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There’s a British stamp on the NBA and you may not have realised

Strawberries and cream. Beans on toast. British basketball players and the NBA.
Spot the peculiar combination, everybody.

It’s not common for basketball players of British nationality to reach the very top, but it has and does happen. Bizarrely, it’s not celebrated enough.

Perhaps that’s the Britishness of it all.

Luol Deng is sitting comfortably in Nike flip flops and a black hat pulled low above his eyes during a break in the first day of Deng Camp, the basketball programme which has been running at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre for four years under the #DengTop50 slogan.

Back for another summer, this man is the one name that current youngsters in the UK aspire to, having already represented the Bulls, Cavaliers, Heat and Lakers, four premiere franchises. 

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Everyone wants to hear his story, the journey surely only he has made from South Sudan to Egypt to Brixton to Los Angeles. When he explains the method to me on this warm afternoon in late August, anyone could have guessed the secret themselves.

Hard work.

“Everybody thinks they’re working hard until they meet someone else who is doing double what they’re doing”, Deng says.

“I learned what it takes.”

Deng is a nice fellow who answers questions with an honesty unakin to the typical answer a professional athlete gives. He is part listening to the next question, more than part gesturing to the nearest door, eager to point something out.

“There were times I would sit right there at that door and wait for someone to come out, then place something there to wedge it open.”

Shivers go down your spine as you come to the realisation that a British man who trained in a gym in London, struggling through accessibility the same way most players do, is all these years later back as an NBA veteran.

“It wasn’t easy to get into this gym. There was always badminton, handball, five-a-side. When the court became free I would work out until the next shift came in.

“Sometimes I sat out there for hours.”

A keen swimmer, Deng could never take badminton seriously as he laughs through the reality of his past situation.

With the Bulls from 2004 to 2013, Deng compiled over 10,000 points in ten seasons including an 18.8PPG average in his third campaign. He is part of NBA 2K18’s new ‘all-time rosters’ feature alongside Bulls legends Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and others.

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“People have to look at the numbers. I’ve not been outspoken about what I’ve done and because I’ve gone quiet people have forgotten what I’ve accomplished. If you look at the Bulls’ all-time scoring, rebounding, assist leaders, minutes, I’m probably top five in all of those.”

Not far off. Deng is fourth in points, fifth in minutes, ninth in rebounds and outside the top ten in assists. He is also fifth in steals, tenth in blocks and sixth in win shares. His name appears nearly as regularly as Michael Jordan’s.

Some say he was good too.

Deng had a difficult time in LA last season, his first with the Lakers as they continue their rebuild. It was the first time in his career where he looked out of place in the modern NBA, although he insists during the interview that he “is a guard” despite being listed as a forward.

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“I’m 32 now so it’s all about how I feel. I started playing when I was 19 and I have three years left on my contract. That will take me to 16 years and then we will see.”

However many years he has left in the NBA, this area of London will always hold memories to be unlocked.

“I remember when I was a kid I used to walk past the barber shop and the owner would tell me to go to the local store to get drinks. He’d tip me a few pounds. Today I see them and to have a foundation like that, no matter where I go I couldn’t have that anywhere else.

“They have the right to always make fun of me and bring back stories because no one else can. They don’t know much about basketball, they think I just made it because I’m tall, but it doesn’t bother me. For years there were Chicago Bulls jerseys in the neighbourhood, then it was the Cavaliers, then everyone loved the Heat. No matter how far away I am, there are always people watching me. That’s in the back of my mind, to push myself.”

And the first thing Deng does when he gets back here?

“I get my mum to cook food for me.”

Luol Deng. Staying true to his roots.

11 miles away on the opposite side of London, John Amaechi is on the phone inside his home office, talking business behind three computer screens. There could be ten and you would still see him such is the great size of the man.

Down the hallway towards his office are framed pictures of Amaechi in the NBA and college - he spent time at Vanderbilt and Penn State - with basketballs and trophies dotted around.

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Side thought. Bizarre that these hugely successful sports stars are living right under our noses and we barely even know.

Amaechi was born in America but grew up in Stockport and was the first openly gay player in NBA history when he came out in 2007.

18 years later he is now off the phone and quickly reminds me as I gaze around that it’s a library, not a man cave.

“I wrote on my school card that my ambition was to play on an NBA championship team and make lots of money in the United States,” he says.

The former power forward and center is a fascinating case. Amaechi is brutally honest, incredibly smart and a successful businessman, currently working on the board of the NHS’ biggest hospital trust. He has a degree and separate business in psychology, loves red wine and reading, but even more curious is his distaste for sport. Yes, sport.

“Sport is a stupid thing to love. You should really like it, be passionate about it, you should be engaged with it if your children are doing it, but love is something more carefully shared than that.

“I am not an avid watcher. I certainly wouldn’t watch any other sport than the NBA unless someone paid me to do it. That includes the Olympics.”

That may explain why it took him 17 years to pick up a basketball.

“A scout approached me in Manchester and told me I could be great at basketball. Up until that point it hadn’t occurred to me that I could be great at anything.”

Amaechi became the first player to go undrafted and start the opening game of an NBA season when he played for the Cavaliers in November 1995, eventually competing in 28 games during that campaign. He then, by no choice of his own, left America to play in France, Greece, Italy - under coach Ettore Messina, now an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs - and finally a stint in England with the Sheffield Sharks.

“While in Italy, I just didn’t want to play anymore. Every year I tried to get back into the NBA and every year I was told I’m not enough of an athlete. I was tired and just done. My play that year was abysmal and I should apologise to Ettore. I told my agent: I’m out, I’m retiring, I’m done.”

His agent convinced him to go back to England, where he would find him a team and go from there.

What did a year back in the UK do?

“It didn’t rekindle my love for the game but it made me painfully aware, on bus trips from Sheffield to Plymouth, that I had worked way too hard for that to be how my career ended.”

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It was back to the grind and that dream Amaechi had written on his school card all those years ago.

“No team came to me. I spent weeks on the phone with my agent and all we agreed was that I had to constantly work out to become the kind of athlete they were looking for. I moved from Toledo in Ohio from the family that I stayed with during my high school career and went to Arizona to be with a trainer who was recommended.

“I had no money so I was going deeper and deeper into debt on the off chance I would get an offer. We essentially started going around begging. The Phoenix Suns went ‘meh, if there’s nobody else’. Only the Orlando Magic showed an interest and they sent me to Summer League.

“I got there and was in amazing shape having worked out eight hours daily. I ended up being signed to a minimum year-long contract. That was my ‘re-in’.”

It was more than that. At 29, Amaechi signed a four-year, $10m contract with the Magic, at the time the largest contract for a British NBA player ever. In his first year back in the NBA, he averaged 10.5 points and 3.3 rebounds.

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A bigger offer then came in. It was the year 2000 and the Brit who worked hard for it all turned down a $17m contract to join the LA Lakers.

“People mistake it for loyalty. It’s simply a question of being a person of your word. Treat the world with some measure of respect and hope that it does the same in return. If you don’t operate with those principles then you are compromised.

“The only team that gave me a shot, Orlando, needed me to stay.

“I really wanted to go to the Lakers. Orlando told me they had no more money yet they asked me to stay. I knew I would get screwed, I knew if they could get a more athletic, better player that they would. They did indeed dump me in a heartbeat after another season. But it’s about what I do, not what they do.”

“If I’m not going to betray you over $17m… The cost would have been that I am one of those people that when it’s easy, I’m principled. When what’s on the table is a free car or an endorsement, I can be principled. When it’s everything I’ve ever wanted, my principles melt away.

I think that’s the worst kind of person in the world.”

John Amaechi. Staying true to his principles.

There are many others on the list.

Joel Freeland grew up in Farnham, Surrey. Repeat that sentence before saying the letters NBA.
“He used to pull up from literally anywhere”, a former colleague of his at the Canarias Basketball Academy in Gran Canaria said.

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Freeland attended the prestigious academy in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, turning down offers in the US along the way. He ended up staying in Europe for a while, representing the senior Gran Canaria team in the ACB then signing a contract with Unicaja Malaga before heading to the Portland Trail Blazers. He only played three seasons but played in 151 games and is now in Russia playing for CSKA Moscow. 

Ben Gordon was born in London and went on to become the only rookie to win the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award back in 2004-05. Continuing with the theme of Bulls records, he is second in three-point field goals behind Kirk Hinrich and represented Great Britain at the EuroBasket qualifiers this summer.

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Pops Mensah-Bonsu. What a name that is. “Pops!”, British basketball fans were heard screaming during the 2012 Olympics inside the O2 Arena. Born in London, Mensah-Bonsu had a thing for Texas, playing for Dallas, San Antonio and Houston during his career. 

Heck, Robert Archibald was born in Paisley, Scotland, and has had stops at the University of Illinois, the Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors and a stint with BC Azovmash, a team in the Ukraine and a subtle reminder to Archibald that Bangers and Mash exist.

There are the great stories of Steve Bucknall, James Donaldson, Ndudi Ebi, Chris Harris and Byron Mullens to round off the list.

Strange phenomenon us Brits - the sentence could end right there - often breaking down home-grown players in a not too positive light, yet the bunch above achieved what is the pinnacle for everyone who picks up a basketball and takes a liking to it. None of them were ‘bad basketball players’, because guess what? They made it to the NBA.

That’s worth celebrating.

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