our next game in Holland so we headed over to Belgium, where Chris is coach at a club called Mons, for another week's camp at their facilities. Belgium was interesting because in the south of the country, where we were, they speak French. That gave me the chance to practice French, which I've been learning online this summer. My sister lives in France, so I want to be able to speak to my nephews and nieces in their own language. I had also obviously got in some practice when I was in Paris where I also got the chance to use my Arabic.
This isn't the NBA
Mons, Belgium; Almere, Holland; and Edinburgh, Scotland (Aug. 26-Sept. 1)
The Dutch were coming on strong, with the San Antonio Spurs center Francisco Elson playing well for them, and they were in a three-way tie at the top of the group with us and Belarus when we went there. We made short drive from Belgium to Holland in a couple of hours the day before the game and stayed in a pretty modest hotel about an hour outside Amsterdam.
The facilities weren't great there. For example, the gym was about a mile from our hotel and the Dutch Federation transported us there on a golf cart! A lot of reporters in England have asked me about traveling around and staying in modest places when I'm used to an NBA lifestyle. I tell them, I'm not high maintenance like that. There have been times when it has been a little … different! Some things have been a bit strange but you've got to get used to them, that's how basketball is in parts of Europe. Remember, I played for England junior teams and things were a lot worse than this. British Performance Basketball runs this team and things have really improved, they look after the guys pretty well.
But it's human nature. You get a little bit spoiled and you get used to it. I've had three years in the NBA and a year at Duke, where they treat the players like the NBA. You get used to that kind of lifestyle. You come back and little things hit you … like trying to find a good seat on the plane and planning out how to get first to the check-in desk.
A lot of our flights have been on budget airlines, there are no NBA charters over here, and that's led to some entertaining battles with our two big men, Archibald and Andy Betts, to try and get the best seats on every flight. I have long legs so even though the guys are taller than me, I've got an edge. The idea is to get to the front of the line first to get the exit row as quickly as you can and these guys have it down to a fine art.
The first flight, I was tricked into being a little too cool. I sauntered up, hoping I'd get the exit row then I saw Betts taking off. Since then, every time, I've followed Bettsy as closely as possible and beaten him in a sprint to the front. These guys spend hours plotting their tactics though -- such as where they put their bags on the team bus and what position they get off the bus. There are maybe four exit rows, which means you're fighting for 12 places. According to our calculations, we need to be first or second in the race to the line to have a chance of getting one.
As for the game, we got to Holland and caught a break when we heard Elson was not playing because he had broken a bone in his face in a game against Belarus the week before. Without him, the Dutch were a lot weaker. We didn't play well but we still won by 19.
After the game, I went out for dinner in Amsterdam with my close friend and agent -- Josh Nochimson, who has been with me for most of the trip -- and some people from Nike's European HQ, which is based here. In fact, the Nike folks entertained all the guys at their place, which helped break up a fairly long week.
We flew back to Edinburgh in Scotland for our next game against Albania, which was the last-place team in our group. This was my first visit to one of the world's great cities. There is a huge castle on a mountain in the middle of the downtown area and one of my favorite movies is "Braveheart," so I was joking with the guys before the game how I could picture myself standing on the hill like Mel Gibson in that movie!
The game with Albania was weird. They played a very different style of basketball. It was more perimeter-oriented and those guys made some tough shots! They didn't post-up at all, I don't think they even ran plays, a lot of times they were just moving. But they never stopped running, we were chasing them around all night.
Even more weird, before the game they were staying in the same hotel and one of them came up knocked on my door and asked for an autograph. Before I knew it, I was standing there taking pictures with all their guys, signing autographs and talking with them about the NBA. Actually, it was pretty cool! Then after the game, a few of their guys were asking for my jersey. It was nice … but a little strange.
Playing in Edinburgh was a huge occasion for our big guy, Archibald. Him and Andy Betts are the jokers on our team, every team needs these kind of guys and they're very popular. So we all wanted Rob to have a big game because it was the first time he had played back in Scotland since he left 10 years earlier. I told him before the game that with our height advantage, I was going to be looking for him all night and I tried to do that. Rob led all scorers with 21 points.
After the Albania win we were given Sunday off but I had a crazy day, which summed up what my summer has been like. I caught a 6 a.m. flight to London to appear in the NBA Madness event at the new O2 Arena. It was the first time I have seen the arena though, hopefully, I'll be back there in 2012 playing for GB in the Olympics. It's an amazing facility to have in England, just like the Staples Center, maybe nicer and I know the Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves will l
ove it when they play an exhibition there next month. I just wish the Bulls were playing there as well.
We left the O2 to catch an Arsenal game -- they beat Portsmouth 3-1, I'm happy to say -- at their Emirates Stadium home and then I was on the plane home that evening for practice on Monday morning.
'I've given in to temptation'
Edinburgh, Scotland; Minsk, Belarus; London; and Sheffield, England (Sept. 2-8)
We knew Belarus was a must-win game for both teams -- whoever won, won the group and advanced to the playoffs -- so I really wanted to have my best game against them. In the first two minutes I picked up two fouls -- I disagreed with both calls -- so that gave me an idea what the game was going to be like. We were going to have to be patient. We didn't want this to be a close game, you never know what can happen in close games on the road in Europe, and after a slow first half, our defense stepped up in the second half and we won easily.
It was another strange feeling playing in front of nearly 4,000 fans. At first, they were booing me, a couple of them were behind our bench shouting stuff and I thought it could be hostile. After a while, as we started pulling away from them, the fans started to turn. I made a couple of plays, one a steal and a breakaway dunk, and they were cheering for US! I really appreciated that and it definitely shows the exposure that the NBA gets around the globe now.
In Belgium, we had kids coming running up to the bus and asking for autographs. In Minsk, reporters were waiting for us at the airport and, after the game, I did interviews for TV station in Belarus. Here, in Switzerland -- where I'm writing this after our final game of the summer -- I checked into the hotel, picked up the local paper in the lobby and there was a picture of me on the back page. We all know basketball is a global game but all that still amazes me.
I actually enjoyed Minsk. We stayed in a nice, Western-style hotel on the edge of town. They even had a small gym there where I could lift to warm down after we won the game. And after such a big win, most of the guys went out and explored town a little. I even ventured into a McDonald's while we were there. During the season, I never eat fast food but I must admit when we've been on the road a couple of times this summer and the hotel food has been … different … I've given in to temptation.
Sheffield and Geneva, Switzerland (Sept. 9-15)
Winning in Belarus means we played Switzerland in a two-legged playoff to decide which team is promoted to the A Division and that meant playing against my Bulls teammate Thabo Sefolosha.
I have done an increasing amount of media appearances here in England and the attention has been good for the sport, no doubt about it. But at times it has been hard. A lot of times, reporters here are asking questions to just learn the basics about the sport and why I'm playing for GB. I'm answering the same questions again and again, which can get frustrating.
In the US, it's different. Reporters understand basketball and they just want to talk about the game we've just played or the game that's coming up. But I understand where the British reporters are coming from, and I bet David Beckham is going through the same stuff in the States right now.
I've been asked a lot here about Beckham and that's fine. The way I see it, we're both trying to raise our games' profile but the purpose is kind of different. I grew up here, I'm coming back home and playing for our national team. If basketball was big here, it wouldn't be a big deal. But the fact is basketball is a growing sport so that's where the questions about Beckham come in. Whether people here are paying attention to basketball or not, I'd still be playing for my national team.
I also had fun last week on a TV show called Soccer AM. They have a live studio audience cheering and booing like at a soccer match and I got a big cheer when I corrected one of the presenters who said "soccer" instead of "football." You don't do that in England.
I'm getting recognized a little bit more than before -- although it's definitely not like Chicago. I get recognized a lot more in Croydon (the big town next to where I live) than anywhere else, probably because I went to school there. And I got recognized the day after I had been on Soccer AM but it's still nice sometimes not to be recognized when you're out.
On Tuesday, we played Switzerland and, although I was glad to be able to meet up with Thabo, I was disappointed because I would have liked to see both of us promoted to the A Division of EuroBasket. I enjoyed seeing him, playing against him and I guess I have bragging rights when we get back to Chicago this week.
The first half in Sheffield was a little bit too close but in the second half I wanted us to come out and build a lead somewhere around 20, that was the goal. When we got over 20, I told the guys to keep going and make the lead as comfortable as we could for the second leg. I wanted to step up my own level as best I could, and I think I did that.
The crowd was pretty small for the game, around 500, and another question reporters always ask me is how I motivate myself when we're used to playing in front of nearly 20,000 in the NBA. Honestly, it's not an issue motivating myself in front of small crowds. I never notice the crowd. I like the fans in Chicago and I obviously hear them cheering but when you get into the game you just lock into that for 48, or 40, minutes. Nothing really matters for that time, except the game.
Winning by 33 meant we were going to be comfortable in the return game in Geneva. On a personal note, playing in Geneva where the United Nations is based gave me the chance to meet some people from the "Nine Million.org" charity. It's a UN charity that promotes sport and education to the 9 million children around the world who are refugees like I was, so it means a lot to me.
As for the game, our coach told us to make sure we started strong to kill the game off and we did that, eventually winning the game by 11 for an aggregate win -- the combined score of both games -- of 44.
And that was it. After seven long weeks, we achieved the goal we set out to achieve when we started -- promotion to the A Division of Europe and the chance to qualify for EuroBasket 2009. It's a great feeling.
Back to the Bulls
Chicago (Sept. 16)
The day after the game and a celebration, I said good-bye to the guys and headed off straight to Chicago to start getting ready for the NBA season.
I have had pretty good contact with the Bulls. I spoke with coach Scott Skiles before I left and he wished me luck with GB. Then I have been in regular e-mail contact with our GM John Paxson and assistant Ron Adams. I like where I'm at, I feel good with this organization and love the city. I know when I go back there will be lots of questions about my contract talks with the Bulls but, honestly, I'm not even thinking about that. I know if I continue to work hard and reach new levels that one day I'll have a new contract in Chicago.
I'm really driven by this thought. When I get back to Chicago, I don't want a single writer to be able to say, "The summer was hard on him, playing for GB did something negative to him." This is all positive for me, the attention I've been under, the position I've been put in on this team. It's something I haven't been in before. After the last season I had in Chicago, this is something that is really going to help me. Maturity-wise, even though I've considered myself pretty mature, this summer is going to help me.
If you want to be a superstar or a great player in the NBA, then you've got to do that -- step up your game when it's on the line in the final period. I don't mind doing that. I think we've got a lot of good players on the Bulls, but a lot of us are pretty young, we're all coming up together. Sooner or later, somebody is going to have to step up as we get older and wiser. When I get back to the NBA it's something I'm going to focus on. I want to sit down with our coaches, talk to them about it, watch tape with them and learn as much as I can from them. I want to step up and take over big games.
A lot of teams have got better in the Eastern Conference this summer and I think we will be better too. A lot of the same guys are coming back and then comes the maturity factor. With this being my fourth year in the league, and the core of our team being together that long, I feel my confidence and the Bulls' confidence is building all the time.