Good afternoon fellas, it’s the day after the trade deadline and my favourite man on the planet is still wearing my favourite jersey on the planet. I’m a smiley GodZeller today, here’s why.
To most of you guys, he’s an above average small forward who hasn’t been exactly what you hoped.
To most British people, he’s the country’s highest earning sports star who nobody has ever heard of.
To me, he’s the single biggest hope for Basketball in the UK. By far.
2 weeks ago, in a story that almost definitely missed the 24 hour news blitz that is US Sports, governing body UK Sport made the decision to completely withdraw all funding from British Basketball at its Annual Investment Review of Summer Olympic and Paralympic Sports. The story itself is not a new one; last year’s review produced the same results but the decision was overturned due to mass lobbying and petitioning. However, the decision this year is particularly surprising. Let me explain.
On these shores, there’s been a hell of a media war brewing. Flagship conglomerate British Telecom recently bought the rights to broadcast Champions League games on their brand new channel BT Sport for 900million pounds ($1.5 billion) for 3 years, throwing a huge ‘we’re coming for you’ middle finger to legacy sports broadcaster Sky. Along with acquiring British sporting greats such as Michael Owen, Martina Navratilova and Matt Dawson (A Rugby World Cup winner), they also negotiated an deal to seal the rights to a Premier League game per week, 25 FA Cup games, all UFC events, the Tennis majors, Rugby Premier League, Nascar, MLB and all NCAA mandated sports. However, the most underrated (and best) deal they made was with the NBA, agreeing to show 200 exclusive live games – 7 a week – as well as the All Star Game and the Finals in June. The costs are not 100% confirmed, but it’s widely known to be below £50 million for a number of years, and less than what Sky offered for the same privilege.
Now imagine my reaction. The NBA! On Live TV! In my own home! And for free! Finally, I get to spread the news about the NBA to my friends and show them that dunks and big plays are not a rarity, but the norm!
So I set about on my one man crusade, watching every game that did not coincide with a Cavs game with as many people as I could. The surprising thing is: it worked. People were texting me at 1.30am – "Hey Chris, watching the games tonight? I got Portland", I was getting highlight reels posted on my Facebook wall daily, people were excited. The conversations went from "I support a team called the Cleveland Cavaliers" to "I support the Cle-" "Oh the Cavs, man, that Kyrie is a joke".
(They even advertised it. This is unheard of in the UK.)
Capitalising on the buzz that the NBA causes on its annual visit to London, it finally seemed like the NBA had developed its rightful foothold on the 18-25 male demographic in this country. The best footballers in the premiership turned out en masse to see the Nets batter a hapless Hawks 127-110, and tickets were worth over £250 ($420) in the week before the game. Life was good for a UK NBA fan, especially a hipster I’ve-liked-this-for-years one.
Cut forward just 3 weeks after that game, and BANG! There goes your funding, UK Basketball fans.
The reasons given made sense, but not from a sport point of view:
"While there is a clear understanding now that our investment is based on merit and must be aligned behind our best medal prospects, it doesn't make the decisions any easier and I recognise it is a difficult time for the sports and athletes who have been withdrawn from funding.
"To continue funding sports where the evidence is telling us they cannot win a medal by 2020 would be a high risk strategy that compromises opportunities elsewhere."
I get it. No medals, no funding. A merit based funding scheme is not going to favour a country that has produced 11 top level professionals in its entire history (only 8 were even born in Great Britain), but are we really teaching ‘winning is everything’? Win, or you won’t get to play? How is it that canoeing, fencing, judo, taekwondo, shooting and sailing all get their budgets increased, and a huge global sport such as basketball just gets nothing?
NBA on BT Sport is pulling huge numbers for a 1am sports show, everything has to start somewhere. Look at the level NFL has grown in this country since we started hosting games here, American Football in British universities is one of the most oversubscribed and well-funded sports programmes we have. The kids watching NBA are not going to be able to compete till they get older anyway. It’s a process. The news caused an uproar to the British Basketball community, but the issue remained quelled in the national news outlets. British Basketball's performance chairman Roger Moreland said:
"How can a system abandon a sport where 70 per cent of the participants are under the age of 25 and where around 50 per cent of those that play come from BME [black and minority ethnic] communities?"
"The UK Sport funding system can clearly deliver medals, but it appears to show bias against team and emerging sports. Basketball falls into both categories."
Enter Luol Deng.
By now, I’m sure you all are aware of the struggles Luol went through as a young man in the Sudan. Fleeing the frantic civil war in his home country, Luol was the 8th of 9 children who made the journey to Egypt in hope of refuge. Eventually, he wound up in rainy Brixton, a borough of London more known for knife crime than its basketball team. It was here that his talents shone, eventually playing for England in the European Junior Men's Qualifying Tournament. He averaged 40points and 14 rebounds in this tournament and was named MVP. He was 13 years old. He stayed over here for another year, growing up a huge fan of Arsenal FC (BOOOO) but also of famed Newcastle striker Faustino Asprilla (omgiloveyouluol), before moving to the US at 14.
Cut to 2014, and Luol currently sits at SF for the greatest team in basketball history, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Go back and check the day we traded for him, to say I was excited is an understatement.
(any excuse for a pic of Faustino Asprilla is good enough for me)
To get back on topic: Appalled by the news that the very country that offered him solace at the age of 9 was blocking the progress of the sport that made him a millionaire, Deng took matters into his own hands. Of course, this is not the first time he’s done that. After the 2013 cut, Deng wrote a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron stating:
'We all heard about the "legacy" that London 2012 was going to bring to sport in the UK and I refuse to sit back and let that legacy be completely demolished for basketball.
'I, along with other people involved in the game, have put too much in and care too greatly to let this happen.
'The sport of basketball is a pathway, a pathway that teaches so many valuable lessons on and off the court, how are we supposed to motivate these kids to carry along their journey when there’s now nothing at the end? No Team GB, no Olympic dream, no goal.'
Take that Cameron. I’m sure attaching a picture of his 6’9 self crushing a dunk over some hapless ne’er-do-wells head didn’t hurt either.
This time around, he's gone one step further. Luol Deng has announced the opening of a brand new London-based Deng Academy, launched in partnership with Nike and Reforming Black Britain. Just down the road from where Luol himself grew up, kids can follow the same structured player pathway model as #9, ensuring athletes progress through competing in central venues and national leagues, as well as advance to o
ther Luol Deng Foundation summer projects such as the prestigious Deng Summer Camp. The Academy will also have a scholarship fund to place the most talented kids in US high schools, ready for a shot at the NBA. Professional standard coaches will be employed every day, with academic tutorship also available for children who struggle to get along with mainstream education. Coaching badges can also be earned there, enabling the teachers of the game to progress as the children themselves do.
"This is why launching my first-ever academy in my hometown of Brixton is a huge deal for me. Despite the bad news of the funding cuts, we still have to remain positive and try to keep pushing the sport forward in the UK." - Luol Deng
(heh. spot the NBA player. Pro Tip: He's the one with the muscles)
In a time where our government say ‘Don’t bother playing, just watch the people who are good on TV’, this outlook is more than refreshing. Basketball will never take off in the UK so long as the game remains unplayed, that much is obvious. It’s growing at University level, sure, but there’s a world of difference between 5 hungover fat kids going to the court to at least attempt to play a sport and the finely tuned athletic training rituals drummed into kids from the age of 12 in the USA.
Luol Deng is the biggest star we have ever had in the NBA, by a wide, wide margin. He is the Babe Ruth of Brits in US Sports, he’s John, Paul, George and Ringo, it’s just nobody bloody realises it yet. The fact that no average sport fan really knows who he is speaks more about the subconscious mental attitude of the country towards foreign-born nationals (Think Greg Rusedski vs Tim Henman, Lennox Lewis vs Frank Bruno, Owen Hargreaves vs Steven Gerrard) than the sport of Basketball itself. The people in the know all worship at the altar of Luol. His characteristics of commitment, tirelessness and willingness to improve and sacrifice for his team (whichever it may be) are all notions that UK athletes over any discipline pride themselves on (looking at you Wayne Rooney). If there’s ever a guy that represents UK Athletics and sporting accomplishment, it’s Luol Deng.
The Cavs may only have him for another 2 months (although I wouldn’t be so sure), but I’m English. I’m always going to have Luol.