Friday, September 25, 2009 Updated: September 27, 8:34 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson ESPNChicago.com
The basketball court was only one source of Luol Deng's angst. In the ever-important court of public opinion, Deng is lucky he wasn't sentenced to hang.
As a professional athlete, the Chicago Bulls forward had it all going against him. First, he turned down a contract with the kind of numbers that make most normal people choke on their cornflakes ($57.5 million, five years). Then, he signed an even bigger deal ($71 million, six years), but not before his play dipped (strain of negotiations). It was all compounded by injuries, and the team bottomed out at 33-49.
This has been a far-too-familiar sight for Luol Deng in the past two seasons.
And that was only the 2007-08 season.
When Deng did not bounce back at the start of last season, then got hurt again -- missing 11 games with hamstring and ankle problems and sitting out the final 22 games, plus the playoffs, with what the team termed "mild inflammation" while he was calling it a "tibial stress fracture" -- well, let's just say Deng wasn't having his dinner check picked up by adoring fans on a regular basis.
The fact that Deng happens to be one of the most upstanding and charitable-minded young athletes in all of sports mattered very little compared with his failure to materialize into the next big thing.
That's what we were calling him after 2006-07, when the Bulls embarrassed the Miami Heat and pushed the Central Division champion Detroit Pistons to six games.
Deng was christened a future All-Star, and it was not unreasonable.
Two years later, he is coming back slowly from what was a legitimate injury (the Bulls eventually called it a stress fracture, too) but the expectations are just as great.
"We need Luol to play at a high level," said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro at the team's media day Friday. "He's finally healthy. He's had a couple of injury-plagued seasons. But he's confident. He feels great. He's had a very productive summer. His weight, his body fat, all those things, he's probably in as good a condition as he's been in, and he knows how important he is to us."
That much more important now that Ben Gordon is wearing a Pistons jersey.
The Bulls need Deng to be the old Deng and more. And even that is not likely to vault them to new heights with the current cast. In the meantime, questioning Deng's integrity -- or worse, treating him like Milton Bradley -- is a bit unfair.
"One thing I do is work very hard; I really don't take shortcuts," Deng said Friday. "I feel like the past two years I've had unfortunate injuries. I'm excited to be back; I want to be on the floor. But I could say whatever I want to say [and] until I'm on the floor, and show that I put in the effort and the work "
He let the sentence dangle.
When a player not only disputes salary but his performance suffers, he's injured and he's paid an exorbitant amount of money, it's not going to be easy.
In an interview last preseason, Deng expressed frustration about how he was portrayed in turning down the first contract.
"The way it came out, my family really didn't like it," he said. "It came out that I was hungry for more [money], and that really wasn't the issue," he said. "If people know where I came from, this is a lot for me. It's not about that. I had a really tough time with people thinking I was greedy."
Deng admitted to also struggling with the perception that he didn't care in the '07-'08 season. Asked Wednesday how bad things got after his stress fracture last season, he tried to shrug it off.
"I wasn't worried at all about people questioning my injury," he said. "I knew that I was hurt and I know how much I love this game and I know I would play if I'm healthy. I [also] know sooner or later people would realize what the injury was and that I really couldn't do anything. But it's tough.
"People are always going to question what you're doing, and the best way to shut people up or keep them quiet is to be on the court and just play. And I love playing this game and I'm looking forward to it."
Luol Deng hopes to return to the form he showed in 2006-07, when he and the Bulls made the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Deng says that he is ready for two-a-days and that he is excited now. So is new Bulls general manager Gar Forman, who saw evidence of Deng's enthusiasm this summer.
"Luol basically lived in this gym, almost to the point at times we felt like we had to kick him out of here," Forman said. "I remember early in the summer, we were preparing for the draft he had worked out in the morning in the weight room and then he had a workout in the afternoon on the floor, and I went down to the kitchen at 6 at night and he's down there eating dinner.
"I said, 'Luol, what are you doing here?' And he had put himself on a plan where rather than go home, he was bringing his dinner to the Berto Center, heating it up in our kitchen and then he'd have another workout in the evening."
Deng said it killed him to watch from the bench as the Bulls took the Celtics to seven games in the first round of the playoffs last spring.
"I spent the whole summer thinking about it," he said. But he also said it helped him.
"As a leader, going through things like that, you see things," Deng said. "Sitting down, just watching games, watching the guys play, as mature as I am, I feel like I'm more mature [now]. And coming into the year, I'm going to bring that to the team and show them from the start of training camp and try to be a better leader on the floor and talk to the guys on the side. I really want to do a better job of that."
Kirk Hinrich, who knows frustration, having missed 31 games with a thumb injury last season, already sees the difference in Deng.
"In this business," he said, "you have to let stuff roll off your back, and I could tell already this year he's in much better spirits, and I think he feels confident he's healthy enough that he can definitely help us a lot this year."
It's weird. Those energetic young kids who scared Washington in '05 and roughed up the Heat in '06? Hinrich and Deng, that's it. They're the only two who have been Bulls for more than three seasons, and they're battle-scarred. But they sure don't seem weary, and that's encouraging.
"It's going to be great," Deng said of this season. "I think we're going to play as a team. We've got guys on the team who are very unselfish, and we're going to have to use that as a strength."
If that sounded like a possible dig at Gordon, it might have been.
Either way, it sounds as if the old Deng is back.