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South London Globetrotter who is bigger than Becks in the US; EXCLUSIVE NBA HERO DREAMS OF STARRING ROLE AT THE 2012 OLYMPICS.

Byline: BY JAMES NURSEY in Chicago

NBA star Luol Deng can walk the streets of his home city London unrecognised - but the Brit is far bigger in America than David Beckham.

Despite starting out with his local team Brixton, Deng has developed into one of the top players in US basketball.

And after signing a pounds 50million, sixyear contract with the Chicago Bulls last summer, he has replaced Michael Jordan as the club's iconic figurehead.

Yet Deng, 23, whose family still live in south London, insists he will always remain indebted to Britain for setting him on a path to superstardom.

He was just nine when his parents gained political asylum from his birthplace in war-torn Sudan to move to England via Egypt, and settled in South Norwood.

The star admits he might never have won a scholarship to Blair Academy in New Jersey at 14 were it not for his upbringing here.

And Deng proudly considers England 'home' - even if the vast majority of the population have no idea who the forward is.

"People don't know me in London but I would think I am bigger than Beckham in America - everyone there seems to recognise me," said Deng, who is a towering 6ft 9in.

The contrast between how Deng is appreciated and hailed at home and abroad underlines why UK Sport have pumped pounds 8.75m into basketball ahead of the 2012 Olympics.

But its popularity is rising and Deng plans to play for GB in London at 'Game On At The O2' in August ahead of their EuroBasket group games in September in Poland, where the side aim to seal a 2012 spot.

"Playing for Great Britain means a lot," added Deng, who has 15 caps after making his debut against Georgia in 2007.

"After everything my family went through to be political refugees and be taken in - you always appreciate it. We left the Sudan and we never went back, we left Egypt and I never went back, but in London there is a home I always went back to.

"I don't know if I was still in the Sudan or Egypt that I would be doing what I am doing.

"This country gave me an opportunity to not only play the sport I love, but to have the life I have.

"I know many refugees never get to express their emotion or how thankful they are, and I use basketball as like a thank-you.

"But people think because I am in the NBA that playing for GB I am doing it all by myself and it is not like that all.

"The team we are building can go out there and play with anybody and we are going to keep on getting better.

"A lot of people think our basketball team has no chance, but hopefully by 2012 we will show everybody this is a very good sport and we have the talent."

Deng was tipped for the top as a teenager at Duke University in the States, but his humble origins mean he is grounded and not dripping with 'bling' like many mega-rich stars.

"There are a lot of guys who go out and are loud - both US basketball players and footballers in the UK," said the articulate Deng, recovering from a stress fracture of his right leg.

"It bothers people and I try not to stand out, even though I have my height. I am not into the chains and all that stuff."

Deng, who supports Arsenal, might have been a footballer himself as he played for Croydon Borough and was offered England trials.

He added: "I played for my school at St Mary's in Croydon and then the Borough - I liked to score goals.

"But I always believed I would make it as a basketball player.

"At Brixton, they put me in the men's team when I was 12 and wouldn't let me play with my age group.

"I was 6ft 2in then and it helped.

People never looked on me as a little kid, they played hard against me."

Basketball kept Deng out of trouble in south London while some of his pals strayed.

"I have a few friends from school who are in jail," admitted Deng.

"I can see thinking back how you can be pressured into crime, people want to stand out.

"But I believe building more learning centres and sports facilities - stuff to keep kids off the street - will help a lot."

Deng has a lot to live up to for GB but he has already coped with comparisons to the legendary Jordan at Bulls. He even has a fan in Chicago's latest cult figure - new US President Barack Obama.

"We have met and the President is a huge basketball fan, but his schedule is a little busy right now," said Deng who, given his own interest in social issues and charitable causes, may well end up following Obama into politics.

But not until Deng has fulfilled his ambitions in basketball. And after his incredible rise from obscurity, no-one should bet against him.


WALKING TALL Bulls' star Luol Deng talks to Mirror Sport's James Nursey; MOST POWERFUL FAN IN THE WORLD Deng lines up with American president Barack Obama alongside his Bulls team-mates; KING OF THE RING Deng racks up the points with this dunk for the Bulls
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 17, 2009
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