Chicago Bulls' Luol Deng
CHICAGO -- Luol Deng was kicking around a soccer ball long before he ever picked up a basketball. Although he eventually gave up soccer in order to pursue his hoop dreams, he tells ESPNsoccernet that he remains a die-hard fan of the beautiful game.
ESPNsoccernet: How did you first become interested in soccer?
LD: When you're African or European, you get into it. I was born in Sudan, and grew up in Egypt and then England. We would play with balls made of socks or put a towel over a balloon and wrap duct tape around it. We used a tennis ball a lot too. Only in big games did we use a soccer ball.
ESPNsoccernet: Did you ever dream about becoming a professional soccer player?
LD: I always wanted to be a soccer player. That was my first love. I played midfielder and striker. I used to tell people how I was going to celebrate after I scored goals. I was going to take off my shirt and pose or I was going to run to the corner and do a little dance or slide. We would watch players celebrate goals in a game and do the celebration the next day at school.
ESPNsoccernet: When did basketball come into the picture?
LD: I would play basketball now and then and my brother and his friends would say, "You're really good." Soccer was what I wanted to do, but I had this growth spurt where I became taller than everyone. It just made more sense.
ESPNsoccernet: Is it true you were invited to try out for England's U-15 soccer team?
LD: Yeah, I was 14 and was having an amazing year for my school team. Being called up was a great honor, but around that time I also got called up for England's basketball team. It had to be one or the other. I decided if I'm going to do basketball, I have to stop with soccer.
ESPNsoccernet: Was it a difficult decision?
LD: It was a really tough decision. I wanted to keep playing. Every now and then I'll stay after practice and play soccer. I'll kick the ball around sometimes with [Bulls' guard] Thabo [Sefolosha] -- sometimes with [forward] Andres [Nocioni]. It's in me. I still love it.
ESPNsoccernet: Who were your favorite soccer players growing up?
LD: Ronaldo. He was unbelievable. I had a Ronaldo poster. One of the reasons I fell in love with the No. 9 [Deng's jersey number] was because of Ronaldo. He's still my favorite player of all time. I was also a fan of Ian Wright and Patrick Vieira.
ESPNsoccernet: You've said in past interviews that you're an Arsenal fan -- why the Gunners?
LD: I grew up in London and they were the team my father liked. I liked their style. I watched a lot of their games on TV while growing up but I never went to any. The last couple of years I've gone to a few games. I was at the opening of Emirates [Stadium]. To be there for the opening of your club's new stadium was unbelievable. I had a lot of fun.
ESPNsoccernet: Are you disappointed Thierry Henry left for Barcelona?
LD: I was at the time, but he had to do what's best for him. Being a professional athlete, I understand. A lot of people were mad he left but he has to do what's best for him and his family. I think Arsenal will be fine and I wish him all the best. He's a great guy.
ESPNsoccernet: Are you friends with any soccer players?
LD: I'm really close with Philippe Senderos from Switzerland. I'm friends with a lot of the Arsenal guys. A few of them have connections to Africa so we have that to talk about. Kolo Toure is a big basketball fan. He knows everything about what's going on in the [NBA] season.
ESPNsoccernet: Which soccer players do you think would have made good basketball players?
LD: Paulo Wanchope. He was a very good basketball player. Henry says he's pretty good. I haven't seen him. Senderos played a little. His brother played for Switzerland's national team so he knows basketball.
ESPNsoccernet: Which basketball players would have made good soccer players?
LD: I know Steve Nash plays. His brother played in England -- I remember that. He would have been a great one. You have to look at the guards.
ESPNsoccernet: Do any of your American teammates on the Bulls follow soccer?
LD: They don't know much about it. Every now and then we kick a ball around and juggle and they like what they see.
ESPNsoccernet: What's your record for juggling?
I used to do 200, maybe 200 and something. Right now I think I could get 130 -- maybe more.
ESPNsoccernet: Do you follow Major League Soccer?
LD: A little bit. I was really rooting for the Fire this year. I'm good friends with Diego [Gutierrez]. I watched a few of their games. The league is doing well and is developing. I think in the future it will be a really good league. A lot of players will come here. We just saw David Beckham do that -- other players will follow.
Luis Arroyave is a writer for the Chicago Tribune and also writes a blog The Red Card. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.