LONDON – This not being a basketball place, perhaps England didn't understand what Luol Deng did in his first Olympic home basketball game on Sunday night.
The 7,563 who filled about two-thirds of the temporary basketball arena cheered politely when their native NBA superstar was introduced.
They murmured with mild enthusiasm as Deng fought his way through the two and three Russian players who surrounded him whenever he got the ball.
And they barely noticed when with some 40 seconds left in what would be a 20-point Russian blowout of England, Deng rumbled into a burly Russian player forcing two free throws in what had long turned into a meaningless game.
"If I'm out there I'm out there," Deng said after the game. "I can't play to the score. It's irrelevant if we were up 20 or down 20, I got to take what I see. I've got to keep playing."
The Chicago Bulls star forward should not be at these Olympics. The ligaments in his left wrist are damaged. The Bulls think the injury is bad enough that Deng should have surgery. They wanted him to have the operation at season's end so he would be ready for all of next season. He also has a sore back. And this is a concern to the Bulls as well. By playing in these Olympics he could ruin his career and perhaps even Chicago's coming season.
Great Britain's basketball federation had to take out an insurance policy on Deng in the Olympics just so the Bulls would let him play. Several British media outlets have reported the cost of that policy to be 300,000 pounds, which is roughly $472,000. Because basketball is not an important sport in England, the basketball federation does not have a great deal of money. A 300,000-pound insurance premium is a lot. The head of Britain's federation thought long and hard about spending that much money before finally deciding to accept the bill.
And when Deng crashes into a Russian player with 40 seconds left in a 20-point loss, an insurance policy might be necessary.
If only the people for whom Deng is playing could appreciate what he is doing. For those inside the basketball arena on Sunday, the ferocity with which Deng played was as foreign as a great table tennis player's performance would be to most Americans. Again and again Deng found himself trapped between the arms and bodies of Russian giants. Again and again he tried to shove through those arms and bodies in a vain hope of getting to the basket or drawing a foul.
The fact Deng scored 26 points is something of a miracle. The English basketball team is not very good. Its second-best player is probably forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who starred at George Washington University several years ago until injuries kept him from much of an NBA career. Against the aggressive Russian defense, the British looked barely capable of getting the ball up the court at times.
So obvious was Deng's battle to do something that one British writer later asked England coach Chris Finch if Deng was trying to do too much.
"We ask Luol to do a lot for us," Finch said.
There's really little in this for Deng. Except for a raging desire to play basketball for a country he believes saved his family when it had to escape his native Sudan when he was a child. England welcomed the Dengs when others would not. They found a good life in a London suburb of Brixton. He has never forgotten it. When talking about his childhood recently, he said his family never felt the need to leave Great Britain. No place was going to seem better.
On Sunday he didn't complain about fouls that were not called. He didn't ask out of a game in which he played all but one minute, five seconds. He didn't demand to be treated like a NBA star doing the home country a favor.
Instead this is what he said:
"It's an experience that can never be taken away from me."
Then later he said:
"Hopefully kids are out there playing basketball and they are out there watching."
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If they were, they would have seen a magnificent basketball performance from a man who tried to carry his country and yet could only take it so far. They would have seen a player broken who is angering his NBA team and risking next season to play with players he grew up playing with around London.
For him that means more. What price can you put on that?
"Yeah, he gives everything he has for this team," said Great Britain assistant coach Nick Nurse. "He's a tremendous leader. He's been A-plus every day."
The sad part is how much that seemed lost on a crowd that seemed more interested in the halftime dancing show and the announcer who moved around the arena imploring everyone to do the wave and shout: "This is Britain."
For several minutes before the game the public-address announcer explained the rules of basketball, detailing the point values of 2- and 3-point shots, as well as describing fouls and free throws. His words seemed lost on the throng.
What he should have said was this:
Watch Luol Deng, he's breaking himself to pieces for you.
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