Luol Deng and his Bulls teammates could use more reasons to smile lately.… (Rena Naltsas/For RedEye )
Ringling Bros. could have used Luol Deng when the circus was in town last week.
The 28-year-old forward has been juggling roles in the wake of Derrick Rose's season-ending injury last month. His latest position: the Bulls' go-to guy.
In Monday's triple-overtime loss to New Orleans, Deng played 55 minutes, scored a season-high 37 points, nabbed eight rebounds and posted seven assists. It was the Bulls' first home game since returning from their annual two-week road trip while the circus was at the United Center.
"It's a new experience, but I got to keep working on it and keep working on my game," Deng said of being a closer. "We had a tough trip. Not going to lie and say I wasn't tired out there."
Though the Bulls went 1-5 on the circus trip, Deng excelled—perhaps because he's a road warrior. This summer he visited 16 countries, including nine in Africa. Along the way, he hosted basketball camps and promoted his Luol Deng Foundation, dedicated to helping African refugees in need of food and supplies.
Acting as hoops ambassador is a role Deng, who leads the Bulls with 19.4 points per game this season, has embraced. He's in his 10th season in Chicago—a feat achieved by only four other players, including Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
And even though his future as a Bull is uncertain because of trade talks since Rose's injury and a six-year, $71 million contract that expires after this season, he has been lauded as a foundation player for the franchise.
"I don't think you can win a championship without a player like Luol," coach Tom Thibodeau said before the season. "He does so many things for our team that go unrecognized by most except his teammates and coaches. He's a complete player."
Deng's story reads like a melodrama. He was born in Sudan and at age 5 fled the country during its civil war. One of nine children, Deng and his family settled in Egypt and then London. He played for Duke University and in 2004 was drafted in the first round by Phoenix and quickly traded to Chicago.
In more than nine seasons with the Bulls, he has averaged 16 points per game. He was selected as a reserve for the 2012 and 2013 NBA All-Star Games.
He has balanced his play with charity work, earning praise from President Obama. After Deng won the U.N. Refugee Agency's Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2008, Obama said, "Both on and off the court, Luol sets a standard of excellence and service that all Americans can look to for inspiration."
Deng enjoyed a homecoming in his native Sudan in the summer of 2010 for the first time since leaving in 1990. This year, he returned to Africa to visit Ghana, Ivory Coast, Angola, Senegal and South Sudan, among other spots.
He experienced his own circuslike trip this summer when he found himself jumping through hoops to travel from Mongolia to London, his home city. After a three-day trip to Mongolia, Deng spent five hours flying to Hong Kong only to have his flight to London canceled.
Instead, he flew from Hong Kong to Malaysia and then to London. All the yo-yoing took 40 hours.
"It was me and a friend of mine. We ate, watched different movies," Deng told RedEye. "Slept at the airport. It was just the longest 40 hours ever."
The tight turnarounds have made him a veteran traveler.
He said he packs a small pillow and his iPad to watch movies and binge on TV. Before the circus trip, he was saving the final season of one of his favorite road shows: "Breaking Bad."
Dramatic storylines should be familiar to Deng and the Bulls. Rose's "Return" was short-lived, and starting guard Jimmy Butler has been out with a toe injury.
The Bulls face perhaps their strongest test Thursday at the United Center against Miami. The Bulls last played the Heat on Oct. 29 in Miami, where LeBron James and company won 107-95 in their ring ceremony/season opener. Deng scored four points.
Since then, he has grabbed the spotlight. The featured role once reserved for Rose and ex-Bulls Ben Gordon and Nate Robinson is now his.
"I work on my game every day whether it's the last shot or the first shot or a shot in the second quarter," Deng said. "I try to make every shot I take. It's definitely a different situation that I haven't been in."
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