There isn’t much joy in watching Luol Deng play basketball. Which is a shame, because it seems there ought to be lots of it. He’s lithe and a little spindly; I don’t think there is another player in the NBA who is as physically narrowas Deng. His long arms work with a kind of nervous frisson and his expression seems to be fixed to Possible Imminent Horror. These are both plausible explanations for/symptoms of the fact that he’s a phenomenal defender: a harasser, a jittery impediment; a thing in the passing lanes. He’s a classic post-Pippen forward who’s asked both to handle the ball for the Bulls and, increasingly, as Carlos Boozer continues his unbridled descent into highly-paid uselessness, to play in the post as the ersatz power forward in a very small lineup. Invariably he will draw the assignment of defending an opposing team’s best player between 6-4 and 6-9. He does it all, ably or better. He was an All-Star in 2012, a second-team pick to the NBA’s All-Defensive Team.
But in the performative universe of basketball, Deng’s game is stunningly, glaringly devoid of flash. It’s unexciting. He plays in a way that’s simultaneously exuberant and unassuming. Deng is a slasher by nature if not by inclination, and he has the quickness to get through traffic, but his offense has drifted further and further from the hoop over his nine year career. Once a truly reprehensible outside shooter, Deng is now a decent three-point threat. There are weird mechanics to his jumpshot: arm twitches and unusual shoulder positionings. The result is a shot that seems to be nothing so much as an expression of resignation. His forays to the rim are less notable for their explosiveness than for the number of bodies with which they seem to bring him into heavy contact. Even when he does do something for the highlight reels he ends up being knocked to his ass. It is not easy being Luol Deng.
But it’s not just that: playing seems to exhaust him, even pain him. He’s doubled-over with his hands on his knees sometime in the first quarter of most games; his heavy breathing is uncommonly noticeable. He breathes gloriously, actually. This is not yet a stat kept by 82games or Basketball Reference but I am beyond positive that Deng leads the league in breaths taken. Watch him the next time the camera catches him at a break in play with, say, around eight minutes left in the second quarter; Tom Thibodeau will have left him in the game since tipoff, to anchor the Bulls’ second unit, because Tom Thibodeau is Tom Thibodeau. Watch as Deng leans toward the court; see his shoulders rise and retract like nobody else’s in the building. He breathes in Jovian gulps.
The NBA is a freak show of physical miracles, a bourse of stunning abnormality. At its non-playoff-contending, game-out-of-reach, fourth-quarter-inhabited-by-Royal-Ivey-and-Andy-Rautins worst, the game is still a demonstration of grace and gift executed with effortless precision. The sheen is bulletproof. For seamless visual spectacle its only competition—to get back to the performative—are the movies. When you CGI graft Kevin Durant onto a robot’s body or let Blake Griffin dunk the sun in a process shot, the natural point has already been lost. These men arealready special effects.
And this is what makes Luol Deng so compelling to watch, and so pallidly, creakily fascinating. Here is the rare athlete who seems as though he deserves some compensation for what he endures on the court. There is no gliding here, no effortlessness; this is a man at work. Let’s belabor and add some context to the performance analogue: if Derrick Rose were a genre of film he’d be Angry Young Man, all muted despair and angst and grimly stoic whatnot. Joakim Noah is the Spaghetti Western, subversive and intermittently psychedelic from within the confines of an establishment form. Luol Deng is Socialist Realism.
Watch him and you see acutely: real people doing things at tremendous physical cost, a theater of humble punishment. And this is real. A person can truly batter himself in service of this game, and Deng has, does. He's the boy-meets-tractor film of the NBA. For all his gangling, grab-ass defense or the weird, slight arm-stutter in his jumpshot, he’s the New Soviet Man next to Dwyane Wade’s Late Capitalist Dude. It’s neither subtlety nor massiveness you seek in watching him. It’s an affirmation of the world lived by the people who are actually living it. And Quiet Flows the Deng.
Just before the All-Star Game last season, Deng tore some ligaments in his left hand. The question did not seem to be whether or not Deng would miss the All-Star Game—it was his first selection, he was and is Luol Deng, he'd be there—but rather if Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who was coaching the Eastern Conference All-Stars, would still play him for the entire game. Busted paw and all, Deng led the league in minutes last year at 39.43 a game. One can only assume that, given the compression of the schedule due to the lockout that ate the first two months of the season, those 39.43 minutes probably felt worse than they sound. The Bulls only played on three consecutive nights once during the shortened season. On the third night, a 78-64 win over Washington—apologies, but: 78-64, Washington—Deng still played better than 45 minutes. Washington.
There’s an odd linkage between the winded, open-jawed Deng and the mirthless, rectangular Thibodeau. Thibodeau, let it be said once again, is a genius of basketball whose understanding of the game's nuance and contour is somewhere between autistic and supernatural. His schemes are defensive fantasias of aggressive traps and flawless rotations whose patterns were first mentioned in the writings of the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. They are in themselves collectivist masterpieces.
They nearly completely subsume the individual (on the Bulls or the other team, come to think). Really, you can see any freelancer, from the top of the key to the low block, immediately swallowed by Thibodeau’s gameplans. It isn’t just an argument against the cult of superstardom; it’s the triumph of the kolkhoz. And there’s Deng, all tentacular arms and speculative lurch, in the middle of it all.
Always, always in the middle of it all. According to 82games all 20 of the Bulls’ most effective five man unitslast season featured Deng. Thibodeau seems to understand perfectly the nature of the workhorse he’s got in Deng and the workhorse in Deng seems suited perfectly, brutally, for Thibodeau’s plans. It makes sense, so much sense that it hedges against that surge of pity or concern that arrivessomewhere around say the last timeout in the first quarter, when all the other nine starters are safely on the bench and only Deng remains a part of the game, looking vaguely ischemic but not at all ready to come out because, after all, the game’s just started and there’s still work to be done.
Not that it matters, but I like Luol Deng an awful lot. I have an overpowering, millennial love for Derrick Rose, but I really like Luol Deng. For better or for worse, he decided against surgery on his injured wrist this summer so he could play for Great Britain in the Olympic Games, citing an abiding loyalty to the country that took in his family when they fled their native Sudan during its Second Civil War; his father had served as Minister of Transportation for the fallen regime. Deng was very active during the independence campaign for South Sudan last year, promoting the international referendum that ultimately created the new and now sadly struggling state.
The regional polling place for the Midwest set up shop in a disused storefront on the north side of Chicago, around the corner from my kids’ pediatrician. It wasn’t unusual on one of our regular visits to the doctor to see a coach bus pulled up in front of the polling place-store and South Sudanese of all ages streaming in to vote. While ferrying the impetigous, the roseolaed, whatever medical miscellany was dogging my children at the moment, it was, however briefly, very warming to see people so thoroughly moved, so joyously involved.
Even when jerryrigged into the NBA star model, Deng seems uneasy, hesitant. See him flogging burgers for the international crowd alongside his putative rival/natural foil, LeBron James. James knows enough now to deliver the punchline with a smirk that’s appropriately knowing and cynical. For Deng the gold medal, the fries, hindering LeBron’s depressing ascent are all real outcomes, things to be fought for. To see him in a more apt setting, watch him postgame. He isn’t a particularly engaging interview, honestly; most NBA players aren't. But the rest of him, the somber and invariably downcast eyes, the countless icewraps, the dawning stiffness—these things speak softly and eloquently. This is a business that can be punishing. He always looks like the only guy in the room who will be sore in the morning.
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