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New beginnings for Luol Deng

PANEVEZYS, Lithuania -- As midnight chimed, gunfire rang out through the night air, accompanying the chorus of horns from every car. Young men clambered onto their roofs as they passed by, singing songs and chanting in unison, wildly sharing a moment that many never felt would arrive in their lifetime.

Luol Deng would not have been anywhere else as the party began. History was being made, and shaped, on July 9 as the world's newest country celebrated its independence. The Republic of South Sudan was born after an almost 30-year labor, one accompanied by a brutal civil war that saw 2 million people lose their lives and twice that number disappear into exile.

"It was something that I've been waiting for my whole life," admitted the Chicago Bulls forward. "A lot of lives have been lost, and they've finally got what they fought for. It was very emotional."

Deng, now 26, was displaced as a child, first to Egypt, then to the United Kingdom, where his family members were allowed to settle as political refugees. His father, Aldo, had been Sudan's minister of transportation before being imprisoned following a military coup. Eventually released, he remained in contact with his homeland, offering advice and opening diplomatic channels that might, one day, be of use.

Once a peace agreement was reached in 2005, the movement toward independence gained traction. A referendum was held and passed. Aldo returned to help draw up the nation's constitution. "It's based largely on the U.S. one," his son confirmed. The pride in his father's work cannot be disguised.

"We've been through a lot as a family," Deng said. "We moved from country to country, trying to find a better living, until we got to London. Being refugees because of the civil war, it was good to see a step being taken to solve the problem that left so many people homeless."

They had to travel far from home to forge a better life. In South Sudan, life expectancy remains low with the level of health care among the worst in Africa. Deng, through his own foundation, has injected funds, but there is a huge task ahead that will take more than a check cut from his NBA salary. Still, he says, there is hope, now that an amicable divorce has been agreed to with their brothers to the north.

"We're basically at the beginning of everything. You hear it in the news. There is some conflict between tribes. But we're OK with that," Deng said. "It's a lot better than being in a civil war where you're in the same country but where you can never agree because of the differences. I'd rather not see 12-year-old kids joining the army, or a situation where you have the same national anthem, but you're fighting against each other."

Deng's elder brother Ajou, who played at the University of Connecticut and Fairfield before a brief professional career, has stayed on to coach basketball as part of the family's efforts to build a fresh future. He was involved in arranging sports' contribution to Independence Day, the country's inaugural international: a basketball game between South Sudan against Uganda.

The loudest cheerleader of them all wore No. 9. On an outdoor court in the capital of Juba, Deng's team lost by one. "Uganda had been together for a while," he reasoned. "This was South Sudan's first time together, but we had a few kids who are at college in the U.S., talented kids who were really proud to be together, put a uniform [on] and represent South Sudan."

The fabric bracelet around Deng's wrist -- colored red, black and green -- is his way of representing, a reminder of where his own remarkable journey began. His T-shirt confirms his dual allegiance to the cause of Great Britain as he battles for Queen and country here in Lithuania at the EuroBasket tournament, which also serves as Europe's qualifier for the 2012 Olympics in London.

Team GB, as the hosts of next year's Games, was awarded a free pass by FIBA in a vote of the governing body's executive in March. Without the tradition and depth of talent of other countries, the team's primary purpose here is to achieve additional respectability and edge closer to being competitive next summer when the whole country is watching.

This is only the second major tournament in British basketball history. Before 2006, Great Britain's unique sporting separatism meant that there were distinct national teams for England, Scotland and Wales. Since unification, the basketball team has risen but is still far from being a contender.

Deng is the only current NBA player. The squad also includes Robert Archibald, a two-year veteran of the league who now plays in Spain, as well as promising forward Joel Freeland, whose rights are held by the Portland Trail Blazers. The rest of the roster is packed out by a mix of players who play either in the NCAA or across Europe's lesser leagues. The gulf in class was illustrated in games against Spain, Turkey and Lithuania, during which Britain (0-3) could not quite cope.

"We are struggling now," Deng admitted. "We're going through the pain. But I didn't think people understand how far we've come. If you look at it from where we were, when I first came into the NBA, we didn't have a Great Britain basketball team. We put one together. But today, we still don't get respect.

"That's OK. In fact, I don't mind. We went through a lot. We came through difference stages. We got the Olympics, but when we were told we weren't automatically through, that hurt. That builds a fire. As an individual, it motivates me and makes me and my teammates get better. This year is a learning process. And I'd rather we went through this [now] rather than at the Olympics. We can see where we are."

Barring a miracle, Britain will head for the exit before EuroBasket's second round begins. Deng's thoughts will turn to London 2012 but, more immediately, to when he will set foot on the court again for a meaningful game.

He has kept tabs on the NBA lockout negotiations halfway across the world, comparing notes with Bulls teammate Omer Asik, whose Turkish team is based in Lithuania. "I just hope they come to an agreement," he said. Back in Chicago, the Bulls are coming off a run to the Eastern Conference finals with the promise of more to come. Disappointing the fans with a prolonged stoppage would be felt there more keenly than most.

Soon, Deng will be returning to Chicago to await an end to the labor impasse. For now, he has told his agent to deflect any calls from overseas expressing interest in offering him a contract for next season. However, if fall becomes winter and there is no return, he plans to review his options and consider any opportunities presented.

"Honestly, I always wanted to play in Europe," he said. "I always wanted to see what my game would be like playing here. There's a part of me that would like to play close to London. But at the same time, I have to be smart. My commitment is to the Chicago Bulls. I want to be ready for them. If you ask me right now, I don't know. But hopefully Europe is something that will happen one day."

Another boundary to draw, another dawn to experience up close.

Mark Woods is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh whose work appears regularly in British publications.