NBA big names back Luol Deng to star for Great Britain
After a weekend in Orlando surrounded by LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and the stellar egos of the NBA, an audience with Luol Deng was a rather more down-to-earth experience.
The 26-year-old became the first Briton to play in the NBA All-Star game on Sunday after proving his class week in, week out with the Chicago Bulls.
But while he might earn around US$12m (£7.5m) a year playing for the Bulls, he remains a softly spoken, intelligent and surprisingly understated man.
- Born in Wau, Sudan (now South Sudan)
- Family fled to Egypt during Sudanese civil war
- Family granted political asylum in UK and moved to Brixton, south London
- Played for England Juniors aged 13
- Moved to the US aged 14 to play basketball at Blair Academy, New Jersey
- Went to Duke University
- Picked by Phoenix Suns in 2004 NBA draft but immediately traded to Chicago Bulls
- Became a naturalised British citizen in 2006
- Made Great Britain debut against Slovakia in 2007
- Signed a six-year contract extension with the Bulls in 2009
- Became the first Briton selected for the NBA All-Star Game in February 2012
A hungry one, too. He was scoffing what looked like a veggie omelette with a few rashers of streaky bacon when I joined him shortly before Sunday's match.
''I'd rather not have that at all,'' he says of the massive legion of PR men and fans that follow the likes of Kobe and LeBron everywhere. He just wants to be a regular guy.
Pushing away his breakfast, he tells me about his first Olympic memories: Watching them as a kid on a fuzzy TV set in an Egyptian cafe; the 1992 US 'Dream Team'; and how he truly believes Great Britain's basketball team can do something special this year.
He thinks they can win a medal.
The only time Deng shows any kind of All-Star ego is when our conversation turns to football. A fanatical Arsenal fan, he's excited to show me the Robin Van Persie-signed Arsenal shirt he's just got. As a kid, football was his first love. In fact, he avoided basketball practice so he could play football.
Any regrets that he followed the path to the NBA and not the EPL?
Apparently not, but during the recent disagreement between team owners and players that saw the first two months of the NBA season suspended, Deng jokes that he thought about training with the Gunners. I suspect he is only half-joking.
''I don't normally boast but I'm really good," he says. "I really believe, honestly, I was good at it. It was my dream to play in the Premier League.''
The All-Star game turns out to be a fleeting experience for Deng, who manages just six minutes of action and fails to score a point before falling on the wrist that has been troubling him for a while.
"It was nothing," he insists afterwards, but it was enough to see the Londoner pulled out of the game as a precaution.
Deng still made his mark on the occasion, however, sporting a black T-shirt carrying an outline of the African continent and drawing attention to it when his name was announced.
He risks a fine from the NBA for violating the dress code for the game, but Deng remained as laid-back on that issue as everything else.
"It was bringing something positive," he says. "There's a lot of negativity going on in the continent of Africa and 10 seconds, whatever it was, on the screen was to bring something positive."
If British basketball is to take something truly positive from the opportunity that the London Olympics presents to make a mark for the sport in the UK, they need their biggest star to be on top form.
Fortunately, the former Brixton Basketball Club player is as motivated for London as a potential championship run with the Bulls.
"I can't wait," says Deng. "It's another opportunity for us to show everyone that we can play basketball with the elite, the best of the best."
One of those he could be up against in London is Chicago team-mate and NBA superstar Derrick Rose, who will be part of a predictably fearsome United States squad.
"Playing against Lu, if we get the opportunity, I know it's going to be crazy," says Rose. "I know the stadium will be crazy because he's huge over there.
"He's a good guy, a great team-mate. He wants to do nothing but win, he's one of the leaders on our team. One of the reasons we're successful this year is the way Lu is playing."
And Miami Heat star James - better known as just LeBron - agrees that Deng gives Great Britain more than just his on-court ability.
"Lu is a great player and I've had the opportunity to go up against him a few times in our play-offs," he says.
"He's a great player but they have a great guy, not just as a basketball player but as a person, to represent their country."