Before the Chicago Bulls and the NBA and its million-watt lights, before the college and the prep school and the Brixton Top Cats, before he had ever held a basketball, there was a very different Luol Deng.

A displaced refugee. A child without a home.

A Lost Boy.

Deng left Sudan when he was aged just five, one of a generation forced into exile by a war that killed many of those who chose to stay, one of a people who sought new lives elsewhere, never to return.

Until this summer, the Great Britain international had never returned from whence he came.

20 years had passed.

He had moved on, first to Egypt, then to London, then to the USA. The ties, however, were unbroken. He felt a constant call from within to go back and acquaint himself at first hand with the land he had been forced to leave behind.

Stepping of the plane in the company of his elder brother Ajou brought conflicting emotions. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he revealed. “I kind of heard stories and had an idea of what it would be like. But I didn’t know how I would take it, or if I was going to remember anything.”

His amnesia was total. “I was hoping something would come up but honestly, there was nothing.” During his week-long stay, the Bulls forward had his eyes opened and his head turned as he re-visited his birthplace in the town of Wau.

Sudan was a world apart from Chicago (NBAE/Getty)

There, he was welcomed back as a local hero. At a school which had been built with funds from his charitable foundation, the adopted Londoner was greeted by enthused young faces, children who had been spared the upheaval he went through at that same impressionable age.

‘I just want you to know that everyone of you guys is capable of being somebody special,’ he told them. ‘Maybe you’ll be the president of this country and one day you’re going to lead us. You’re going to lead us and we’re going to have a great country.’

If going back was a thrill, there were also moments where the nerves kicked in unexpectedly. “I spoke to all the kids in Dinka on the microphone. Then I went on a TV show and did an interview in Arabic which was pretty impressive. I haven’t spoke that in a long time and do it, with a camera in your face, is pretty tough.”

He pulled it off – but only just. ”There were a few words where I was stuck,” he chuckles. “Every now and then, I had to throw the odd English word in.”

Despite the occasional moments which were lost in transition, Deng felt right at home. How could he not? His family had infused him with constant reminders of their past life in Sudan where his father, Aldo, was once a government minister.

“My parents kept us in that culture,” he declares. “Going there, speaking the language, I felt even closer to it.”

The Sudanese celebrate their own. In one youth centre he visited, they had a song written especially for him. ‘The Luol Deng Referendum’ might not yet have appeared on the X-Factor but, according to its subject, “it was really cool.” And there was time too to showcase the skills that have made him celebrated around the world, turning out in a special pick-up game in the colours of the SSBA – the South Sudan Basketball Association.


Deng starred for Great Britain on his return from Sudan

There, he met a team-mate whose impact on Deng’s very existence was deep and prolonged. A fellow member of the Dinka Tribe, he too was 25-years-old, another Lost Boy who had also fled as civil war swept through Sudan.

“He went to Ethiopia when I went to Egypt,” Deng outlines. “I went to London. He went on to Somalia. I went from England to the USA. He went to Kenya. When I went back, he was in a refugee camp.”

All that separated that basketballer, from the same humble origins, was a mere twist of fate.

“We were the same age, he spoke English, he played basketball, and he was pretty talented,” Deng acknowledges. “That stuck out. I’m lucky. So many kids, who are talented, didn’t get the chance I had.”

Already a measured character, the realisation made Deng humbler still. In an age where Premier League footballers scatter money like chip wrappings and where millionaire DJs bemoan a delay in their pay cheques, it is a reminder that privileged athletes sometimes can see beyond their abnormal world into reality.

“I was a refugee and I had nothing and now I own a lot of money and I’m known,” he adds. “Luck has a lot to do with that.”

Better be lucky than good, they say. The Bulls will hope he brings both attributes back as they begin a new NBA season where the expectations are to advance further than Deng has experienced before.

Reinforced by the off-season acquisition of Carlos Boozer, and with the emergence of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah as All Star-level talents, much is being asked of new head coach Tom Thibodeau, fresh from his spell as Doc Rivers lead assistant on a Boston Celtics team which brought a championship back to Beantown.

“I get a good vibe from him,” Deng declares. “And that’s exciting because I do better in a winning system than losing. That might sound bad but when we’ve struggled, I’ve struggled whereas winning brings out the best out of me. I really feel like Coach Thibodeau can make that happen.”

Free of injury, he has set his sights high. Losing is simply not an option. “When we were winning and going to the play-offs, that was my best year,” he states.

“But as a group, it felt special. Being with the GB team every summer, it’s always exciting, not knowing where we’ll end up, starting practice, eating together, spending time. And when you win, there’s nothing better.”

With that call, Deng has his business head back on. Yet inside, he is a changed man. In Sudan, they will cheer him on.

The Lost Boy from before, who found his place in the NBA, a symbol for those left behind of what is possible when fortune falls in your favour and you choose to shine brightly even when the lights go down.

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