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To the majority of sports fans in the United Kingdom, Mixed Martial Arts was an almost completely unknown phenomenon six years ago, until a certain Michael Bisping won the third season of The Ultimate Fighter, a reality show with the prize of a contract with the prestigious Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The English fighters’ success in the competition and his subsequent victories in the Octagon catapulted the sport from obscurity to one of the most anticipated sporting events. The UK now hosts regular UFC events as well as boasting several top fighters in the forms of Dan Hardy, Terry Etim, Ross Pearson (another Ultimate Fighter winner) and of course Bisping himself.
This has led to the UK becoming one of the largest markets worldwide for MMA, and more specifically the UFC. It is therefore not a large leap to assume that the recent announcement of Chicago Bulls star Luol Deng’s impending first British All-Star status could have a similar effect on the popularity of basketball and the NBA in the UK.
This current season withstanding, the NBA has played preseason games in the UK for the last few years and even took this a step further last season with the New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors competing in two Regular Season games at London’s O2 Arena. Despite the sports’ lack of mass appeal in the congested British sports market, both games were sell outs and deemed highly successful by both NBA officials and the fans who attended the games.
Although the NFL, who have also been hosting a Regular Season game in London for the last few years, is perhaps a step ahead of the NBA in terms of its presence in the UK, the emergence of Deng as one of the top performers in the NBA may be just what’s needed to readdress the balance.
The Sudanese-born small forward, who relocated to Brixton, South London after being granted political asylum, moved to the States at the age of 14 to pursue a promising basketball career. In fact, at the end of High School he was considered by many as the second best senior in the country, with only superstar LeBron James preceding.
He then attended Duke University for just one year before entering the NBA draft, his draft stock considerably boosted by the fact he led all rookies in scoring, rebounds and field goal percentage during his solitary season as a Blue Devil. He was drafted seventh overall by the Phoenix Suns but was immediately traded to the Chicago Bulls, where he set about laying the foundations for what would develop into a highly successful relationship for both team and player alike.
Deng seemed to be on the cusp of something great in Chicago for several seasons, but a multitude of injuries limited his time on the court, however, not preventing him from being named to the All-Rookie First Team in his debut season. Then the arrival of Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer unfortunately detracted from Deng’s numbers despite causing an increase in the Bulls’ scoring potential.
Since then, Deng has improved his outside shooting significantly under the tutelage of Tom Thibodeau and an enhanced understanding with fellow All-Star Rose has culminated in Deng’s hard work and determination being rewarded by a place in the upcoming All-Star weekend in Orlando.
Perhaps the most influential aspect of Deng’s career so far, at least in terms of raising the games popularity in the UK, is not his ability to put up great numbers, which is considerable, but his desire to represent the national team of his adopted country. Despite facing insurance problems and domestic pressures not to compete at the Eurobasket 2011 for Great Britain, Deng overcame these obstacles and went on to be named MVP for the tournament.
He led an inexperienced GB side very well, and won himself a lot of plaudits from both sides of the Atlantic, not only for his exceptional play, but also his seemingly well honed leadership skills.
Based in a continent where the likes of Spain, France and Italy tend to dominate internationally and domestically, a good showing at the upcoming Olympics from a Deng-led Great Britain could do wonders to help raise the sport’s profile. Throw into the mix the potential inclusion of Detroit Piston’s shooting guard Ben Gordon, as well as NBA journeyman Pops Mensah-Bonsu, then GB’s chances look to be getting much better.
The presence of several British players in the American collegiate system also raises hopes that we may see more players forge a successful career in the NBA, and it only seems a matter of time before basketball starts to grow in popularity and the NBA receives the same level of exposure as its national compatriot, the NFL.
Image Courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/