LONDON — Basketball-wise, there's nothing exceptional about the lone gymnasium inside the Brixton Recreation Centre.
One of the six baskets — or rings as some call them here, and not just during the Olympics — is inoperable. A hole punctures the ceiling from a recent mishap, just above the single, occasionally malfunctioning electronic scoreboard. A pulled curtain separates the two narrow courts, but the shuttlecock from the spirited game of badminton somehow still strays to interrupt the youth basketball camp.
This gym is where Luol Deng spent several of his formative years. It's where, despite being limited to just two weekly practice sessions in the multipurpose gym, basketball replaced soccer as his true athletic passion.
It's where, after Great Britain granted his family political asylum from war-torn Sudan, he began calculating a debt he is bent on repaying despite entering these Games with a torn ligament in his left wrist. The face of this country's growing basketball movement hasn't let injury prevent his incumbency.
"It's a bloody miracle he made it," Jimmy Rogers says. "England is a third-world country for basketball."
Deng has consistently said these Olympics are bigger than him, that his participation goes beyond wins and losses and contractual obligations and surgical decisions. To begin to understand why, you emerge from the Brixton underground stop and listen to the blaring reggae music from the African and Caribbean street merchants in this multiethnic slice of south London that Deng so loves. Then you enter Jimmy Rogers' gym.
Harder — but fair
Children of varying ages and skill levels are running through drills and heeding Rogers' orders. To many of them, Deng represents a symbol that goes beyond his athletic fame and fortune with the Bulls.
"He has taught me to work hard and stay humble," says Babatunde Whitfield-Gilbert, 17, who has attended Deng's camp in Brixton. "Even if you can't play basketball, you can work hard and you might be good in another field. You can take lessons you learn from commitment and teamwork and apply them elsewhere."
Rogers, 72, is the legendary general manager of the Brixton Topcats basketball club. Some call him the godfather of London basketball. With his booming voice and grand gestures, he's easily the most exceptional element of the non-descript gym, which would pass for a middle-school facility in the U.S.
Rogers colors his anecdotes with effects, even punching a relative stranger in the shoulder for emphasis and walking away, laughing, before returning to talk more. His command over participating boys and girls is palpable. His counselors are former players, all volunteering for free.
"I've been here since 1981, been in this facility since 1984 when it opened," Rogers says. "We've never had a spot of trouble. We've never sent a kid away. We've sent more kids to the U.S. for school than every club in London put together. They've all graduated (from college) but Luol, and he has said he wants to.
"Luol has said it was harder, what he did here, but it was fair. If someone messed up, everyone was held accountable. You could pick a Brixton guy out from anywhere because we teach respect and education. Don't you ever besmirch this game."
That's a philosophy Deng embraced on his way to his first All-Star berth last season with the Bulls. It's also helped lead him here, where he is staying in the athletes' village to better soak up the experience, a culmination of his unlikely journey from London to London.
Deng first followed his more accomplished older brothers, particularly Ajou, from the South Norwood neighborhood they called home to the nearby Brixton gym when he was a gangly 11-year-old everyone called Michael. Having received some tutelage from fellow Dinka tribe member Manute Bol during his siblings' Egyptian stint in between the Sudan and England, Deng knew what to do.
But as a passionate Arsenal fan, he also kept sneaking away to play his and his adopted country's first love. Basketball isn't simply an afterthought to soccer here. It trails in popularity cricket, equestrian, rowing, darts — yep, darts — you name it.
"This is the year of the Olympics," Rogers screams, sounding like a preacher. "This is the major city in the country of the Olympics. And in this year, to date, we don't have a dedicated basketball center apart from the one built for the Olympics. And they're taking it down when the Games are over!"
Carrying the weight
Still, something about the game and about Rogers kept bringing Deng back. Rogers' story: He grew up in an orphanage in Newcastle before becoming a foster child as a teenager and later joining the army.