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The Jerusalem Post: Deng leads British charge on EuroBasket

Chicago Bulls star Luol Deng was only given permission to play for Great Britain in Wednesday’s EuroBasket 2009 qualifier against Israel over the weekend.

But on Tuesday he showed he’s raring to go.

While his Bulls teammate Ben Gordon was left behind as the British team was unable to cover his insurance policy, Deng was called up at the last minute after he too was already thought to have been excluded for the same reason.

“I’m very pleased to be with the team and I look forward playing Israel,” the Sudanese-born forward said a day before the game.

“They will be a strong side as they have a good basketball tradition but one mustn’t forget we went undefeated last summer and because of all that hard work we are here in Division A. Now we hope that we can prove that we belong in this division.”

Deng moved to England with his family in 1994 when he was nine-years-old as one of many Sudanese granted political asylum to escape the civil war in his homeland.

He had already begun playing basketball while he lived in Egypt for a few years as a youngster and soon impressed local coaches in London.

At the age of 13 he played for the English Under-15 team and a year later he won a scholarship to study at a US high school, all of which led him to being drafted by Chicago in 2004.

But despite the years spent in the US, Deng has always pledged sporting allegiance to Britain and is even an ambassador for the 2012 London Olympics.

In October 2006 he became a naturalized British citizen and has played for the British team since August 2007.

Last year, with the help of Deng, Britain won its EuroBasket Division B qualifying group and now has a chance to prove itself as a worthy international team.

Participating and perhaps earning a medal in the 2012 London Olympics is the main goal the highly inexperienced British national Basketball has set for itself, with Wednesday’s game against Israel the first of six Division A matchups to be played over 18 days.

The squad is led by American coach Chris Finch and, while ambitions for are being kept at a modest level, the British players know they mustn’t allow themselves to finish at the bottom of Group D, which would result in relegation to Division B.

“I believe that we have great potential,” Finch told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday afternoon. “We have a very good player roster but if I was to point out our biggest setback then it would have to be in depth. We need to continue to get the players involved so that we can build a consistent roster which would definitely help us improve.”

The Great Britain team was only recently formed from a combination of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland teams and, although basketball is hardly played by youngsters within a nation obsessed with soccer, Finch, who also coaches Belgian team Dexia Mons-Hainaut, said he is attempting to change the way the sport is perceived in the UK.

“We are trying to build a culture,” he said. “Obviously that isn’t an easy task in a country where there is a high level of ignorance concerning our sport in the media and football [soccer] is so dominant. There are many talented players who are born to British nationality but once the talent is recognized move overseas to play college basketball in the US, or move to a different European country.

“Once in a while when the national team is assembled we are left with the task of trying to pull all of these guys from all over the world. That being difficult as it is becomes even more due to the lack of basketball culture in Britain.”

According to Finch, Israel is favorite to finish first in Group D, which also includes Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Czech Republic. The top team in each of the four groups plus the three best second placed sides qualify for next year’s EuroBasket.

“I very much like the way [Israel coach Tzvika] Sherf’s team plays,” Finch said, showing that he has done his homework.

“It is obvious that Tapiro is the engine behind the team and Green is extremely dangerous in the paint but we also know that we can’t just focus on those two because Israel’s main advantage over us is in depth, if we manage to stop a specific player they can just continue bringing in guys. [Omri] Casspi, [Lior] Eliyahu, [Yotam} Halperin and others are just as much as a threat to us.”

Despite the odds, Finch still believes his team has a fair shot of competing in the qualifying round. “Everyone is optimistic, our team has changed a lot for the better recently and we believe that if we are to play with confidence, settle back, control the ball, and not allow the opposition to create easy baskets from our mistakes on the court we can win the game Wednesday night,” he said.


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