As midnight chimed, Luol Deng would not have been anywhere else as gunfire rang out through the night air, accompanying the chorus of horns from every car.

Young men clambered onto their roofs as they passed by, singing songs and chanting in unison, wildly sharing a moment that many never felt would arrive in their lifetime. The party had begun.

History was being made, and shaped. On the Ninth of July 2012, the world’s newest country celebrated its independence. The Republic of South Sudan was born after an almost 30-year labour, one accompanied by a brutal civil war which saw two million people lose their lives and twice that number disappear into exile.

“It was something that I’ve been waiting for my whole life,” admitted the Great Britain and Chicago Bulls forward. “A lot of lives have been lost and they’ve finally got what they fought for. It was very emotional.”

Now aged 26, Deng was displaced as a child, first to Egypt, then to south London, where his family were allowed to settle as political refugees. His father, Aldo, had been Sudan’s Minister of Transportation before being imprisoned following a military coup. Eventually released, he remained in contact with his homeland, offering advice and opening diplomatic channels which might, one day, be of use.

Deng has flourished for GB (Map Photos)

Once a peace agreement was reached in 2005, the movement towards independence gained traction. A referendum was held and passed. Aldo returned to help draw up the nation’s constitution. “It’s based largely on the U.S. one,” his son confirmed. The pride in his father’s work cannot be disguised.

“We’ve been through a lot as a family,” Deng stated. “We moved from country to country, trying to find a better living, until we got to London. Being refugees because of the civil war, it was good to see a step being taken to solve the problem that left so many people homeless.”

They had to travel far from home to forge a better life. In South Sudan, life expectancy remains low with the level of healthcare among the worst in Africa. Deng, through his own Foundation, has injected funds but there is a huge task ahead that will take more than a cheque cut from his NBA salary. Still, he says, there is hope, now that an amicable divorce has been agreed with their brothers to the north.

“There is some conflict between tribes. But we’re OK with that. It’s a lot better than being in a civil war where you’re in the same country but where you can never agree because of the differences. I’d rather not see 12-year-old kids joining the army, or a situation where you have the same national anthem, but you’re fighting against each other.”

Deng’s elder brother Ajou, who played both at the University of Connecticut and Fairfield before a brief professional career, has stayed on to coach basketball as part of the family’s efforts to build a fresh future. He was involved in arranging sports’ contribution to Independence Day, the country’s inaugural international: South Sudan against Uganda.

The loudest cheerleader of them all wore Number 9. On an outdoor court in the capital of Juba, his team lost by one. “Uganda had been together for a while,” he reasoned. “This was South Sudan’s first time together but we had a few kids who are at college in the U.S., talented kids who were really proud to be together, put a uniform and represent South Sudan.”

The fabric bracelet around Deng’s wrist – coloured red, black and green – is his way of representing too, a reminder of where his own remarkable journey began.

Deng and Derrick Rose are sharing All Star duties

South Sudan, including friends and family, will watch from afar this weekend, just as they will in the UK, when he makes his first NBA All Star appearance.

From rags to the company of the ultra-rich, it is confirmation of his incredible ascent.

The adopted Londoner has insisted it is all the sweeter as a rebuttal to those who wondered aloud if he was letting his team down when he sat out part of the 2008-9 season through injury.

Now, let them have no doubt, he says, over his determination to excel to such a stellar level.

“It’s a great honour,” Deng said of being in the annual showpiece, which will be televised on ESPN late on Sunday evening in the UK.

“Honestly, this is very exciting, very humbling. It’s one of those things that’s down to a love of the game. This is my life but basketball is a game I play. Loving it, playing hard, having fun, things like this are going to happen. It’s not something I want to do. I enjoy being with my team-mates, I play, and then you suddenly get a call saying you’re an All Star.”

This year still offers much ahead. The Bulls – with Deng in tandem with Derrick Rose – could make a play-off run, emboldened by their push to last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

Then there is the Olympic Games in Deng’s other home city in July.

Great Britain, he promises, will not be mere wallflowers at their own party.

“We got the Olympics but when we were told we weren’t automatically through, that hurt,” he declared. ”That builds a fire.”

And have no fears about whether he will be on the court in London. The wrist injury which sidelined him last month may eventually require surgery. He hopes not. But it will not, bar an unforeseen twist, keep him from sharing the spotlight with so many of his fellow All Stars at the Games.

“If you ask a lot of players, they’ll have some kind of injury,” he said. “It’s a long season. As long as I have something I can manage and control, I’ll be fine.”

When training camp gets under way in Houston, he plans to be there on Day One. But, as ever, he will listen to his body once the Bulls play-off run ends.

“If the season ends and I’m fatigued, I’d still want to be there,” he declares. “But the more I play basketball, the more I understand the rest part of it. I never used to really rest but as you get older and you understand how important it is.”

You can but wish him well on all fronts. The boy from Africa has come a long way. But the next enthralling leg of the journey may be coming up.

In South Sudan, in the UK, in Chicago, the chorus of approval is ringing ever louder.

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Main pic: NBAE/Getty

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