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JUBA, South Sudan – Luol Deng just went toe to toe with Lebron James in a hard-fought five-game playoff battle. Deng’s Chicago Bulls lost the series giving him an early off-season. But instead of heading to the Caribbean to rest his weary limbs, he is here in the capital of South Sudan helping his countrymen celebrate the birth of their very own nation.
For Deng, as with most South Sudanese, the journey to this moment has been long. The 26-year-old forward left Sudan when he was five. His family was fleeing the civil war that tore Sudan apart for more than 20 years and ended with a peace deal in 2005.
He spent his childhood in Egypt, where he learned how to play basketball.
“We played with no shoes,” he said. “We played on rims that barely hung on. That’s how basketball started for me.”
After immigrating to the U.K., he came to the U.S. and played for Duke on a basketball scholarship. He was drafted by the Phoenix Suns in the first round in 2004.
But he hasn’t forgotten his roots. He started the Luol Deng Foundation, which helps people in this impoverished region meet basic needs like shelter and education.
Now Deng is back in Juba to set up a basketball clinic for young South Sudanese and to celebrate independence. As part of the peace deal that ended the war, southerners were granted a referendum on self-determination, which they approved by an overwhelming 99 percent in January. Enough was at the clinic to capture exclusive video.
After the clinic, Deng reflected on basketball, his life, and South Sudan's independence. “It’s very emotional,” he said. “I’m really happy that we are all here, everyone who fled. I’m happy that even my parents could see this day. Everything they sacrificed was worth it.”