Chicago’s Luol Deng — an Arsenal supporter since a young age, apparently, profiled by the Independent’s Brian Viner.
Deng sounds as American as Michael Jordan yet considers himself as British as Michael Atherton. The Bulls’ No 9 jersey is his, but an even more precious possession is his British passport.
“I just got it,” he tells me, with a smile that on a dark winter’s night could light up the south side of Chicago. “I played for the English national team while I was growing up, and I was even a spokesman for London’s Olympic bid, but I didn’t get the passport until a few weeks ago.”
Deng’s background explains why he so cherishes a simple document. He was born into an affluent family in Sudan, where his father, Aldo, was a prominent politician who had served as minister of irrigation (so important in Sudan that it gets its own ministry), of transport, of culture, and as deputy prime minister. But in 1989 the government was overthrown and sharia law imposed. Aldo Deng, a member of the Christian and mainly southern Sudanese Dinka tribe, was imprisoned for three months, then released and given the unenviable job of conciliating the Christian south and the Muslim north. Fearing for his family’s well-being if he failed, Aldo packed them off to Alexandria in Egypt. Luol, the eighth of nine siblings, was four years old.
In Egypt, the family’s comfortable lifestyle changed dramatically. While Aldo remained in Khartoum, they had to rely on the charity of the local Catholic church. But it was another benefactor with whom the lives of several of the children became entwined.
Manute Bol, who played for the Philadelphia 76ers and Washington Bullets in a 10-year NBA career notable mainly for his astounding height, even by American basketball standards, of 7ft 7in, was on holiday in Alexandria when he saw some of the Deng kids throwing a ball around, and took them under his considerable wing. Bol was a fellow Dinka, a tribe which, as you’ll have worked out, tends to produce prodigiously tall people. In due course he would stoop to light the touchpaper under Luol Deng’s NBA career.
But the family’s next move was to England. In 1993, with Sudan ravaged by civil war, Aldo arrived in London claiming political asylum. It was granted, and he arranged for his wife and children to join him.
Deng spoke scarcely a word of English when he started at primary school. At home he spoke a hybrid of Arabic and Dinka; at school he said hardly anything. But by the time he enrolled at St Mary’s high school in Croydon his English was fine, and in the language of the playground – football – he was fluent.
“I was pretty good,” he says. “I really thought I was going to be a footballer. I loved football and I loved Arsenal from day one. I had all the posters of Ian Wright, but I never went to Highbury. I couldn’t afford a ticket, and I was worried about the violence and all that. For a time we lived in Norwood Junction close to Crystal Palace’s stadium, and sometimes I’d come home from school and see a bunch of guys, like, smashing a phone booth or whatever. When you’re young these things worry you. I decided I’d be better watching on TV.”