Bulls and Luol Deng staring each other down with smiles


Jan 22

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Luol Deng is in a good place.

Yes, yes, it’s Cleveland and we know Joakim Noah doesn’t vacation there and the lake no longer is on fire—actually, it’s frozen like in Chicago—and they can’t win in football and baseball and LeBron left and there’s a new Roosevelt book out and they’re making fat jokes about Ohio’s Taft again. But forget all that. Lu’s in love with Cleveland and Cleveland is in love with Lu.

“It’s been great,” Deng was saying after Cavaliers shootaround Wednesday afternoon before facing his former Bulls teammates for the first time. “I’m still looking for a (living) spot, so I’ve been around. Eating at different places.

"It’s a great group of guys," said Deng of his new teammates. "They’ve got a lot to learn, but it’s a lot of talent here. It’s just learning how to finish games, putting wins together and I’ve been on teams that were very similar to this. We had to learn how to win and become who we are now."

“It’s a great group of guys,” said Deng of his new teammates. “They’ve got a lot to learn, but it’s a lot of talent here. It’s just learning how to finish games, putting wins together and I’ve been on teams that were very similar to this. We had to learn how to win and become who we are now.”

“It’s crazy,” said Deng, smiling and joking with reporters through about 15 minutes of questions and banter. “I’m 28 and I’m like one of the old guys here. So it’s weird. But it’s a role that I’m really comfortable with. It gives you confidence that the guys want you to lead and they believe in you. It’s a great group of guys. They’ve got a lot to learn, but it’s a lot of talent here. It’s just learning how to finish games, putting wins together and I’ve been on teams that were very similar to this. We had to learn how to win and become who we are now.

“Very similar to the ‘Baby Bulls,’” Deng said of his group with Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon who cracked up against 50 wins and got to the second round of the playoffs but not beyond under Scott Skiles. “Now it’s the old Bulls, I guess. I see some things and try to help the guys out. A lot of stuff that matters to you when you’re young and as you get older, you realize if you knew that earlier, it would have helped you a lot more. So I’m just trying to let the guys know from experience. It’s been great. It’s been really great. And it takes me back to how much I’ve learned because I’ve been there. And it’s really strange because sometimes you don’t realize how much you’ve learned and then coming here, and some of the stuff they’re doing and you’re trying to help them out. You just realize you made that transition without even realizing.”

Reporters traveling with the team were raving about Deng for his openness and cooperation, saying they’d never seen a player like that. Cavs staffers were busting about having such a savvy veteran around as well as the players and coaching staff.

How long no one knows since Deng is a free agent and the Cavs still have that line out there dangling in the free agent ocean still hoping against hope to reel back James, the very big one they lost. And Deng just happens to occupy the same position. And there’s this kid, point guard Kyrie Irving who is expected Thursday to be named an Eastern Conference starter for the NBA All-Star Game.

So for now it’s just what’s ahead, day by day as Deng learned well under Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, get the wins, hopefully make the playoffs and who knows.

A return to Chicago as a free agent?

“I don’t know. Maybe they will offer me three years, $30 million,” Deng said with a laugh about that last Bulls offer that led to his trade to the Cavs. “That might be an option to take. I don’t know, it might be.”

But Deng wasn’t appearing the least bit angry or bitter. That’s not him.

“I have nothing against (anyone),” Deng said. “What happened, happened. I love Chicago. I’ve been there 10 years. There’s no bad blood or anything. What happened, happened. It is what it is. But for me to sit here and say, ‘I’m taking Chicago out of the equation,’ that’s stupid. I was there for 10 years.”

It really was a terrific 10 years for Deng and the Bulls, tough viewed in the prism of today’s win-or-nothing sports because there always was supposed to be something more. Perhaps Deng just wasn’t good enough or didn’t add enough or that it was time to move on. Deng keeps his own counsel on the internal workings of the franchise and his role within.

But here is a player who will be among the all-time leaders in Bulls franchise history.

Only Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen played more full seasons with the team. Deng ranks in the franchise’s top 10 in minutes and games played, points, field goals, threes, free throws, rebounding, steals and blocks. He’s made two All-Star teams and an all-defensive team. But he only led the team in scoring once and never in the other major statistical categories. Which maybe was part of the issue, being Ringo or George instead of Paul or John. But you don’t get the same band sound with someone like Lu.

“I’m definitely going to miss them throughout the years to come, but it’s nothing to be emotional about,” Deng said about playing his former buddies and teammates after dining with Noah Tuesday night. “It’ll be good to see the guys, good to see the coaches. Those guys have really helped me a lot with my game. Not only the players, but also the coaches. The hours we’ve spent together working and everything. So it’ll be strange, something that I’ve never done before. I’m not used to it. I haven’t been traded that many times. This is the first time really. So I don’t know how it’s going to be.

“Yeah, (Thibodeau) might yell at me. I might have a bad defensive stance or turn the ball over or something and he’ll start yelling at me,” laughed Deng. “So we’ll see how it goes.”

"It was always about how good can I be? How good can I be in this system? How much better can I get? I wanted to get better every year to show everybody how much I work on my game and that was always my mindset," said Deng.

“It was always about how good can I be? How good can I be in this system? How much better can I get? I wanted to get better every year to show everybody how much I work on my game and that was always my mindset,” said Deng.

But Deng grew serious talking about some times he cherished in his decade as a Bulls player and Chicagoan.

“There’s ups and downs,” Deng agreed. “My best memory is having that winning season (2010-11) and playing under Thibs and making the All-Star Game and having the Africa T-shirt (during All-Star introductions), just showing the whole world what I really cared about. I had the opportunity to have a great season and be in a position to uplift and let people know where I’m from and just put Africa on the map. I think that was my best and biggest moment. And making the All-Star team for the fans in Chicago after what I’ve been through and with the injuries and being doubted and everything. And I think that has a lot to do with Thibs and the coaching staff. Definitely Griff (assistant Adrian Griffin). I worked with him every year since Thibs has been there.

“To me, I’ve been through a lot in my life and when I’m challenged on the court basketball wise, to me, that’s nothing,” said Deng, a refugee from South Sudan who settled in England. “I’ve been through bigger challenges and it’s nothing to me but coming into the gym at night and shooting jumpers. And I really believe when you’re struggling, at some point, if you’re a hard worker, you’re going to turn it around, and obviously being healthy.

“I think when I had the fracture and it was said not to be a fracture. It was said whatever the injury was, I just wanted to sit down and watch games. But to me, that was my lowest point in Chicago,” said Deng about the time before the 2009 playoffs when there were questions about a tibia stress fracture he suffered. “And then having to decide whether I was going to have the surgery or not. And I chose twice not to have the surgery and it worked out pretty well for me. I just worked hard and I just believed in myself and worked on my game. But I really believe Thibs’ system gave me a lot to show. At the time, I think Vinny (Del Negro) was the coach. If I stayed at the system at the time, I think my results wouldn’t have been the same and that’s not saying anything bad about Vinny’s system at all. It’s just Thibs’ system fit me a lot better and just gave me a chance, not only offensively, but just to show everyone how hard I played both ends of the court.

“The fans in Chicago appreciated me,” said Deng. “But I think after you’re there for a while,you know that Luol Deng is playing every night or he’s on the team. So fans and media, whoever, seem to focus on other things. I think right now, because I just got here, everything that I do is kind of out in the open. So it’s kind of what everyone’s talking about and everything. So that’s why there’s so much attention towards it right now. But once you’re in one place for a while, guys are kind of expecting the same thing.”

Deng was a player you perhaps could forget about. He led the team in scoring just once. He never averaged 20 points. He hadn’t been an All-Star after seven seasons. He missed 21 games as a rookie, 19 in 2007-08, 33 in that next season with the stress fracture including the famous playoff series with the Celtics with the four overtime games and 12 the following season. Plus, Deng’s not an expressive, demonstrative person. He didn’t go to reporters to complain, didn’t question openly. His feelings could be hurt. So he’d withdraw at times. But if he could play he did, and perhaps because he didn’t do highlight dunks and always quietly took on the most difficult defensive assignment without question it often went unnoticed.

Though not from Thibodeau.

Thibodeau at the Bulls shootaround went through all the attendance issues, Kirk Hinrich back in Chicago with a hamstring injury that Thibodeau said could mean a week out, Carlos Boozer out against the Cavs and day-to-day with a calf injury. But Thibodeau was emotional in his own way about Deng.

“He embodied all the things that we certainly value,” said Thibodeau. “Hard work, smart play, played for the team, unselfish. Those things go a long way. The one thing I liked about him is you could count on him every game. You knew what you were going to get. You’re never going to out compete him. We know what a fierce competitor he is and we know what he’s going to try and do and we want to do the same things to him. We want to go after him, and then after the game we’ll exchange pleasantries.

“He was a great leader because of the things he did on the floor,” added Thibodeau. “The way he practiced, the way he played, the way he competed, and to me a lot of guys say all the right things and do none of them. He was probably the opposite. When he spoke people listened because he didn’t just talk to talk. His actions were the great leadership each and every day, and he did it year round. The way he took care of his body, the way he stayed in great shape. That says everything you need to know about him. The type of person he is, I think you guys all know the things that he’s gone through, the goodness in him. He did a lot in the community in Chicago, and everywhere for that matter. That’s just who he is. And he’s not one of those guys that did it for attention. He did it because it was the right thing to do.”

Deng moves on, but he also roots for the Bulls in his own way because he can’t help it. For one thing it’s on his phone.

“I have the app, the NBA app and my home team was the Bulls and I’ve been trying to change it,” laughed Deng. “I don’t know how to. It’s really annoying when you get updates about the Bulls on your phone. So I’m trying to change getting all these Joakim Noah double-double updates. I’m trying to get rid of that.”

But Deng also roots to see Derrick Rose return.

“I spoke to Derrick,” Deng said. “I’m glad to see him. I love that kid. He works so hard and I really believe that, whatever his mission is, a person who went through what he’s gone through and then come back, then do something special, I really believe he could. That’s his story now and he has a chance to make something really amazing out of it, and I think he will. I’m not a negative guy. I don’t want to say negative things. I still really believed that we could do it (in Chicago). I really believed that with Derrick coming back, you’re still young enough. It’s not as if we were at the end of our career and there’s teams like San Antonio, who sometimes guys have been hurt, whether it’s (Tony) Parker, (Manu) Ginobili or whoever and they still believe in their core, even today. And I think sometimes you’ve got to do that. You’ve got to become an organization that believes in your guys. It’s a lot of things that you could have changed there and I’m not just saying I’m a bad change or anything. But it’s a lot of things over there that could have been changed and you’ve got to look at that.

“My career is exactly what it is,” says Deng. “I never really expected anything. I didn’t come out trying to be a certain type of guys. I just wanted to be a solid player, be the best I could be in the NBA and try to really adjust to whatever system I’m playing in. It was never about trying to be a certain way or trying to do certain things. It was always about how good can I be? How good can I be in this system? How much better can I get? I wanted to get better every year to show everybody how much I work on my game and that was always my mindset.”

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