All-Star honor means world to Bulls

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- The most memorable moment in Luol Deng's first All-Star Game came during introductions.

Last season in Orlando, a beaming Deng was dressed in patriotic contraband. Instead of the league-mandated warm-up jacket, he wore a black T-shirt with a colorful decal of Africa that he pushed out for all to see.

As far as I know, he became the first All-Star to pop a continent.

Deng, who was born in what is now called South Sudan, grew up in Egypt and London and later was educated in the United States. While he braved his wrist injury to play for England in the 2012 Olympics, he is now introduced at Bulls games as being from "South Sudan."

This year, he won't be wearing that Africa T-shirt. Not unless he wants to donate five figures to the NBA.

"No," he said. "Last year, that was special. That was my first time. I think everyone knows what's in my heart and what I stand for. I'm just glad I had the opportunity to do it once. I don't want to really talk about it. I'm sure the league would talk to me about it."

The league did talk to him "a little bit" about the unsanctioned show of pride last year, and you understand its need for conformity, but Deng's show of pride, somewhat unexpected for the mild-mannered veteran, was exactly what the league should be encouraging as it continues to "grow" the game internationally.

With Derrick Rose not on the ballot as he continues to rehab his knee after surgery, Deng and his teammate Joakim Noah, a first-time selection, are overjoyed to represent Chicago in this year's All-Star Game in Houston. While Rose is the ultimate spokesman for his hometown Chicago, Noah and Deng will also represent France, England, Egypt and Cameroon. They will represent the people who got them there and the long road it took to deliver them.

Noah went to Twitter immediately after the All-Star reserves were announced and sent out a social media Oscar speech, thanking everyone he's ever known. It was totally in character.

"A lot of people helped me along the way," Noah said. "So there was definitely lot of people to thank. I know not only does it make me happy, but it makes a lot of people who were with me happy. A lot of people had to make sacrifices in order to get me where I'm at today."

Too often when it comes to the international exposure the All-Star Game and the Olympics bring, it's only about selling shoes, making money. Both Deng and Noah have talked openly in the past about using their fame to help others, even if it's just inspiration.

And both are very proud of their African heritage. After fleeing the country for asylum in Egypt decades before, Deng's family moved back to South Sudan after the country was granted independence in 2011. His parents live there.

Noah's father, Yannick, was discovered in Cameroon by tennis legend Arthur Ashe. Noah, who was raised in France and New York City, has a house in the country and tries to go back once a year to visit family.

Two years ago, during a playoff series in Atlanta, Noah was overjoyed to talk with Congo native Dikembe Mutombo, whom Noah refers to as "monsieur ambassadeur" for his place as an NBA pioneer for African players.

Now, Noah is saying Deng is the standard-bearer.

"It's really special for me to be able to go with Lu," Noah said. "He's one of my best friends on the team. He's somebody for African players, he's like an ambassador, somebody who does a lot for the kids out there. I appreciate Lu, because he's somebody who understands that it's more than just playing basketball. There's more to it. And if you're able to help others, that's just as big as anything.

"I'm proud to be able to play with a guy like Luol Deng. I'm proud also to be African. I try to go back once a year and stay in tune with my roots."

If Deng is considered a role model for African players, he hopes it's for his actions off the court.

"When it comes to me and African players, it's not so much the performance of the African player, it's a lot with how he carries himself and never forgets about his home," Deng said. "I think that's the message me and Jo try to pass to all these African kids in the future. They're going to get the opportunity, and you should never forget where you are from."

Noah and Deng made the All-Star team as reserves picked by coaches thanks to their all-around play. Neither has the flashy game to get voted in by the fans. But basketball people know these two are the keys to the Bulls' success, especially with Rose out.

That they're All-Stars, and the Bulls were 25-16 at the halfway point, just three games behind the Miami Heat for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, is a testament to Tom Thibodeau's leadership, but also to the players themselves, each of whom has overcome challenges to make a spot for himself in the All-Star Game.

While Deng pushed through a wrist injury to play in the Olympics, Noah skipped out on playing for France after suffering a leg injury in the playoffs. He worked harder on his conditioning, knowing that he would have to increase his minutes this season with Omer Asik in Houston.

Noah is second on the team in minutes per game at 38.3 (Deng, as usual, is first at 39.8); first in rebounds (10.9), steals (1.33) and blocks (2.08); second in assists (4); and third in points (12.2). Noah is playing almost eight minutes more a game than he did last season.

"Jo has worked so hard," Deng said. "I'm just happy Jo got the opportunity from the start of the year. With his effort, dealing with playing a lot of minutes, taking care of his body, he's really been committed to this program and winning. I'm glad he's getting recognition."

Despite outside concerns, which he claims he has ignored, Deng's wrist hasn't been an important issue, though he is out right now with a hamstring injury. He's leading the team in scoring at 17.4 points per game, to go along with 6.4 rebounds and 3 assists. Other aspects of his game can't be measured.

"The system is perfect," Deng said. "It allows me to show a lot more than just scoring, showing a lot of people what I do."

On Friday, Deng, Noah and Thibodeau all pointed to the All-Star exclusion of Carlos Boozer, who has dramatically stepped up his game in Rose's absence. Deng was pretty honest about his inclusion.

"I don't think I get in if we don't have the record we have," Deng said. "It says a lot about our team."

Remember when we thought this season was a wash? Two All-Stars, a very good record and Rose is maybe weeks from making a return.

While the All-Star Game itself is often mocked for its defenseless zeal, this game is meaningful to the Bulls and both of their worldly ambassadors.