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Two Bulls lead their respective nations' international hopes

SHEFFIELD, England -- Their NBA peers may not believe them when Luol Deng and Thabo Sefolosha swap locker room stories about their summer of international basketball, but playing for your country is not all about the Las Vegas Wynn, stretch limos and high-stakes poker games.

Take Tuesday night, for example.

The pair of Chicago Bulls, close friends and neighbors as well as teammates, squared off on opposite teams in the first leg of a European Championships B Division promotion game in front of 500 spectators in the northern English steel town of Sheffield (remember the 1997 Oscar-winning movie "The Full Monty"? THAT is Sheffield).

It was hard to imagine a setting farther removed from the United Center -- or even the Eurobasket tournament currently going on in Spain -- as Deng's Great Britain and Sefolosha's Switzerland met in an inner-city "leisure centre" famed mostly for hosting international swimming galas and for staging the first fights in the career of local lad and former WBO world featherweight champion "Prince" Naseem Hamed.

Not that the modest surroundings made for an easy night for either player. At stake was not only promotion to the A Division of the European Championship (which allows a nation to enter the qualifying tournament for the 2009 Euros in Poland) but also a year's worth of bragging rights in the United Center locker room.

The winner -- by a knockout blow that "Prince Naz" would have been proud of -- Luol Deng.

His line: 31 points, 12 boards, 4 assists and 3 steals. Sefolosha: 21 points, 9 boards and 5 fouls (fouling out in international ball).

More importantly, in a tie that will be decided by aggregate score over the two games or "legs," Great Britain won by a 74-41 score line that looked like the sort of winning margin the U.S. was amassing in between those trips to the casinos in Vegas this summer.

"This isn't over, you can't say that," Deng said. "But obviously we want to finish off a great summer in style so we need to concentrate on the job in hand.

"I couldn't get into my rhythm in the first half and I found that a bit frustrating but I think we showed how good we can be in the second half and we put ourselves in a great position.

"We have all worked so hard for the last seven weeks with one goal in mind and now we're one game from it, it's a good feeling."

It will be an especially good feeling for the Brits to secure victory because FIBA has declared that for Great Britain to take a place in the 2012 London Olympics, it must be playing in the A Division of the European Championships. A win on Saturday in the return leg in Geneva -- or even a defeat by 32 points or fewer -- and the Brits will be in the A Division and can start planning for their second-ever Olympic appearance, their first since the 1948 London Games.

And while there have been huge supporting efforts from former Memphis Grizzlies forward Robert Archibald and Andy Betts, drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in 1998, that success has a lot to do with the sacrifice made by Deng.

"I've been more than pleased with Luol," said Great Britain coach Chris Finch, an American who has spent his career coaching in England and Germany and is currently with Belgian club Mons. "He is everything you could ask for, not only from a player, but from a star player. He leads by example, effort, attitude and is a total team player. He just wants to win.

"I had several conversations and meetings with Luol last year so I felt comfortable with him coming in. He's always said the right things, privately and publicly. But I know we're lucky. I know the majority of players at his level are not exactly Luol Dengs in terms of being model citizens!"

Deng, born in the Sudan but raised in London after his family sought political asylum in the wake of civil war in their homeland, only received his British passport last October.

But he instantly made it known to Finch that he was committed to the British program. That meant reporting to training camp at the IMG facility in Bradenton, Fla., in late July and putting himself through a grueling series of warm-up games and practices around Europe before group play opened at the start of the month.

In return for his seven weeks' service, the 22-year-old Bulls forward has been paid around £90 ($180) a day … and shared hotel rooms with a variety of teammates.

The new organizing body in charge of Finch's team -- British Performance Basketball -- has done a fabulous job of looking after the British players in a manner never before seen in this football, sorry, soccer-obsessed nation. But for road games, Great Britain is in the hands of the often cash-starved host federation.

In Almere, Holland, that meant Deng sharing a room in a $90-a-night motel on a trading estate and being "driven" the two miles to the Dutch gym in a golf cart.

In Minsk, Belarus, where the Brits won their final deciding group game 83-51 (Deng: 27 points, 7 steals) last week, the Brits were billeted in the Hotel Victoria, the best hotel in the entire former Soviet republic but still, at $140 a night, not the Wynn!

All of that sacrifice and effort has been boiled down to these two games with Sefolosha and the Swiss and there was little doubt that the pair was acutely aware of the intensely personal nature of the GB-Swiss duel. Deng sat the first five minutes of the second period, comfortably his longest rest of the summer, after picking up two first-quarter fouls … both on Sefolosha. Soon after Deng's return, Sefolosha collected his second after Deng put him off balance with an outrageous pump fake that drew the "and one."

The final seconds of the half summed up the mano a mano nature of the contest. Deng tried to wrong-foot Sefolosha at half court, only to have the ball stripped by Sefolosha who, in turn, promptly gave the ball up to GB guard Mike Lenzly, whose breakaway layup made the halftime score 32-18 in favor of the Brits.

Thankfully for the fans in the 1,000-seat arena, Deng calmed himself after the interval and allowed his far superior supporting cast to have its influence on the game and, as he has done in the four previous competitive games and victories this summer, he took complete control when he was needed most. His 13 points in a 23-8 third period included a long 3 as the shot clock expired and an alley-oop dunk from Nate Reinking's pass. Meanwhile, Sefolosha was collecting a fourth foul and heading to watch the rout from the Swiss bench.

"It was difficult, they've got a great team, great players," Sefolosha said. "There's not much more you can say after that but it was fun playing against Luol. He knows the game, he doesn't make many mistakes and he's tough to guard. He had a great game tonight but I have to play him again in Geneva on Saturday and hopefully I can stop him and we can get the win.

"But, whatever happens, it has been great playing for Switzerland this summer. We're trying to make something happen in Swiss basketball and it has been a lot of fun.

"Personally, I think I have improved a lot from this summer, gaining confidence, being able to make decisions out there that I don't normally do with the Bulls."

Indeed, while Scott Skiles and Bulls management may be nervous about two players -- especially Deng -- being exposed to this amount of highly competitive ball, the flip side is that the pair will play more minutes and be the main men on their respective teams.

Of course, San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford made the same point about his center Francisco Elson -- who played for Holland in Great Britain's qualifying group -- but saw his player suffer a fractured orbital socket in a game with Belarus.

"I told Thabo before the game that playing international ball is going to help both of us when we go back," Deng said. "We are receiving so much attention, on the court and off it, it is going to help us improve.

"Thabo has a load to carry on that team and he did well to help them win their group and reach this playoff. He is in a situation where he feels he has to carry the team all the time whereas I know we have such good bigs that I come out early in every game looking to get the ball to them."

With players such as former Dallas Mavericks forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Portland Trail Blazers first-round pick Joel Freeland still to join the team -- plus British passport holder Ben Gordon (Chicago Bulls) and London-born Kelenna Azubuike (Golden State Warriors) also being courted by British Performance Basketball -- the 2012 Olympics could prove a landmark event for British basketball and Deng, in particular.

"Overall, Luol can have a huge impact on the Olympic effort, not just the basketball team but the Games in general," said Finch. "From the basketball standpoint, he could impact the sport and our team a lot more than, say, Dirk Nowitzki because basketball was well-established at a high level in Germany before Dirk came along. Here, it is not. He could be an important ambassador for the sport and the London Olympics in general but his chance to do that depends on our collective success between now and then."

For Sefolosha, the concerns are a lot more short-term.

"Luol likes to talk smack," Sefolosha said. "So this probably means he'll be talking smack when we get back to Chicago!"


Ian Whittell covers the NBA for The (London) Times.