INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Luol Deng has never once forgotten home.
He has spent much of his adult life trying to give back to his native South Sudan, the war-torn African nation the Cavaliers forward and his family fled when he was a young boy.
And while Deng’s contributions have touched many, he knows the work will never end.
“I wish I could wake up tomorrow and nobody needs help,” Deng said. “But we all know that’s not going to happen. I’m just happy to be in the position that I’m in to be able to do the things that I’m able to do.”
On Tuesday, Deng was commended for his compassion and dedication when he was named the winner of the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, given annually to an NBA player, coach or trainer for outstanding community service.
Deng has had a long commitment to philanthropic work in South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011 but has been ravaged by ethnic violence. The two-time All-Star, who came to Cleveland in a trade from Chicago in January, recently recorded a public service announcement for EnoughProject.org, urging peace in his homeland.
In a video directed at the nation’s youth, Deng says, “Look around you, and reach out. Make peace among those who are fighting. Forgive one another and encourage others to forgive. Build trust with people who fear each other. You are young, and if you are wise, you will build bridges with people your age that will last a lifetime.”
The video is a small sample of Deng’s attempts to help others.
The 29-year-old also has established The Luol Deng Foundation, a global nonprofit organization using basketball as a platform to bring hope to those less fortunate in Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States. His work in Africa has focused on the construction of outdoor courts and initiatives to bring together local communities.
His charity work in the U.S. has been focused primarily on his two NBA homes — Chicago and Cleveland. He has funded holiday events in the cities, providing meals and toys to the needy. He has served as a mentor to the “Lost Boys of Sudan” and supported the NBA’s “Basketball Without Borders” program.
Deng is the third Cleveland player to win the award, joining Austin Carr (1979-80) and Eric Snow (2004-05). He also joins an illustrious list of past winners, including Dave Bing, Isiah Thomas, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Dikembe Mutombo, David Robinson, Kevin Garnett and Steve Nash.
The award is named after the league’s second commissioner.
Deng’s journey to pro stardom is almost unbelievable.
One of nine children, he and his family left Sudan and lived as refugees in Egypt before going to England.
Cavs coach Mike Brown was fully aware of Deng’s background before the forward came to Cleveland. Brown was thrilled that Deng was honored.
“It’s well-deserved,” Brown said after practice. “From what he’s come from and his life experience is off the charts. He told me about it and I was touched. To see where he is now, and for him to know my job is not done, I was one of the fortunate ones. Because of where I am, I have a platform to help bring awareness for others.
“It’s a remarkable thing. I don’t know how he does it. You applaud him. Obviously, you applaud his parents for raising him the way they did. It’s an amazing story. I would be surprised if his life story doesn’t turn into a Hollywood movie deal someday. It’s that special.”
Deng finds greater reward in helping others.
“It’s one of those things when I talk to my parents about it, they’ll be very proud,” said Deng, who has been slowed by a sore back. “I don’t have any kids, but it’s one of those things where, when you have a kid and your kid calls home and tells the parents what award he won, they’ll be proud that they’ve done a good job.
“It’s all about helping other people and just doing what makes you happy in life.”