DEERFIELD, Ill. — In his first formal media appearance following the Bulls’ April 29 Game 5 loss at Brooklyn, All-Star small forward Luol Deng addressed his ongoing health situation. Starting with the flu and went on to include spinal tap and blood patch procedures as well as multiple hospital emergency-room visits.
Coughing before he spoke to show that he still maintained his dry sense of humor, Deng appeared physically weak revealing that he’s lost 15 pounds during the process. And while he said he’ll try to return to the Bulls’ lineup during the ongoing Eastern Conference semifinals, the prospect of him playing doesn’t seem likely, at the present time.
“I tried to shoot a little bit and I struggled. I couldn’t do it. We’ll see,” he said after the Bulls’ practice Thursday afternoon at the Berto Center. “I want to play, but I don’t know what I can do. I haven’t done anything. It really sucks.
“It’s really my first day out of the house and out of the hospital. I haven’t really left my bed much or done much,” the NBA’s back-to-back minutes-per-game leader added. “I’m weak and I have headaches; when I’m moving around a lot, my headache increases. That’s really the main thing.”
Deng went on to recount exactly what happened when he first reported being sick to the Bulls’ medical staff.
“It all started with I wasn’t feeling well. I guess I had the flu. But my symptoms were really bad when I went to the hospital. They wanted to make sure I didn’t have meningitis, which I’m thankful for. They wanted to make sure. I did the spinal tap and after that, I just didn’t respond well. I started having severe headaches, was struggling to walk. I started feeling really weak. I started throwing up, constant diarrhea. I couldn’t control my body really. Because of that, I lost a lot of weight. And still just trying to get back, just trying to get right. I still don’t feel right,” he explained.
“It was scary. I’ve never been through anything like that my whole life. It was scary for me, scary for everyone that was around me. I’ve never seen anything like that. I never knew of a spinal tap before that. I didn’t know the reaction or the side effects of it, so I was really scared.”
In addition, Deng also underwent a second procedure to recuperate from the spinal tap.
“When you get a spinal tap, a lot of times, when they go in, your body doesn’t automatically heal by itself, so what they try to do is a blood patch,” said Deng, who now sounds like a halfway credible medical expert. “They take your own blood and try to go back through the same hole to try to close it up.
“What happened with me was my white blood cells were so high that I had to stay in the hospital for almost a day and a half, until my white blood cell count came back down to be able to go through the procedure,” continued the native of South Sudan. “Since I did, I’ve been feeling a little bit better.
“Your body’s got to make the fluid back up. I’m doing everything I can. I’m staying hydrated. The biggest thing is really eating. Got to try to get my appetite and try to eat as much as I can.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau also discussed Deng’s situation from a more clinical perspective.
“Still day-to-day, he’s feeling a little bit better, we’ll see [Friday],” the coach said. “We just watched film and walked through, so he was able to watch film.
“I’m not going to speculate [on when Deng will return], we’ll see where he is [Friday], see if he can do the shootaround,” he continued. “Initially he had the flu or flu-like symptoms, whatever you want to call it, and then he had complications from the spinal tap; so a combination of the two.’’
Deng also commented on the string of messages from his Twitter in which he explained his ordeal.
“I just felt like everyone kept saying I was missing the game because of the flu and I’ve been here for nine years. I’ve played games with the flu. I’ve come to the media and said, ‘I’ve had the flu.’ I don’t think the flu would make me miss a game. I might not play well, I might not play the minutes I play, but even if I had the flu, I would sit on the bench. It kind of bothered me a little bit that that’s what was being said when I had a totally different thing. It wasn’t just the flu,” he said.
“I just wanted people to know that I wasn’t missing the game because of the flu. I had a lot of people wishing me well, which I appreciate, but the bottom line was I just wanted people to know that I wasn’t at home, on my couch, just relaxing, watching the game. That wasn’t the case at all.”
While recovering, Deng has been watching the Bulls from Chicago and as one can imagine, it’s been an emotional roller-coaster for him.
“It’s hard man. We’ve had a long season. I’ve played with a lot of injuries. I’ve gone through the torn ligament in the wrist. I had a fractured thumb earlier this year. I played with it. I went through all that to be able to play,” he said. “I didn’t think something besides an injury would keep me out. And that’s what makes it really hard. I don’t know what you can do.”
Still, he’s been pleased with the Bulls’ success without him, as they advanced to the second round by beating the Nets for the franchise’s first-ever Game 7 road win, then beating Miami for a series-opening second-round victory, though he was disappointed in Wednesday night’s Game 2 loss.
“I’m not surprised. I’m proud and so happy. We always play hard and practice hard. We’ve been saying that all year. Guys are playing together. It’s fun to watch. Seeing them do it together is the main thing, seeing a team. Watching is obviously a lot harder when you’re not there. But I’m just seeing my teammates out there playing hard and fighting together,” said Deng, the longest-tenured Bulls player, unequivocally one of the team’s leaders and a generally calming influence.
“I thought we let [Game 2] get away a little bit. I think we played well until about three or something minutes left in the second quarter and we reacted a little bit to the calls that were going on, on the floor and they were at home. Sometimes the crowd gets under your skin. We’ve got to do a better job of that, but it’s a series and we did a good job with taking one there. That’s the main thing, I think. Right now, we’ve got great fans at home. We’ve just got to focus on one game at a time. We’ve got to focus on the game tomorrow night and then the game after that. Just take it a game at a time, but I think we’re in a good position right now.”
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He’s taken particular pride in the play of his protégé and de facto replacement, Jimmy Butler, who played a Deng-like 48 minutes in three consecutive games in his mentor’s absence.
“Jimmy’s just going to keep on getting better. He’s improved so much in one year and even so much from last year, and he will be even better next year,” he said. “In this year, you just try to find out what you can do and I think Jimmy’s starting to find out how good of a defender he can be. His shot is starting to look better, but he can finish around the rim. He’s just got to be more consistent with it, but I expect him to get better.”
Missing out on those types of playoff experiences are tough for Deng and obviously, he’d love to be back on the court as soon as possible, but with a serious medical concern, as opposed to a basic basketball-related injury, things remain uncertain.
“As soon as I can,” said Deng of his timetable to play again. “I just don’t know. I really don’t know. We’ll see how it goes.”