JOHANNESBURG – The NBA Africa Game has provided a welcome distraction for Luol Deng.
It’s not been an easy year for the 14 year veteran and the past few weeks have only added to the drama around him as his current team the Los Angeles Lakers have made some significant signings - none more so than that of Lebron James - leaving Deng to wonder even more what the future holds for him.
Deng is one of sport’s truly good guys; he’s used natural talents to reach the pinnacle of his profession and at the same time has shone a spotlight on numerous social causes not just in the country of his birth South Sudan, but also the country where he and his parents sought refuge England, where he supports a number of charities.
When the NBA agreed to bring an exhibition game to the African continent, Deng was at the top of the list of superstars around which publicity for the event was built. Four years after the first NBA Africa Game, Deng is no longer the name on the billboards - the honour now rests with Joel Embiid - but Deng’s impact is still significant.
“A lot of people deserve credit for the growth of the Africa Game, Amadou (Gallo Fall, the MD for NBA Africa) has done a great job, as has the NBA just for putting the game together and then South Africa deserves a lot of credit for hosting and making people feel comfortable coming here,” said Deng a two-time All Star who’s played for four different teams in his time in the NBA.
The impact he and the other players have on the youngsters they train with at the Basketball Without Borders camp which the NBA is hosting in Johannesburg this week, is not lost on them either.
“For these kids when they meet us, see our sense of humour, they realise we are just like them and they start believing. That’s why you see more kids from BWB making it to the NBA.”
The Africa Game has been an important conclusion at the end of the week and part of Saturday’s festivities includes a couple of ‘All Star’ games involving the best players at the camps as curtain-raisers to the main event.
Deng echoed Embiid’s opinion this week, about treating Saturday’s game against Team World as an exhibition event.
“I’ll tell you how it works; it starts off cool, everyone trying to look good, just feel out the game, then one guy starts scoring, the next goes ‘yo, this guy has come to play.’ Then you start going at, the one guy gets it going, you see the score and come the fourth quarter you start realising ‘I want to win this game. I ran, I jumped, I put in the cardio, I put in the miles, the minutes, I might as well get out of here as a winner.’ Then it gets competitive.”
The game will also provide Deng with an opportunity to remind the Lakers - whose General Manager Rob Pelinka is also in the country as part of Team World’s management group - or any other teams, that he still has a lot of value to add.
“I don’t know (where I fit in at the Lakers) I went with what they wanted,” said Deng who only played in the opening game of the 2017/18 season.
“There has been a lot of talk. Me not playing was not my call. This is an organisational decision. People can say whatever they want to say I respected what they were telling me. Throughout the year I tried to play and every time they said they wanted to play the young guys, so that’s their direction.”
The Lakers then signed James, the best player in the world to a four year deal two weeks ago, which has cast more doubt about what the future may hold for 33 year old Deng, who still has two more seasons to run on a $72-million contract in LA.
“I don’t know what’s going on now, hopefully soon I will know, I would like to know the answers.
“I know the level I can play at and the decision is something they came up with, whatever the criticism or the plan is, none of it was my decision, people need to understand that. They can say whatever they want, I know I can play the game, they see me at practice every day. If it was a game thing then come out and say it, but the honest truth, it’s the decision they made.
“I want to play, I want to be a part of something. But I’m not going to be a part of a place where you don’t believe in me. I’m not trying to knock down anybody, but I play for people who believe in me.
I’ve taken every opportunity since day one and proven myself, I’m not going to sit here and give you the right answer, I’m going to be honest about it, for me, if the respect and appreciation is not there then I’d rather be elsewhere.”
The NBA Africa Game will take place at the Sun Arena in Tshwane on Saturday. Tip off is at 5pm.
Tickets are available at computicket.com.