Luol Deng leaves a powerful Bulls legacy


Jan 7

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It’s a sad day for Bulls fans.

Yes, plenty of them wanted Luol Deng traded once Derrick Rose was hurt and out for the season with the possibility of a championship lost, Deng a free agent and possibly leaving after the season for a better contract or weather. Plenty of fans wanted a shot at a young player in the upcoming draft, projected to be one of the best in the last decade.

It’s understandable and from a pure business sense perhaps justifiable.

After all, Deng was with the Bulls almost 10 years and what did the team have to show for it? One appearance in the Eastern Conference finals for five games, the only time the team was out of the second round. You can move on from that.

"He was a true ambassador for the game and a player for whom fans could root and feel proud," writes Smith of Deng. "He deserves to be favorably remembered and celebrated among the best the game produces and what is right about sports."

“He was a true ambassador for the game and a player for whom fans could root and feel proud,” writes Smith of Deng. “He deserves to be favorably remembered and celebrated among the best the game produces and what is right about sports.”

But you don’t move on from people and players like Luol Deng very often. And you are fortunate as an NBA team to come across someone like Luol Deng. He may not be remembered most fondly in team history, certainly not like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen of the six-time champions. And likely not even like Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier and Chet Walker and Bob Love and Tom Boerwinkle of the first great Bulls band of the early franchise years.

But Deng should always be remembered proudly as someone who gave every bit of what he had for the team, was a model citizen and someone who made you feel proud to watch and enjoy the NBA, a classy competitor who got as much out of his natural ability as maybe anyone who ever played for the Bulls.

Deng joined only Jordan, Pippen, Boerwinkle and Sloan playing a 10th season for the Bulls. He recently passed Sloan for fourth on the team’s alltime scoring list. Typical of who Deng was and perhaps how much he was taken for granted, there was little note of it or to be long remembered.

Deng also has played the fourth most amount of minutes for the franchise behind Jordan, Pippen and Sloan, all of whose jerseys have been retired, and Deng ends up among top 10 franchise leaders in 10 other categories, including steals, blocks, rebounds and three pointers. This season was Deng’s eighth consecutive opening day start, two behind alltime leader Sloan. And Deng was one of just 10 players in franchise history to play for more than one All-Star team. He was one of a dozen to be on an all-defensive team and was the only player in franchise history to win the league’s sportsmanship award.

He leaves one of the great legacies in team history.

And his legacy to humanity transcends that and keeps on.

Deng, a refugee from Sudan who grew up in England, played for the Great Britain Olympic basketball team and has been the Bulls regular representative in the NBA’s Basketball without Borders program that brings the game around the world and provides international help. Deng with his foundation travels the world in the summer doing clinics and charitable work. Even in recent days in Chicago he was awarding fans prizes for contributions to his work with Chicago food pantries. No one among the Bulls has ever been a more community and worldwide involved citizen. He’s been honored by the United Nations, the league’s community assist award and the Bulls Lubin award for community service.

Though it’s been a star crossed career for Deng with the Bulls.

One of the nation’s highest ranked prep prospects, he attended Duke University for one season and then was drafted by the Suns in a draft day deal for the Bulls. But perhaps as a signal of the career ambivalence he endured with the Bulls, the Bulls at the time were making the deal to trade the pick to the Pacers for Al Harrington. The Pacers backed out of the deal at the last minute. So the Bulls used their pick, No. 3, for Ben Gordon and Deng was taken No. 7.

Coming in to play for Scott Skiles as a rookie, Deng had an awakening with Skiles’ direct style. He also tore a wrist ligament late in the season and sat out the 2005 playoffs, a harbinger for future springs.

A serious minded worker, though quiet, Deng missed just four games and was a top reserve, averaging 14.3 per game and 10.2 in the playoff loss to Miami.

But there were always the questions. He wasn’t particularly athletic, not the strong one-on-one type player who finished strong at the basket with highlight plays. He was a worker, a plodder, sort of like he lived his life, enduring and making the best of it with hard work and optimism. He needed a good team around him because he was an unselfish player along with an inventive coach to take advantage of his abilities to work off the ball. He played a bit upright and didn’t have a long distance shot. But he defended hard at 6-9 and could find ways to score.

Skiles found those ways to help him and Deng blossomed into one of the top small forwards in the league in 2006-07, averaging 18.8 points. He then averaged 22 points in the playoffs that featured the upset sweep of defending champion Miami. He seemed on the verge of stardom. So much so that when possibilities developed about a trade for Memphis’s Pau Gasol, the Bulls were reluctant to part with Deng. The most reluctant was said to be managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf, who was the biggest champion of Deng in the organization. Later when Kobe Bryant asked the Lakers to trade him and mentioned the Bulls as his preferred destination, the Bulls were told by Bryant’s representatives that Bryant would not accept a deal to the Bulls if Deng were traded for him.

Deng’s average fell to 17 points the next season as the Bulls missed the playoffs and Skiles was fired while Deng suffered through contract extension issues with the team. Both he and Gordon rejected initial team offers and it seemed to affect them that season. But the fall from the playoffs resulted in the Bulls getting Derrick Rose in the draft. The Bulls chose to make a bigger offer to Deng; Gordon was insulted and would leave as a free agent.

But Deng would suffer several injuries in Rose’s rookie season and eventually miss the last 22 games and the playoffs with a stress fracture.

Deng returned determined to overcome questions about his health and willingness to play, which were whispered and hurt him dearly. He averaged 17.6 points and a career high 7.3 rebounds in 70 games, though the Bulls would lose to the Cavs and LeBron James in the first round.

Questions always swirled about Deng: Was he good enough to win with? Especially now that he didn’t seem to fit with coach Vinny Del Negro’s system.

But Deng put his head down to work again, playing all 82 games in 2010-11 for new coach Tom Thibodeau, who quickly grew to admire Deng’s game and attitude and often labeled him the “glue” that kept the team together. Deng remained the Bulls’ irreplaceable player to defend James and counter him with enough scoring that James could not swing the game. The Bulls would win the majority of their games against Miami in the regular season with Deng that season making the winning plays in the final Bulls regular season win in Miami.

Though not a great outside shooter and attempting just seven threes all season in 2007, Deng worked to become one of the team’s most prolific three point shooters the last three years and shooting a commendable 35 percent on the long ball.

When the Bulls led the league in wins in Thibodeau’s first season, Deng averaged 17.4 points per game. But he played in every game and was third in the league in minutes played. In the shortened 2011-12 season, he suffered a severe left wrist injury again. But he taped it and played through it all season and through that disappointing first round loss when Derrick Rose was injured. Deng had a pair of game winning shots that season and while often questioned early in his career as a player who disappeared late in games, Deng became a go to scorer. Similarly last season with a game winner in Toronto and leading the team in double figure scoring games. And this season Deng was leading the team in scoring even amidst all the talk about being traded and whether he would or should get a new contract.

He continued to perform and play and the community continued to profit from his presence. He was a true ambassador for the game and a player for whom fans could root and feel proud. He deserves to be favorably remembered and celebrated among the best the game produces and what is right about sports.

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