The first two-thirds of Luol Deng’s offseason were dedicated to the 2012 London Olympics. In his dual role – best player on Great Britain’s national team and ambassador for the sport in his adopted homeland – Deng lived his dream for a fortnight. He played through torn ligaments in his left wrist (left over from the Chicago Bulls’ grinding regular season and early playoff exit) while connecting the world with British basketball, and vice versa.
Part of this final stage of Deng’s offseason is devoted to a different sort of ambassadorship. The Bulls forward and native of South Sudan is one of seven active NBA players participating in this summer’s Basketball Without Borders Africa. Held in Johannesburg, South Africa through the weekend, this is the 10th edition of the NBA’s and FIBA’s joint basketball development and community outreach program. It is Deng’s second BWB trip; he first got involved in 2006.
One day into the camp – with features 60 young players from 26 countries – Deng could see changes from his involvement six years ago. “It used to be just for the boys. Now we have female campers,” he said. “We also are in now with the Special Olympics. You can definitely see differences. As well-organized as it was, you can see the growth and how everything runs smooth now.”
Joining him on the Johannesburg stop are Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison and Cole Aldrich of the Oklahoma City Thunder; Luc Mbah a Moute of the Milwaukee Bucks, and C.J. Watson of the Brooklyn Nets. WNBA All-Star Chamique Holdsclaw is participating in a three-day girls’ camp offered to 25 elite players ages 18 and under.
Like Deng, Ibaka (Congo), Sefolosha (whose father is from South Africa) and Mbah a Moute (Cameroon) have roots in Africa that elevates the visit in their hearts. Mbah a Moute, in fact, first experienced BWB as a camper in 2003 before returning as an NBA player in 2009 and 2010.
Campers spend the weekend working on basketball skills, receiving instruction in off-the-court topics and competing under the guidance of the NBA players and coaches. Community events include discussions about education and leadership, and an HIV/AIDS awareness program.
Others at this year’s BWB include coaches such as Ron Adams (Chicago), Jim Boylan (Milwaukee) and Popeye Jones (Brooklyn), trainers Keith Jones (Houston) and Brian Zettler (Utah) and Denver general manager Masai Ujiri, the first African GM (Nigeria) of a U.S. sports franchise. NBA Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo remains a fixture since BWB began in 2003.
For Deng – who will try to survive 2012-13 for Chicago without undergoing surgery on his wrist – his work in the Olympics and now at BWB Africa share some similar, spread-the-word characteristics. But his motivation comes from different places inside him.
“I was getting ready to play for the Olympics to try to win, and everything else that came with it,” Deng said. “It was all about playing basketball. Out here, I’m using what I want to do as a person. Helping others, not just on the court.”