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On Luol Deng, and the Unfairness of Controversy

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From turbulence with the Bulls medical staff, to chemistry problems in Cleveland, to the current Hawks fiasco, Luol Deng has dealt with controversy and debate constantly. Sadly, that may overshadow the career of a great player and human being.

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I grew up in Chicago, and naturally, my love of basketball was fostered there as well. I never got truly attached to the hometown Bulls past the age of five or six; years of Eddy Curry and Kirk Hinrich will do that to you. However, there was always one player on the Bulls I enjoyed watching and respected: Luol Deng.

Deng has always been a remarkably consistent player on both ends of the court. Offensively, he's consistently been good for 15-18 points a night. Defensively, he's been a solid rebounder for a small forward and developed into a great perimeter defender. And above all, Deng is like an ox; sturdy, dependable, never flashy, but always willing to accept a huge load for his team. And that's why he's always been endearing to me; he's a guy who is as vital to his team's success as any star would be, but has never been thought of with that designation.

Sunday morning, news broke that the Atlanta Hawks would be sold because of racist remarks from owner Bruce Levenson back in 2012. In the 48 hours or so since that news broke, reports have also indicated that general manager Danny Ferry made some very racist remarks in regards to Deng during the Hawks' courtship of him in free agency this summer. What Ferry is alleged to have said in the meeting regarding Deng is awful. Whether or not the context of the situation sheds light on Ferry's guilt in the matter is to be seen. But amidst all the chaos on the Hawks end, here we are, yet again, with Luol Deng's name thrown into a controversial situation.

Deng's on-court career has been marked by consistency, leadership, and maximal effort. Off the court, it's been marked by derision, controversy, and outright outrageous situations. His early career was fairly clean; if you can count constant scrutiny about not blossoming into a star and constant injury problems as clean in terms of controversy.While the Bulls sat in playoff purgatory, good enough to be a yearly entrant in the playoffs but never good enough to truly compete with a core of Deng, Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon, Deng was often the one who took the most criticism, while Gordon posted the gaudy numbers and Hinrich developed into the fan favorite.

Then came the Tom Thibodeau years, where things seemed great for Deng. He adopted a leadership role on the team, made two All-Star appearances, and had a more than one feature written describing them as the ideal fit of coach and player. That was of course, until Derrick Rose tore an ACL in the 2012 playoffs, and Thibodeau's response was to ride Deng into the ground, with the Bulls' medical staff enabling along the way. Deng led the league in minutes per game in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, and his body was ravaged with nagging injuries that culminated in Spinal Tap-Gate in the 2013 Playoffs. Deng was integral to the exposure of the possible detriments playing the Bulls' style under Thibodeau could have on a player's health.

When the Bulls finally traded Deng last January, it seemed like Deng could finally be out of a controversial situation and just play basketball again. While Deng is no longer a Cavalier, we all know too well how that turned out. Deng actually seemed to be the one player who had Chris Grant's back at the time of his firing, which makes sense; after all, Grant had brought him in to be a focal point for the Cavs, and he was treated as an afterthought offensively and asked to do too much defensively, which seemed to quickly sour him on the team. After Grant was fired, despite the justified reasoning behind it, Deng never seemed fully invested in playing for Cleveland.

Now, with Deng joining the Heat, he's being treated to another controversy, as a player who Ferry referred to as "Still having a little African in him" (But not in a bad way, whatever that is supposed to mean). Deng gets to be a focal member of a circus he didn't ask to be a part of, and all the while has to prepare for the small task of replacing the player who just led the Heat to four straight NBA Finals and two titles in Miami. This Hawks mess probably isn't going away for awhile. That means Deng has to be involved, whether he likes it or not.

It's amazing how a player like Deng could have so much controversy swirling around him constantly. After all, he's widely regarded as a high-character guy who is a great teammate and locker room presence. He's also a great humanitarian, performing relief efforts and great acts of kindness in his newly independent home nation of South Sudan, where he was forced to flee from as a child refugee. Deng's character has a sterling reputation, but he's also strangely been surrounded by terrible situations and circumstances.

It's not like Deng is bringing these situations upon himself, either. He wasn't the one insisting that the Bulls medical staff cover up his spinal tap mishap as "the flu." He didn't ask to be placed into the most toxic locker room in basketball last winter. And he certainly didn't ask to be referred to by horrifically overgeneralized stereotypes about his ethnicity, that probably will and definitely should get multiple people fired. But, here we are. Deng, the dependable and consistent leader, is once again thrown into a mess of terrible circumstances and outright ludicrous human behavior by those around him.

The tragic hero archetype in sport is something that is often overplayed to fit a certain narrative. In Luol Deng's case, however, it's incredibly appropriate. Deng is the admirable protagonist, blessed with incredible talents and incredibly likable leadership qualities and determination. These situations he continually finds himself in are his trials, and whether this Hawks fiasco is the final one, or if there are more that lie in the road ahead, remains to be seen. Regardless, the tragedy of Luol Deng is that when his story concludes, I'm not sure whether one of my favorite players of my formative basketball years will be remembered for his play, or for the insanity that surrounded his career.