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Deng 'can be UK's Jordan'

Chicago Bulls celebrate their last-second win over Utah Jazz in London

Video - Bulls beat Jazz on the buzzer in London

By Andrew McKenzie

David Stern, commissioner of the National Basketball Association, looked like a man who had struck gold for a second time.

Back in 1984 Stern took over as head of the world's biggest basketball league, just a few months before Michael Jordan arrived on the scene.

The NBA grabbed hold of Jordan's cape and watched him take them to heights they never thought imaginable.

Jordan proved so popular in the US that it inspired a drinks manufacturer to run commercials where everyone seemingly wanted to be "Like Mike".

Luol and the possibility of a good GB team in the Olympics is upon us and this night was really the biggest of them all

David Stern

Twenty five years on, Stern says that, in British star Luol Deng, they have someone who can help him achieve the NBA's new mission impossible: to awaken an awareness of basketball in a UK market already saturated by more traditional sports like football, cricket and rugby.

Asked if there were similarities between Jordan's impact on the league and Deng's potential to do something similar in Britain, Stern told BBC Sport: "Without question.

"He is a home-grown talent and a favourite son. There are going to be many youngsters bouncing a ball and saying they want to be like Luol as opposed to being like Mike."

Stern was talking after seeing Deng's Chicago Bulls beat the Utah Jazz in an exhilarating 102-101 pre-season game at the O2 Arena in London.

The exhibition game between two experimental sides had little at stake, but James Johnson's winning basket was met with jubilant celebrations by both Bulls players and a crowd of almost 19,000.

It is the third consecutive year that the NBA has brought two of its teams to London for a pre-season game.

All three matches have been announced as sell-outs but Deng's involvement for the Bulls - already popular as a result of Jordan's exploits in the 1980s and '90s - gave the game added importance and exposure.

"The feeling is different," Stern added. "The enthusiasm that is reflected in the newspapers, online and on TV with the game being covered by ESPN and the BBC, even the crowd reaction on the streets to our players. The awareness is building.

Luol Deng
There are so many kids that love the game [in the UK] but there's hardly any facilities

Luol Deng

"Luol and the possibility of a good GB team in the Olympics is upon us and this night was really the biggest of them all.

"The players caught the enthusiasm of the crowd and they responded to each other. It was an unqualified success.

"It has definitely gone up a level. We don't want it to go up too fast; we like steady upward movement and we are in the middle of that.

"The place we are aiming for is post-Olympics. We have the World Championships coming up [in Turkey next year] and then the Olympics"

Before the game Stern reaffirmed his commitment to go to the next level and host a competitive league game at the O2 before the Olympics, possibly next year but if not in 2011.

Chicago head coach Vinny del Negro - who almost ended up as the villain of the night after leaving Deng on the bench for the entire fourth quarter - raised various concerns about such a prospect, including the impact the travel involved would have on a team as well as fitting it into the NBA's hectic schedule.

However, he added "if the commissioner says come and play a regular-season game in London, we'll be here - that's how it works".

One person who would have no complaints with a return is Deng, who added that he "would not be surprised" if the Bulls were involved.

"When I was growing up here I couldn't have imagined it," said the small forward, who started his basketball career in Brixton, before moving to play in the US at the age of 14 when his talent was spotted.

"I wouldn't have thought an NBA game would be sold out and so many kids would be wearing the jerseys.

"It was so tough finding the facilities and following the games but basketball has grown and there are so many more people talking about it and kids paying attention. It's amazing."

606: DEBATE

The next stage of development looks likely to be the US team playing a game at the O2 next year, possibly against Deng and Team GB, while Stern will also be using all his weight to get Britain a wild-card entry into the 2010 World Championships.

Further down the line the NBA has visions of European franchises being a part of the league.

London would seem to be one of the likely destinations, probably along with Paris, Milan, Madrid and Istanbul, where the NBA also has opened offices in recent years.

For now Deng feels work needs to be done to make sure all of the positive steps taken to promote the game are built upon in the UK.

"The number one thing is getting more facilities," he said.

"There are so many kids that love the game but there's hardly any facilities.

"So they get to a certain age and either go to the US on a scholarship or - if they're not that good - a lot of kids just stop playing."



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