(MCT) — CHICAGO —There’s an enduring image of Luol Deng from April 2009.
It’s of the proud and often misunderstood forward slumped in the corner of the visiting locker room at the Boston Garden, his light gray suit matching his mood. He spoke in soft tones before Game 1 of the memorable seven-game first-round playoff series between the Bulls and Celtics.
And with eloquence and emotion, he expressed incredulity at those who questioned him for missing the series with a stress fracture in his right tibia.
“It’s unbelievable hearing people question how tough I am and saying I didn’t want to play,” Deng said that afternoon. “I don’t mind someone saying I’m not good enough. But it hurts me deeply when somebody says you’re faking an injury. That didn’t make sense to me.”
Fast forward to now. The All-Star forward is poised to enter his ninth season with the Bulls, the franchise’s elder statesman and coach Tom Thibodeau’s indispensable part. He will do so with a torn ligament in his left wrist, the same injury he ignored to finish what he felt could be a championship run last season and which he strengthened to represent his adopted homeland at the London Olympics.
With the Bulls’ regular-season opener coming Wednesday, this can’t be said strongly enough: Deng isn’t getting enough credit for what he’s doing.
A player once erroneously labeled as soft is being completely selfless. A player who some mistakenly labeled as brittle is battling. It’s a testament not only to Deng’s skill but his will. And it still too often feels like his decision is being questioned rather than appreciated.
First came whispers that the organization didn’t fully back Deng’s Olympic commitment, a stance that was overstated a bit. Then came opinions from many without a stethoscope or medical degree that Deng should have surgery as soon as his Olympic commitment ended.
All the while, Deng stuck to his plan, listening to a longtime family doctor he trusted and monotonously and repetitively doing strengthening exercises away from the glare. Privately, say those who know him well, the debate over whether Deng should have represented Britain in the Olympics annoyed him.
Nobody can understand the level of appreciation Deng has for the country that granted his family political asylum from war-torn Sudan except Deng and his family. End of discussion.
Deng’s Olympic commitment advanced far beyond basketball. It stretched to repaying an unquantifiable debt Deng gladly accepted as his own creation and into small gyms throughout the country. In the lone gym in Brixton, the rough-and-tumble neighborhood in which Deng found solace through basketball, young children spoke admiringly of what Deng represented to them.
Of the 10 or so I spoke to one July afternoon, not one spoke of Deng’s million-dollar contract or his fame. They spoke of lessons like hard work, commitment and chasing one’s dream. They appreciated Deng’s loyalty to a country where basketball ranks behind even equestrian in popularity.
Deng understood all this. And he embraced the responsibility, speaking long into the night after any game, win or loss, about his story.
Now the story is accepting his role as Thibodeau’s iron man, contributing in all areas if not dominating in any. He earned his All-Star berth last season as much for versatility as anything.
Deng showed no effects of his injury during the preseason and is as excited for his ninth season as he was his first. But he quickly tires when the conversation shifts to his wrist. At this point, what does he have left to prove?
“I still have to be a better leader,” he says.
Persevering through pain and then rehabilitating to the point it disappears would seem to qualify.