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Luol Deng's path of righteousness

MIAMI -- On good days, the worst hurled at Luol Deng in grade school were the racist slurs a Sudanese refugee child was far too young to comprehend yet never quite able to forget.

Samara, meaning black.

Hunga bunga, mockery for ape.

Shakshuka, epithet from a cheap north African meal.

On bad days, those classroom slurs escalated to slinging fists in the schoolyard.

"It was just constant," Deng, a Miami Heat forward, says 25 years later. "I had this one teacher, and as I got older and translated things he used to say, it was racist and hatred stuff he was saying toward me and my brother. A lot of times, we fought because of that stuff."

Yet this was the better life.

This was the safe haven -- the relative oasis -- during the early 1990s in Alexandria, Egypt, where Deng and eight siblings fled without their parents to escape a decades-long civil war in their native Sudan between the Muslim north and Christian south. Luol's father, Aldo Deng, was a Sudanese government official who, according to British media reports, was jailed in 1989 during a violent coup by Muslim rebels who imposed Sharia law.

Released after three months, Aldo and his wife Martha put their children on a plane to sneak to Egypt under the care of the eldest siblings, who would work and live as refugees. Luol's memory is sketchy from those moments at age 4, but he's heard stories of everyone "waking up at night and leaving all of our belongings behind to get onto a plane, hoping and praying they wouldn't figure out who our father was."

Aldo and Martha then escaped to Europe seeking asylum -- a search that ultimately separated the Deng family for five years, connected only by the struggle they endured a continent apart.

So considering what he has survived from birth to the security, wealth and status of being a two-time NBA All-Star with more than a decade of league service, it's easy to pardon Deng for the polite scoff when asked: What did it take to forgive Atlanta Hawks GM Danny Ferry and move on?

"Dobbs A lot of people experience racism at different times on different terms. It's helped me from a young age to have a tough skin. I've been through a lot where I just look at it and say, 'It's another chapter. We've come out of much worse than this.'"

Luol Deng

"It's the life I've been through," said Deng, 29 and the second-youngest among five sisters and four brothers. "A lot of people experience racism at different times on different terms. It's helped me from a young age to have a tough skin. I've been through a lot where I just look at it and say, 'It's another chapter. We've come out of much worse than this.'"

This is the foundation of Deng's resolve.

The strength he draws from having survived way worse has allowed Deng to overcome adversity, be it a devastating civil war that was the backdrop of his childhood, the difficult adjustments in new countries as a refugee or the medical, trust and betrayal issues that rocked his basketball career once he discovered the craft that changed the lives of his family.

Nearly six months have passed since Deng hung up the phone after accepting Ferry's apology for racially charged comments recorded during a front-office conference call in July about free agents. Claiming to have read directly from notes prepared by another team, later reported to be evaluations gathered from Deng's former teams in Cleveland and Chicago, Ferry told other Hawks executives Deng had "some African in him" and tended to be untrustworthy.

"He's a good overall guy, but he's not perfect," Ferry said in a recording uncovered during an internal investigation by the Hawks and the NBA. "He's got some African in him. And I don't say that in a bad way, other than he is a good guy who will do something behind you."

During their conversation in the fall after Deng signed with the Heat instead of the Hawks, Deng challenged Ferry to help make something good come of the racially charged controversy that staggered the NBA just as it recovered from the Donald Sterling fallout months earlier.

Deng's challenge remains a work in progress for both men.

"He could have really belittled Ferry. He would have been very right to say whatever he had to say if he had been angry," said veteran guard Ben Gordon, who entered the NBA with Deng in 2004 as Chicago's first-round draft picks. "But he took the higher road. He didn't allow that situation to bring his character down. He never does. Over and over, his character shows."

A small survey of general managers and league executives believe the private criticism of Deng from the reports Ferry received were largely the product of friction that accompanied his Chicago departure and the dysfunction on some levels that existed in Cleveland last season.

Soon after he arrived in the trade to Cleveland, Deng confronted a New York reporter who wrote an article that cited "one close friend" of Deng's who detailed the player's alleged frustrations with the practice habits and attitudes of some Cavaliers players and coaches.

One Eastern Conference executive said the entire Ferry situation was "unfortunate" but that there are times when candid internal discussions about players on the market can get petty.

"Feelings get touchy in those rooms when it comes to free agency, the draft, trades -- on our side, the players' side and agents," the team executive said. "That's the business. There are people who sometimes say things that are emotional. Danny made a mistake. It's over and done. Other than that, I've never heard anyone say anything wrong about Luol's character."

Deng can forgive because he never forgets. The sage advice from his father and lessons learned from having grown up across the globe are guiding principles. There weren't many phone calls between Aldo and Luol that didn't end with a version of the family's vision statement: Relinquish resentment, then grasp opportunities to help your people.

"Maybe there's a purpose that God made this happen," Deng said. "Maybe there's a reason that I was put in front of this, to be in front and bring people together. At the end of the day, someone somewhere is going to benefit from it. That's the way I look at it, as God's purpose."

Ferry remains on administrative leave, exiled from the remarkable team he assembled. He has met repeatedly with civic officials, former NBA players and executives but has denied interview requests through the Hawks. Atlanta is off to its best start in franchise history, is first in the Eastern Conference standings and had four players in this month's All-Star Game, led by Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer. Meanwhile, Deng emerged with all-star visions of a different sort.

Masai Ujiri could have remained quiet or confined his feelings to their private conversation.

The Toronto Raptors general manager was among the first league executives to speak with Ferry. But for Ujiri, this was not only a painfully personal situation; it was also a moment to educate.

And to vent.

A native of Nigeria, Ujiri wrote an 871-word essay in Toronto's "Globe and Mail" newspaper in September that questioned Ferry's methods, defended Deng's character and pleaded for progress.

But at the heart of the essay is Ujiri's recollection of an NBA-sponsored camp Deng attended in Rwanda as he was struggling to regain his health from a spinal tap. As the most accomplished active NBA player from the continent, canceling was not an option for Deng.

"He had gone through London and Angola and came to Rwanda sick as a dog," Ujiri said. "We told him to take the morning session off, because he was coughing and you could tell he was sick and tired from all of the traveling. Well that morning, he was the first one up. He was the most energetic in camp. And right after the camp, he passes out for a couple of hours."

Deng was then expected to miss the evening dinner with sponsors and dignitaries.

"Luol shows up," Ujiri said. "That's the person he is. Luol has just been phenomenal with that and carrying that torch for us. He's carrying the NBA on his shoulders all over the world."

Ujiri believes Deng has the humility and basketball pedigree of Hakeem Olajuwon, the humanity and political awareness of Manute Bol and philanthropic restlessness of Dikembe Mutombo.

"It was a part of me before basketball," Deng said. "It'll be a part of me after basketball is over."

Amadou Gallo Fall knew that connection with Deng was strong well before the call was placed. Deng was in California, where he and the Heat were on a five-game trip, and the dispatch was answered by Fall on the other side of the globe in London.

The conversation quickly shifts to Johannesburg.

"This is going to be monumental," said Fall, NBA vice president for development in Africa. "A historic moment on the continent."

That's precisely what Deng had in mind.

A month before recordings surfaced of Ferry's disparaging comments, league officials had already publicized plans in August for an exhibition game in Africa. Those plans were confirmed during All-Star Weekend in New York by commissioner Adam Silver, who announced the NBA Africa game will be played Aug. 1 in Johannesburg.

The project has taken on added meaning in the aftermath among many players, league executives and ambassadors who want to showcase that -- yes -- the NBA has a proud and significant bit of African in it. Those aspirations have placed Fall at the center of the healing and reconciliation efforts. It was Fall who coordinated Ferry's trip to Senegal in December to help work a camp for 60 kids at a time when Ferry was taking his first private steps to amend his mistake.

"For me, it's positive all around," Fall said of how Ferry and Deng have worked to move beyond the incident. "We are in a great league that is very inclusive and very progressive ... and we look forward to working with all of our people."

While Fall works behind the scenes on the final details to bring nearly two dozen NBA players to South Africa for an All-Star-style showcase, Deng has been recruiting to attract top players.

Among the plans for the first NBA-sanctioned game on the continent are to have an NBA Africa team of players such as Deng, Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka, Minnesota's Gorgui Dieng, Atlanta's Thabo Sefolosha and Los Angeles' Steve Nash to play an NBA Global team of other league stars.

"Luol's really staying involved, staying in contact, never forgetting where he's come from, and those attributes have helped tremendously in our efforts to grow the sport on the continent," Fall said. "His passion on the court is the same as the passion he has off the floor. He's driven, almost like to pay it forward. Having him right there on the forefront, talking about it and making sure his friends and colleagues around the league are aware of it makes my life easier."

Said Deng: "There are so many kids in Africa who adore these athletes in the NBA and see themselves in them, even though we're so far removed. In Africa, kids don't look at black athletes and say, 'They're different from us.' They look at them and say, 'That can be me.'"

Deng's family learned the game while living in Egypt from late NBA center Manute Bol, a Sudan native who returned to the region during offseasons to aid humanitarian efforts. Bol trained Luol's older brother Ajou, a 6-foot-11 prospect who played college ball at UConn and Fairfield. An older sister, Arek, played forward at Maryland and Delaware.

There's a similar lineage that links Hall of Fame candidate and former NBA defensive stalwart Dikembe Mutombo to Ibaka, both natives of the Congo. When Nigeria-born Hakeem Olajuwon was selected No. 1 out of Houston in 1984, it opened an entire continent to NBA possibilities.

At least 35 players with ties to Africa have played in the NBA over the past 30 years. Since 2003, the NBA has established facilities or camps in 15 countries on the continent, and as many as three games a week are broadcast on TV in 55 African markets. Deng and Ibaka are among the early beneficiaries of that exposure who are now benefactors.

"We have responsibilities to follow that tradition," said Ibaka, in his sixth year with Oklahoma City. "Those guys, we followed them. Now we lead, so others follow us. This means the tradition will continue into the future and keep going. It shows the game in Africa is growing up."

Like Deng, Ibaka has used his status and platform to bring awareness to issues affecting Africa. In January, Ibaka used his Twitter account to express sympathy for the victims and families of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in France. Some players, including Portland's Nicolas Batum and Washington's Kevin Seraphin, showed support by wearing T-Shirts in pregame warm-ups.

Ibaka also posted on Twitter that he wished "the world and media reacted the same way" to raise awareness of the Boko Haram massacres that have ravaged Nigeria for months.

Deng and Ibaka believe it's vital to make a social impact with their play and their platforms. Ibaka is set to star in a Grantland-produced documentary, to be released in March, that traces his journey from the Congo to the NBA and highlights multiple charity efforts in the region. Deng, who won the NBA's Citizenship Award in 2014, has established foundations on three continents that include basketball camps for girls in London, food distribution programs in Africa and community holiday programs in Chicago.

"It's all part of it," Deng said. "I just feel like we're in 2015 and there are still so many [negative] things being said about Africa. But there's so much greatness that people are missing. I just feel that while I'm here -- it's really part of why I exist -- I can really bring some attention toward it."

Deng was born in 1985, two years after the bloodiest battles of the Sudanese civil war resumed and two years before the deadly migration of the Lost Boys, the estimated 20,000 youths who fled as far as 1,000 miles on foot to Ethiopia to avoid capture and becoming child soldiers.

After moving from Sudan to Egypt for five years, Deng and his siblings were reunited with their parents in South London, where Aldo Deng's petition for asylum was granted in 1993. A few years later, 14-year-old Luol was at New Jersey's Blair Academy after following older siblings to the U.S. in pursuit of an American education and college basketball opportunities.

"He struggled to adjust early," said Charlie Villanueva, a Dallas Mavericks forward who was Deng's prep school roommate at Blair. "What he experienced was very traumatic, very hard. He would put it behind, but there were times here and there when it would come up. He tried to be quiet and to himself. But if you kept plucking at him, he would open up."

One watershed moment broke the ice for Deng at Blair.

"Ask him the story about the squirrel," Villanueva said before he launched into a re-enactment.

"He comes busting down the hallway, yelling, because a squirrel got in through his window," Villanueva said as he wildly swung his arms to mimic Deng sprinting from his dorm room during junior year. "Knowing Lu, it was hilarious to see him like that. But the real funny part is, he went back in there after he calmed down and tried to set a trap. He had blankets, boxes, sticks. The next few days, he actually thought he was going to catch the squirrel if it ever came back."

Those awkward days are long gone for Deng now, Villanueva insists.

They both developed into two of the nation's top prep players, with Deng becoming a McDonald's All American and eventually rising to the No. 2-ranked prospect behind LeBron James in the 2003 class. While James jumped directly from high school to the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, Deng spent one season at Duke before he was selected seventh overall in 2004.

The squirrel story revealed at least one thing about Deng's character that hasn't changed since high school, Villanueva said. He regroups strongly in the face of stunning challenges.

"There are some sensitive topics for Lu," Villanueva said. "But his heart is pure. No bad intentions at all."

Ask Deng to describe the biggest challenge to his survival and his answer might surprise.

He won't mention, when as a toddler in Sudan, being taught to seek cover under his bed at the sound of gunfire. He'll also bypass those beatings at school in Egypt. And it's not even that time the Bulls' plane caught fire and lost two engines amid an emergency landing two years ago. Instead, it was in a hospital as his body failed him and his faith waned in Chicago's medical staff, a feeling that lingers among some Bulls players.

An established All-Star who twice led the league in minutes as one of the NBA's premier two-way players, Deng helped transition the Bulls from their prolonged struggles after the Michael Jordan era and transformed them into a conference title contender in his decade there.

"He gave us everything he had," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of Deng. "I have a great appreciation for all he did for our team. He helped lift some of those teams out of the lottery."

Deng's work ethic and attention to the minor details of maintaining his health were as relentless in Chicago as the wintry winds blowing in off Lake Michigan. His off day or pre-practice workouts influenced teammates. His routine of eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at halftime of games for a protein boost was the source of locker room jokes but ultimately respected. Gradually, questions surfaced as to whether Deng was run into the ground under Thibodeau's rigid defensive system and heavy minutes load for starters.

Derrick Rose, who has endured his own medical issues in Chicago through three major knee injuries over four seasons, said Deng's guidance has been invaluable.

"It's becoming a pro, taking care of your body -- little things you wouldn't think about," Rose said recently. "I wish I would have looked at him a little bit more when I was a rookie."

By the end of his time with the Bulls, Deng was just worn down.

Fearing meningitis after Deng became ill heading into the 2013 playoffs, team doctors ordered a spinal tap test, which came back negative. Deng was released from the hospital and cleared to play during Chicago's second-round series against Miami. But Deng continued to feel terrible. Only by going outside the team -- including, according to sources, back-channel help from other teams -- did he discover he had been leaking fluid since the diagnostic procedure.

The entire process called into question why he was ever cleared to play. Citing privacy issues, the Bulls have repeatedly declined media requests to address Deng's condition at the time. But Deng insists it felt like the closest he's ever come to death.

"I've never been in a situation where I was afraid for my life," Deng said. "That's how deep it was. The whole situation, there wasn't trust. There was miscommunication between the team and doctors. I wasn't told the proper procedure to take care of myself. It was just mishandled."

To this day, Deng's medical scare with the Bulls is as difficult to share as any of his tragedy-to-triumph ordeals. Why? Because Deng is attached to Chicago, the city he called home for a decade before he was traded last year to Cleveland after failed negotiations on a new contract.

"It was the hardest place I ever had to leave," Deng said. "I'm not upset I was traded. It happens. That's business. I just wish it was better [at the end]."

He lived in Chicago longer than anywhere else in his life. But it's impossible to completely separate the organization Deng loves from the ordeal he loathes. Well after the playoffs ended that season, Deng still struggled with complications that required repeated hospital visits.

"I still had migraines, was getting dizzy and couldn't eat," Deng recalls. "I lost 14 pounds in 10 days. I kept throwing up. I was eating only like Jell-O for two weeks.

"I remember my friend coming over and was like, 'It's a spinal leak.' My friend was calling the team doctor and her response was like, 'I don't think so.' And my friend told the doctor, 'If you don't do (something), I'm taking him to a different hospital.' So I called my agent and asked for a different hospital."

Deng said more setbacks ensued even after he had the procedure that stopped the fluid leak.

"I finally got diagnosed with asthma, and I never had that in my life," Deng said. "I couldn't work out for months. Most of my summer, I couldn't do anything."

He couldn't do anything except for what he's always done -- repeat the lifelong pattern of picking himself back up, moving on elsewhere and reestablishing productive roots.

Deng turns 30 in April but has the mannerisms, facial wrinkles and wisdom of a man much older.

It's hardly been a comfortable fit in the first year of a two-year, $20 million deal Deng signed with Miami over the summer. There have been highs, like the Christmas showdown with the Cavaliers when he had 25 points, eight rebounds and eight assists to outperform longtime rival James in a win.

And there have been lows, such as the recent stretch when a calf strain sidelined Deng when the desperate Heat were already reeling from Dwyane Wade's third injury absence of the season. When Deng finally got healthy, the team was rocked by the news this month that Chris Bosh would be lost for the remainder of the season after developing blood clots in his lungs.

"I'm not going to lie; it hasn't been easy," Deng said of the Heat's struggles amid a losing record most of the season. "There are days when I leave and I'm like, 'Wow, we've got it.' Then there are days like, 'Well, we still don't.' I've never been on a team where it's such constant change."

Deng's 14.6 points per game are his fewest in six years, and he is also rebounding at a career-low rate. But there have been recent signs of hope, with the Heat winning three of four games since the All-Star break. Taking on more of Bosh's load on offense, Deng has been the team's leading scorer the past two games. Miami is 9-0 when Deng scores at least 20 points.

But Deng has been a steadying presence with his patience, perspective and pointers since he got to Miami. During a January game against the Clippers, Deng pulled aside Heat point guard Shabazz Napier and told the rookie to listen closely to how Chris Paul runs his team because, "I really believe that can be you one day."

Heat center Hassan Whiteside, a D-League call-up quickly blossoming into one of league's more productive big men, got a similar counseling session from Deng about the relentless work ethic that drove Joakim Noah in Chicago to become last season's defensive player of the year.

Those attributes are partly why Heat president Pat Riley -- whose résumé includes landing James, Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning -- said Deng's addition last summer was "one of the most important free-agent signings that we have ever had in the history of the franchise."

Any challenge Deng faces in Miami pales in comparison to difficulties he's forged past throughout life. Gordon has seen Deng get through plenty and emerge stronger. He remembers when Deng had to hastily hire a new representative to close a $71 million extension with the Bulls in 2008 because then-agent Josh Nochimson was being decertified by the union.

Nochimson was sued by another client, former NBA guard Richard Hamilton, for allegedly stealing from his accounts and credit cards. It was a complicated process for Deng, because Nochimson was a classmate and close friend of Deng's older brother while at UConn.

"And that was at a really young age in his career," said Gordon, a reserve with the Orlando Magic who also attended UConn.

So it's no surprise for Gordon to see Deng sort through a turbulent ending in Chicago, a troublesome ordeal with Ferry and a rough start in Miami with determination and dignity.

"I do think it has a lot to do with the way he grew up," Gordon said. "Probably a lot of people he knew and loved didn't survive. Luol is a fighter. When it's time to get in survival mode, he knows how to do it in real-life terms. So when all this other stuff happens, he probably just [laughs] and thinks, 'I've been through way more than this. And if I let this upset me, I'm not remembering where I came from.'"