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Haugh: Luol Deng’s loyalty to England could hurt him in long run

Published: Monday, May 14, 2012 12:19 p.m. CDT

CHICAGO (MCT) — To know Luol Deng is to respect him.

Forget the Bulls. In Deng’s eight NBA seasons in Chicago, no professional athlete has represented the city or himself with any more class than the Sudanese refugee whose rare sense of social responsibility stems from a powerful personal narrative.

When Deng was 5, as most Bulls fans know, his family fled Sudan to escape a deadly civil war that made hiding under the bed to avoid gunfire an indelible memory. Deng’s father, Aldo, the country’s minister of transportation, found refuge for his nine children in Egypt and, four years later, reunited the family in London after England offered political asylum.

It was on English soil that Deng, a natural soccer player, honed his basketball skills playing alongside boys who would grow up to be teammates on Britain’s national team. It was there that Deng first dared to dream of fulfilling a goal that remains special based on the conviction in his voice late Thursday night in Philadelphia at the Wells Fargo Center.

“Since I was a kid growing up, it’s something I always wanted an opportunity to be part of, (and) the fact that it’s in my hometown in a country that gave me an opportunity to even be here, I’m looking forward to it,” Deng said after the Game 6 loss to the 76ers. “I’m going to play in the Olympics.”

But if Deng indeed plays in the Games, he risks putting his own interests ahead of his employer’s. Will Deng place patriotism rooted in his past ahead of a paycheck that has afforded the lifestyle allowing him to change the future? That would be a bloody shame for the Bulls.

The torn ligament in Deng’s left wrist needs rest and likely surgery. If Deng delays surgery until after the Olympics in mid-August, which he is considering, he could miss the first three months of next season. The Bulls already plan to be without Derrick Rose until at least January because of knee surgery and will need Deng more than ever.

I understand England gave Deng and his family the opportunity of a lifetime. But the Bulls gave Deng generational wealth in 2008 when they signed him to a $71 million contract.

The small fortune has allowed Deng to go around the globe, including back to his homeland that is now the liberated nation of South Sudan, to make a big impact investing in better lives for children everywhere. The role the Bulls have played in helping Deng become an international ambassador of basketball and American athletes’ philanthropy cannot be ignored when weighing a decision that affects their 2012-13 season.

The NBA’s collective-bargaining agreement prohibits teams from offering recommendations about international play, but sources indicate the Bulls will make sure Deng realizes how much they hope he reports to training camp ready to go.

Pressure exists on the other side of the pond too. Basketball still lacks popularity in Britain, but Deng is the sport’s David Beckham there. Local currency in Brixton in South London featured Deng’s face. British coach Chris Finch suggested Deng’s appeal makes him a candidate to carry the country’s flag during opening ceremonies.

A March profile in the Sun reflected that celebrity.

“He is Barack Obama’s favourite athlete, earns more cash than most Premier League footballers and is arguably Britain’s most successful sportsman in the US,” the story began.

“He’s a bit of a hero here,” said Zoe Jewell, editor of the Brixton Blog. “It would be a real shame if he can’t play, but I suppose it’s not life or death.”

No, but it marks the first time England’s basketball team will compete in the Olympics since 1948, and Deng represents “the best player ever produced here by a long shot,” said Jimmy Rogers, a Brixton coaching legend.

Rogers first coached Deng when he was 10 and, interestingly, planned to advise his former prodigy not to ignore his professional obligation.

“I know Luol will play through anything, but he cannot overlook the fact he has to earn a living in the future too,” Rogers said in a phone interview.

Finch, an NBA assistant with the Rockets as his full-time job, grasps the dilemma facing Deng and will honor his organization’s “no-pressure policy.”

“It’s a delicate one,” Finch said. “If he were to call and ask me what to do, I’d tell him the same thing I tell him every summer. It’s his choice. Make the decision that’s best for your life and career.”

Who deserves Deng’s allegiance more, the Bulls or the Brits?

Though complicated, to me one simple question answers another: Who signs his checks?

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