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Chicago Tribune: Deng is Britain’s money player


Bulls forward costly, but he’s paying off with wins

LIVERPOOL, England – The northern English city of Liverpool has always worshiped its heroes like deities.

Around every corner, it seems, there is a shrine to the timeless genius of the Beatles. The local soccer affections — split evenly between the red of Liverpool and the blue of Everton — are flagged up wherever you might roam, vivid murals painted with the stars of the past and present.

This is not, at least yet, a place where basketball matters a great deal. But Saturday, with Manchester United the rival attraction across town, 2,350 fans (above average in these parts) eased into the city’s recently opened Echo Arena to watch Britain square off with Israel. And to catch a first glimpse in these parts of Bulls forward Luol Deng.

His $71 million deal in Chicago has piqued interest, even among those who are consumed by the ravenous daily diet of English Premier League gossip. Money talks. Even though what matters most is that Deng — following a 96-86 win over the powerhouse Israelis —has led his adopted country to first place in their pool and what, until recently, would have been an impossible-to-believe spot in next summer’s EuroBasket finals in Poland.

“It’s been going well,” Deng said with a smile. “I enjoy playing here. I grew up here. I always envisaged playing for GB. I’m just glad to be living that dream. It’s great to be doing so, especially in front of family and friends who I grew up with.”

But he almost wasn’t here. Deng’s fat contract brought him to the attention of the NBA‘s insurer, MetLife, which, citing the back problem that sidelined him for a spell last season, initially refused to cover him to play international ball. To break the deadlock, British Basketball had to find a reported $390,000 to buy its own policy and satisfy the Bulls that their highest-paid player was fully guaranteed.

Even though it ate a sizable chunk of British Basketball’s annual budget, it was a straightforward decision since Britain doesn’t get an automatic pass to its own Olympics in 2012. A team-high 24 ppg, and a 3-1 record, has justified the outlay.

“I always felt it was going to happen,” he confirmed. “They had the right to do what they did, and they did it. We just had to prove to them that I was healthy. We just had to go through what was necessary.”

If new Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro was here, he’d witness a different Deng than from his NBA persona. More assertive, more vocal.

“One of the issues we have is that you sometimes need to stop the other guys from standing around and just watching Lu,” said GB assistant Nick Nurse, who also coaches the Bulls’ D-League affiliate in Iowa. “We’d gotten some nice schemes going with everyone else when he was back in the States. Suddenly he comes back, and we’re all wondering, ‘Why’s everyone forgetting what we’ve been doing?’ ”

That, he says, was a challenge for everyone involved. But as Deng has proved on both sides of the Atlantic, challenges are not something to be feared for Britain’s hero in the making.


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