NEW YORK—Luol Deng wasn’t a participant in the Bulls’ 95-78 Christmas Day victory over the Nets at the Barclays Center because of a left Achilles’ injury, a reoccurring ailment that’s cost him the team’s last two games, in addition to four contests when he initially incurred it earlier this month.
While his focus remains with his rehabilitation process—more on that later—and the Bulls’ season, Deng also has another issue on his mind: South Sudan.
Born in the young nation, when it was just Sudan before it became an independent state in 2011, Deng keeps close ties to his homeland, which is currently in the midst of conflict, which the All-Star small forward can better explain, as well as offer his opinion on a solution to the issue.
“It’s really unfortunate, what’s going on. I think our leaders have got to come together and settle their differences. I think with the civil war, the thing that’s being said or being passed around—obviously it’s a civil war—but it’s between two different tribes. What people have got to understand is in South Sudan, there’s more than two tribes. There’s a lot of tribes and we have no problems between tribes. These are two leaders who have their differences and they are being followed by their tribesmen, who are supporting them, so when they clash against each other, it is seen as if it’s two different tribes fighting,” he explained to CSNChicago.com. “But it just happens to be the president [Salva Kiir] is Dinka and the vice president [Riek Machar], who was fired, is Nuer, which is the second-largest after Dinka, and his troops or his rebels—whatever you want to call them—the majority of them are Nuer because that’s who follows him. The majority of who follows the president are Dinkas. Those two are fighting, those two leaders need to get together and settle their differences, and stop killing innocent people who have nothing to do with their situation. That’s what good leaders are supposed to do. You’re not supposed to just think about yourself, you’re supposed to think about the others. The other thing is we are a brand-new country that’s very rich in resources, and we could use that to better our lives and better the children in our country. But right now, we are not looking at that and everyone is just looking at controlling the country. To me, we need to do something to stop that and this is the first time I’ve spoke out, and there’s many reasons why I haven’t spoken out, but I wish the leaders could come together and settle their differences.”
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To fill in the blanks a bit--though anybody interested in learning more should do some research or at least peruse the international news--Kiir recently accused Machar of attempting a coup, according to reports, and conflict between the two sides have evolved to the point where United Nations have gotten involved. This space isn’t the appropriate place to delve into the issues in South Sudan on an in-depth basis, but understanding a little more about Deng’s on- and off-court motivation, based on his background, certainly is relevant.
“If you know me and you know where I came from, I don’t need money in order to enjoy life. That’s not me at all. What pushes me from the start is to be the best that I can be at this game. I’m a competitor,” Deng said. “I want to prove that kids who have been through what I’ve been through and kids who have been refugees, been homeless for years, the fact that if you give them an opportunity, they can become somebody and that’s really what I want to carry on my shoulders. The fact that there are so many kids in so many countries that won’t take kids in as refugees or give them asylum and take them in as war kids because they fear that they would just be in bad neighborhoods and become bad for the country or create problems. For me to do what I’m trying to do, in order to be successful in athletics and after that, wherever my career takes me, I want to prove that if you give a kid the chance, they could do something special, no matter what they’ve been through and that’s what matters to me.”
Now, back to what most Bulls fans care about: Deng’s Achilles’ injury. While not at all linked to the ongoing situation in his homeland, it should be understood that the two-time All-Star small forward has a unique perspective when it comes to injuries at the moment, given both his status as the NBA’s back-to-back minutes-per-game leader and what he’s dealt with over his 10-year career, from the leg fracture that kept him out of the Bulls’ epic 2009 first-round playoff series against Boston, to last spring’s spinal tap in the middle of the team’s postseason matchup with Brooklyn, coincidentally their opponent on Christmas Day this season.
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“Honestly, what I’ve learned in the past is—and this is my 10th year, and I learned it even a little better last year; I was better at it last year—for me, if I know I can play without further damage, I will play. But the dumbest thing you can do—and it’s also kind of selfish—is coming out, playing, knowing that you’re getting worse and you just keep pushing it,” he explained. “All of a sudden, you’re not performing at a level that’s helping your team and then you miss a longer period of time, where you’re out for a month, instead of what could have been a week. With this injury, the first thing I did was, as soon as it happened, I tried to push myself and I realized that this wasn’t getting any better, so I gave it some time and I came back.
“I played two or three games, I think, and I felt like, ‘I’m going to miss more. This is not going away,’ so I sat down and I said, ‘Look, whether they like to hear it or not, the truth is, this is not going to help the team because all of a sudden, my performance is not going to help us and I’m going to miss a longer period,” Deng went on to say. “I know right now that we’re going through rough times, but I’ve learned in the past that the last 30 games of the season, whoever’s the healthiest, you’re giving yourself a better chance to win and we’ve seen that with a lot of teams, even San Antonio. You’re not winning the championship if you’re hurt at the end of the year. You can win the championship if you’re at the beginning of the year and that’s really how I think about it now. I want to win in the regular season, but I want to win the whole thing.”
That isn’t to say that Deng will be out for an extended period of time—he could be back in the Bulls’ lineup as soon as Saturday’s home game against Dallas—but he will take a more measured approach to recovery from injuries moving forward. How that ties into what’s happening in South Sudan is tenuous at best, but whether it’s injuries or politics abroad, talking on the record and not in generalities about topics likely to stir public opinion should be commended, something voiced by the people around Deng daily.
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“Lu’s my favorite teammate. I love playing with him. He’s a team guy. He’s all about winning and off the court, he’s always positive, a positive guy, somebody who does great things in Africa and somebody that I really look up to, in terms of what he does off the court, he’s somebody who understands that it’s bigger than basketball and making money. It’s about giving a helping hand, helping those in need and I think that as African players, he’s the ultimate role model and I consider Lu like a brother,” Bulls’ All-Star center Joakim Noah, himself a person concerned with matters in the world completely separate from basketball, told CSNChicago.com. “Since I’ve been in the league, somebody that I’m always learning from, always asking for advice when it comes to recovery. He’s kind of a nerd when it comes to that stuff. Just oxygen tanks, just stretching. He’s on top of his game. He’s somebody who’s always trying to learn new things, in terms of trying to get better and I think as you get older, sometimes people kind of get comfortable and Lu’s not like that. He always wants more. He always wants to get better and he always wants to win, so to me, he’s my favorite teammate.
Even Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, a more worldly person than the caricature that’s widely painted, agreed that Deng’s pursuits away from the game are something to be admired.
He’s so well-rounded and he’s such a good person. He’s involved in our community, but he’s obviously involved in a lot of other communities,” Thibodeau told CSNChicago.com. “Just the way he handles himself, I have a lot of respect for him and the things he’s already overcome in his life speaks volumes as to who he is and the character that he has.”