INDEPENDENCE: Luol Deng’s emotional turmoil after being traded by the team with which he spent his entire NBA career was nothing compared to the confusion felt by his mother Martha.
She had decided to stay for a while following the family’s holiday visit to Chicago when word came early Tuesday morning that the Bulls had sent Deng, a soon-to-be free agent, to Cleveland.
Apparently Martha Deng couldn’t comprehend the Bulls’ disloyalty towards her son, a two-time All-Star who appeared in 637 games after being drafted in the first round in 2004.
That was the toughest part for Deng, but it gave him something to focus on besides his own surprise and disappointment. He has always worn No. 9 as a tribute to her for the nine children she bore.
“My mom doesn’t really understand being traded,” Deng said Wednesday after his first Cavs practice at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “To me that was one of the hardest things I had to do, explain to her the organization I’ve been with for nine years no longer wanted me there. She couldn’t understand why. She feels like I’m a nice guy, I get along with everybody … She was asking me, ‘Are you not playing well? What’s going on?’
“Packing and leaving her at the house, the timing was just bad. If she was back in London, I think it would have been really easy for me to get on the phone and tell her I’m moving to Cleveland.”
Deng filled five suitcases and left the rest behind to bring later. He sounded as if Martha Deng stood beside him as he folded every shirt.
“She still doesn’t understand,” Deng said. “I think at some point I’ll bring her out to see everything. It will change her mindset a little bit. It’s been nine years. I’m the only kid in the NBA, so she doesn’t know how it works. She’ll be OK with it.”
Deng, 28, is the eighth of nine children of Aldo and Martha Deng. Members of the Dinka tribe, Deng, his siblings and mother fled the civil war in South Sudan for Egypt when Luol was 5. They departed their homeland without his imprisoned father, a member of the Sudanese parliament and minister of transportation, who found asylum for them in Great Britain upon his release.
Luol isn’t the only Deng to excel at basketball. His brother Ajou played at Fairfield University, his sister Arek at the University of Delaware. While they lived in Egypt, Luol and his three brothers were taught the sport by Manute Bol, another Dinka. Bol, who died in 2010 at age 47, became like a second father or brother to Luol.
While Martha Deng and to some extent her son try to cope with what happened, the Cavs present an opportunity for Deng to continue to make his mother proud.
Even as coach Mike Brown tries to teach the young Cavs, they need a strong veteran to lead them. While Deng spoke of fitting in with his new teammates, he said he wanted to turn the Cavs around. He was obviously aware of their three seasons of missing the playoffs and lottery picks.
In his career, Deng has had only two losing seasons, including the Bulls’ 15-18 record with him in 2013-14. In one season at Duke, Deng helped the Blue Devils reach the Final Four. With the Bulls came six playoff appearances in nine years, including when he was a rookie and they qualified for the postseason after a six-year absence.
On Wednesday, Tristan Thompson said he envisioned Deng helping the Cavs bring things together.
“Adding him, Chris letting him know what we’re trying to accomplish here, he wants the same thing,” Thompson said, referring also to General Manager Chris Grant.
If Deng has to be the driving force that helps turn the 12-23 Cavs into a winner, he said he’s “definitely OK” with that.
“I’m not going to average 30,” he said. “Each night just try to get the guys excited and play as hard as we can. I think after a while it becomes a habit. And these guys have already shown how hard they play and how together they are as a team. It won’t be very hard at all.
“The record really doesn’t speak for how good this team can be. Some of the guys I’ve seen play, [Anderson] Varejao I’ve always loved how hard he plays. Kyrie’s [Irving] talent is unbelievable.
‘‘You have scorers, you have [Dion] Waiters coming off the bench, the way C.J. [Miles] shoots the ball, you can just go on. I’m really excited.”
If Deng can lead the Cavs into the playoffs, Martha Deng might understand what the next chapter of her son’s life could hold. Then she surely will share his excitement.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.