Luol Deng says the powers that be in British basketball must capitalise on the Olympic Games or risk blowing the chance of a legacy from 2012.
The Great Britain forward recalls growing up in south London, playing with his friends, wondering why none of their compatriots were starring at the highest level.
“It used to really bother me that we’re not good at basketball. It still does,” he states. And even if Team GB shines at the Games, it may not spark the boom that so many have pinned their hopes on to rescue the sport from anonymity.
The system, he says, is still letting the next generation down.
“You know how many players from France are in the NBA. You look at other European countries as well,” he claims.
“In the UK, there is so much talent. Put in more youth centres. Give it more attention. Basketball is popular when kids are young. As they get playing into high school, at the age of 15, 16, there’s less interest. They don’t see it on TV. There aren’t enough places to play. It’s so hard to find somewhere to go.
“So kids lose interest. They have time on their hands. And a lot could be done with that time to keep them active and out of trouble. I believe that if you want to shift it, there can be things that can be done.”
Success in London would do no harm. Deng has happy recollections of past Olympics, of the Dream Team, of the stars of track and field and elsewhere.
“The Olympics to me isn’t just basketball,” he states. “All the events are exciting. But I always remember the track and field. I don’t know how the events are ranked but I’m guessing it’s the biggest one. But I remember how the talk was about who did this or that on the track.
“Obviously the last couple of Olympics: first the swimming with Phelps, then Usain Bolt with what he’s doing, it brings excitement, But for me it goes back to 1992.”
20 years on, it will be his turn to lead Britain’s own team of dreamers. Little is expected among the public at large. But he will not ruled out a surprise or two. Especially, with Pops Mensah-Bonsu back as his chief running mate.
“It will help a lot,” he says. “I missed Pops a lot last year and we did as a team. When Pops is playing it takes a lot of pressure off me, not only on the court, but leadership wise. He talks to the guys. In the summer, I missed that.”
Chris Finch’s squad have worked hard to get here, over six years of toil on the court and during political scraps off it.
Now, they have arrived, on the biggest stage of all. In the city he still calls home, the next two weeks will be the fulfilment of a dream.
“I can’t wait for the whole experience,” he affirms. “Honestly I want to win. But this is going to be something I don’t forget. You’ll never forget being in an Olympics. I’m looking forward to the experience alone.”
Read an exclusive interview with Luol Deng in the Summer 2012 edition of MVP Magazine – on sale now.
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