By K.C. Johnson, Tribune Olympic Bureau
9:24 PM PDT, July 29, 2012
LONDON — Basketball-wise, there's nothing exceptional about the lone gymnasium inside the Brixton Recreation Centre.
One of the six baskets — or rings as some call them here, and not just during the Olympics — is inoperable. A hole punctures the ceiling from a recent mishap, just above the single, occasionally malfunctioning electronic scoreboard. A pulled curtain separates the two narrow courts, but the shuttlecock from the spirited game of badminton somehow still strays to interrupt the youth basketball camp.
This gym is where Luol Deng spent several of his formative years. It's where, despite being limited to just two weekly practice sessions in the multipurpose gym, basketball replaced soccer as his true athletic passion.
It's where, after Great Britain granted his family political asylum from war-torn Sudan, he began calculating a debt he is bent on repaying despite entering these Games with a torn ligament in his left wrist. The face of this country's growing basketball movement hasn't let injury prevent his incumbency.
"It's a bloody miracle he made it," Jimmy Rogers says. "England is a third-world country for basketball."
Deng has consistently said these Olympics are bigger than him, that his participation goes beyond wins and losses and contractual obligations and surgical decisions. To begin to understand why, you emerge from the Brixton underground stop and listen to the blaring reggae music from the African and Caribbean street merchants in this multiethnic slice of south London that Deng so loves. Then you enter Jimmy Rogers' gym.
Harder — but fair
Children of varying ages and skill levels are running through drills and heeding Rogers' orders. To many of them, Deng represents a symbol that goes beyond his athletic fame and fortune with the Bulls.
"He has taught me to work hard and stay humble," says Babatunde Whitfield-Gilbert, 17, who has attended Deng's camp in Brixton. "Even if you can't play basketball, you can work hard and you might be good in another field. You can take lessons you learn from commitment and teamwork and apply them elsewhere."
Rogers, 72, is the legendary general manager of the Brixton Topcats basketball club. Some call him the godfather of London basketball. With his booming voice and grand gestures, he's easily the most exceptional element of the non-descript gym, which would pass for a middle-school facility in the U.S.
Rogers colors his anecdotes with effects, even punching a relative stranger in the shoulder for emphasis and walking away, laughing, before returning to talk more. His command over participating boys and girls is palpable. His counselors are former players, all volunteering for free.
"I've been here since 1981, been in this facility since 1984 when it opened," Rogers says. "We've never had a spot of trouble. We've never sent a kid away. We've sent more kids to the U.S. for school than every club in London put together. They've all graduated (from college) but Luol, and he has said he wants to.
"Luol has said it was harder, what he did here, but it was fair. If someone messed up, everyone was held accountable. You could pick a Brixton guy out from anywhere because we teach respect and education. Don't you ever besmirch this game."
That's a philosophy Deng embraced on his way to his first All-Star berth last season with the Bulls. It's also helped lead him here, where he is staying in the athletes' village to better soak up the experience, a culmination of his unlikely journey from London to London.
Deng first followed his more accomplished older brothers, particularly Ajou, from the South Norwood neighborhood they called home to the nearby Brixton gym when he was a gangly 11-year-old everyone called Michael. Having received some tutelage from fellow Dinka tribe member Manute Bol during his siblings' Egyptian stint in between the Sudan and England, Deng knew what to do.
But as a passionate Arsenal fan, he also kept sneaking away to play his and his adopted country's first love. Basketball isn't simply an afterthought to soccer here. It trails in popularity cricket, equestrian, rowing, darts — yep, darts — you name it.
"This is the year of the Olympics," Rogers screams, sounding like a preacher. "This is the major city in the country of the Olympics. And in this year, to date, we don't have a dedicated basketball center apart from the one built for the Olympics. And they're taking it down when the Games are over!"
Carrying the weight
Still, something about the game and about Rogers kept bringing Deng back. Rogers' story: He grew up in an orphanage in Newcastle before becoming a foster child as a teenager and later joining the army.
In the service, his love for basketball grew. He played professionally in Germany. That's where his love for coaching began.
Brixton has produced other fairly accomplished players, some of whom have earned basketball scholarships in the U.S. But nobody has reached Deng's heights. The bond between teacher and pupil remains strong.
"Jimmy is everything," Deng says. "I'm very lucky to have someone who knew basketball as well as he did. ... I'm just lucky I fell into his hands and to have someone teach me the game who has such a high IQ."
"Luol had this crazy work ethic," Rogers says. "My colleague, Kassim Gabbar, was the first one who actually spotted the talent. My earliest memories are of a young man who was really focused and had a maturity for that focus which was way beyond anything I had seen for a kid 11 years of age."
One time, Rogers says he made Deng wear a weighted track suit while playing to improve his conditioning. Soon thereafter, Deng was late for a practice, a rarity. Rogers discovered Deng had been wearing it to and from home, running all the way.
Deng's skills quickly blossomed. At 14 and with Rogers' help, Deng earned placement at the prestigious Blair Academy in New Jersey, where one of Deng's older sisters already attended.
"I was absolutely gobsmacked when he returned one summer from Blair," Rogers says. "The first time he played, he blocked about 12 shots."
The success kept coming — at Duke, with the Bulls — but Deng never changed. Each summer, he returned to Brixton to run basketball camps and clinics. They stay in touch frequently during Bulls seasons.
"Luol is not a big superstar here, and he doesn't want to be," Rogers says. "He wants to be part of the group. And he talks to every single kid."
Nevertheless, fame has followed him.
In 2011, Brixton issued "complementary currency," a set of notes featuring celebrities with ties to the area. Deng landed on the 5-pound note, David Bowie on the 10.
"What Luol has done is really at the top of the list of what it means to represent your country," says U.S. men's national coach Mike Krzyzewski, who coached Deng at Duke. "Obviously, we're great friends. But I just wish people would understand that Great Britain really saved his family. They might not be alive if they hadn't been granted political asylum here. To see Luol honor that type of commitment is superb and really beautiful."
It sure seemed that way Friday night when Deng entered Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony. Sporting a smile as long as a Tom Thibodeau film session, he waved occasionally with one hand, the other holding a video camera to record the experience.
"Just walking out at the opening ceremony and seeing all the other athletes walking in and waving, that's something you can't really describe," Deng says. "Now that I did it, I can always talk about it. I know I came here as a refugee. But to have a chance to do it with guys I grew up with is a feeling I can't describe. I had goosebumps. One day I will be telling my kids about it."
Other kids, kids occupying a spot he once filled, already know.
"His story is inspirational for a lot of us young players," says Brixton camper Kane Causer, 15. "I'm proud to see what he has done. He's paying back to the country that helped him. Jimmy taught him what he had, but Luol took it away and worked extra hard. That's what I've tried to learn from him."
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