By Katie Gornall*
Luol Deng lets out a weary sigh. We’re sitting in the plush surroundings of the Miami Heat Arena and I’ve just asked the 6ft 9in small forward about British basketball’s Olympic legacy.
It’s the reaction of a man who cares deeply about the sport back home, but doesn’t know where to start.
Four years ago, Britain’s greatest player was preparing to lead Team GB at London 2012.
He spoke then about wanting to inspire the next generation, and give young players hope that they could follow his path to the top.
Then UK Sport slashed basketball’s funding on the basis that the national team failed to progress from their group.
The 30-year-old could not even play in the qualifying campaign for this year’s EuroBasket tournament because there was no money to insure him.
Feeling underfunded and undervalued, Team GB failed to qualify for the Rio Games and Deng admits he doesn’t know if he’ll ever pull on a British vest again.
“I may not,” he admits. “I really don’t know. I would love to, but at this point I really don’t know where we are going. I don’t know what direction we are trying to take.
“I felt that during the Olympics, we’ve done so much to try and inspire people and we worked so hard, but I felt that nobody had our back.
“We went from not really having a basketball team to being in the Olympics playing Spain, which has maybe eight or seven NBA players.
“Here we are competing with them to the last minute and we don’t win.
“Everything went downhill from there, but I really thought that we gave everything and dedicated everything.”
‘Talented kids aren’t getting the support they need’
For years, Deng has been Britain’s basketball pioneer. This is his 12th season in the NBA and he remains the only British player to have played on the All-star team made up of the league’s best players.
According to the latest figures from Sport England, 12,400 fewer people are playing basketball than in 2012.
So does Deng think the authorities are failing?
“I really believe so,” he says. “I think that it starts with the attention towards basketball… it’s not there.
“At a young age, the kids are working hard and playing, but it gets to a level where, after the age of 16 even 17, kids don’t know what to do.
“Basketball could be another outlet which gives these kids a future and give these kids a dream and something to go after.
“There’s a lot of kids that are so talented, but they don’t have the support that they need.”
|Luol Deng in numbers|
|Career statistics||NBA (12 seasons)||Great Britain|
|Points||12,005 (15.7 per game)||900 (21.4 per game)|
|Rebounds||4,713 (6.1)||287 (6.8)|
|Assists||1,828 (2.4)||148 (3.5)|
‘The UK saved my family’s life’
British basketball is undergoing a restructure and will be under new leadership in 2016, when the FA’s former chief operating officer, Nick Humby, takes charge.
He faces a significant challenge to take the sport to the next level and make it more competitive.
The majority of the country’s professional BBL clubs do have a youth set-up, but most young players still go through the US college system if they want to make it.
That was the path that Deng took to NBA stardom with, first the Chicago Bulls and now the Miami Heat.
He had some journey to get there. He was born in South Sudan, raised in Egypt and then South Norwood in London as a refugee, before moving to the United States as a teenager.
“To be a refugee growing up, I never knew where I would end up or where my family would end up,” he says. “I looked at it as the UK did save my family’s life.”
His life as been described as “inspirational” by one of his biggest fans, US President Barack Obama.
It certainly gives Deng a unique perspective on the current refugee crisis.
“I’m glad I’m not a president because there’s a lot of people that would be against me for letting everyone in to the country,” he says.
“But I have the heart for those kind of things because I know it takes your pride away, but is something that you have to do to make sure that your family is safe.
“If you’re not a refugee or you haven’t been or seen what’s going on, it’s very hard for people to relate and understand.
“A lot of people are always against people coming into the country illegally and the thing that I always say is nobody wants to really leave their home.”
Returning after injury
Deng’s team-mate, 11-time NBA all-star Dwayne Wade, describes him as “a champion in life”, but the Heat’s number nine is humble.
This is his second season with the franchise and he’s just returned to the line-up after a spell out with injury.
“I’m known for my defence so, in this team, with having the role I have, I have to be in top shape, trying to score for the team and guarding the guy that’s going to shoot the most shots on the other team,” he says.
“I think we’ve got a great team. It’s going to take a lot, but this is one of the years where I’m very excited for because I really believe that we have an opportunity [to win the division].”
In the summer, he’ll return to London to see family and visit his basketball school of excellence in Brixton.
For now, Britain’s greatest player continues to forge a lone path at the top, while also trying to help a sport back home that he thinks has been left to fight for itself.