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Eating outside by the Nile River is so peaceful.
Deng sat there, on the outskirts of Juba, South Sudan, dining with his father, brother and best friend. The sun warmed. The wind calmed. Eventually, his friend, Adam Andre, even jumped in the river. Deng teased him about getting eaten by alligators.
But no. On this day, four months into South Sudan's remarkable independence, with four of Deng's eight siblings and his parents having returned home for good, only peaceful moments prevailed.
It's not unlike the contentment Deng has found in his professional life. Once maligned by Bulls fans for being overpaid and physically and mentally brittle, Deng has become coach Tom Thibodeau's indispensable part, as reliable and relentless as the mighty Nile's current.
"He's relaxed because he knows that everything is cool now," says Andre, who has known Deng since they attended a New Jersey boarding school together 12 years ago. "There's peace in South Sudan."
Deng's father, Aldo, served as Sudan's minister of transportation as civil war raged. The family left for Egypt when Luol was 5, eventually landing outside London when England granted Aldo political asylum in 1993.
Deng spent six years in England, left for New Jersey's Blair Academy at 14 and earned a basketball scholarship at Duke. After one sparkling season, the Bulls acquired his draft rights in a trade with the Suns on June 24, 2004.
Close to eight years later, Deng has matured on and off the court.
"He's a very nuanced person, a very proud Sudanese," says assistant Ron Adams, who coached Deng as a rookie and returned again last season. "He has a world view. He's a very giving and aware human being. I love his ability to focus on what is important in life."
Deng proudly has become the face of basketball in Britain. He takes seriously that responsibility and looks to this summer's Olympic Games in London as a chance to pay a small debt back to the country that welcomed his family as it escaped the horrors at home.
However, when he, his family and Andre celebrated South Sudan's independence July 9 along with a crowd estimated at 1 million, the moment overwhelmed Deng.
"Man, it's unbelievable," Deng says. "Everywhere I went — London, Jersey, Duke, here — I was that kid from another country. When I go to Sudan now, it's not that. I'm just home. I'm no longer an outsider or a refugee. I just fit in. It gives me a feeling of peace."
Deng had been active in the independence movement. Last January, he paid for two charter buses to bring hundreds of Sudanese down from Michigan to vote absentee on the referendum for South Sudan to separate. The 22-year civil war ended in 2005.
Deng needed several seconds — but only one word — to describe how he felt when the referendum passed in February 2011.
"Joy," he says.
Deng had returned home in 2010 for the first time since fleeing 20 years before to perform fundraising and community service work for the U.N. Refugee Agency, one of the many worldly causes he supports. There was one personal benefit to the NBA lockout: Deng traveled to South Sudan for the independence celebration in July and again in November.
"If you go to South Sudan," Deng says, chuckling, "whoever you meet is probably related to me."
Though Deng obviously attracts widespread attention on his visits home, Andre insists the quieter moments are equally powerful.
"When we first went back, his mother, Martha, gave me a hug and it was like she was a whole new woman," he says. "Her face is lit up there. She's happy and with friends. Lu feeds off that. Him seeing his parents happy and at peace has totally changed him. When we're there, he's always smiling, never worried."
Deng's first trip home came one month after the Bulls hired Thibodeau.
"He called me right away and told me he had watched every game of mine from the previous season and appreciated how hard I play," Deng says. "And I appreciated that he saw that. He didn't call me and talk about scoring or certain moves. He just talked about how hard I play and he wanted me to continue playing that way."
Deng did, playing all 82 games for the second time in his seven seasons and drawing new notice as an elite defender. But coaches recognized another new wrinkle. Once moody and thin-skinned, an edgier, more confident player emerged.
"I'm not as sensitive," Deng says. "Ron Adams would tell you that. I was 19 when I came in. As a young player, you focus so much on doing well yourself. Now I'm just focused on winning and the team. And I end up doing the little things and playing better anyway. And I feel so much better doing that."
Deng is off to another strong start this season. His parents follow his career from South Sudan. Deng talks about the sacrifices they made for him and his siblings. Then he laughs as he says his father remains more interested in Deng's academic and charitable accomplishments than his athletic ones.
"That day, seeing my parents," Deng says of South Sudan's independence, "it's something I'll never forget. This is definitely the happiest I've been in my life."
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