Luol Deng didn’t remember the country of his birth.

The former Chicago Bull fled with his family to Egypt when he was just five to escape the toils of the Second Sudanese Civil War. So, when Deng finally returned to South Sudan in 2010, he didn’t recognize anything he saw.

Deng has called three countries — Egypt, the United Kingdom and the United States — home since his family first escaped the conflict. But South Sudan, a developing nation with 70% of its population under 27, has become the two-time NBA All-Star’s focus.

The Memphis Grizzlies organization honored Deng with the National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Award for his charity work in South Sudan and other African countries as part of its 21st annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. While simultaneously maintaining a $125 million-dollar real estate empire, Deng runs the Luol Deng Foundation, which aims to better the lives of Sudanese and South Sudanese people through sports and education.

“For me to receive this award, it makes me happy,” Deng said. “I’ve dedicated my life from Day One.”

His other philanthropic efforts include working with the United Nations’ World Food Program and Nothing But Nets, an initiative to prevent malaria in Africa.

An Ambassador of the Basketball Africa League, Deng has also shared his love for basketball in the continent, particularly in South Sudan, where he serves as President of the South Sudan Basketball Federation. In these roles, he has refurbished basketball gyms and helped put African basketball on the world stage.

“I really had a passion and a vision that I can change what people think about South Sudan through sports,” Deng said.

Sports helped Deng assimilate into a new culture.

When his family moved to the Brixton district of South London after being granted political asylum, Deng, 10 at the time, did not know a word of English (Arabic, also spoken in Egypt, was his first language). Nor had he ever seen so many glass structures — London’s architecture significantly differed from Egypt’s brick buildings.

But he was good at soccer, his first sport. The 6-foot-9 Arsenal fan said all the kids wanted him on their team because of his skills. Playing “fútbol,” as most of the world calls it, helped Deng make friends and assimilate.

“I was able to learn English quickly because of sports,” Deng said.

And then, sports moved him to the United States at 14, when Deng enrolled at Blair Academy in Blairstown, New Jersey. It was a culture shock, as he’d never lived in a city or a predominantly white community before. Despite that and the distance from his family, Deng starred on the court and became the second-ranked recruit in the class of 2003 after LeBron James.

The five-star McDonald’s All-American went on to play basketball at Duke under head coach Mike Krzyzewski for one season. He was selected seventh overall by the Phoenix Suns in the 2004 NBA draft before being traded shortly after to the Chicago Bulls, where he spent 10 strong seasons.

“I’m very thankful that I played in such an organization that actually cares about me,” Deng said.

Of all the things Deng accomplished over his playing career, he said it was sporting a shirt with a graphic of Africa on it during his entrance at the 2012 NBA All-Star game that he cherishes the most.

Africa is Deng’s home and where he first discovered basketball. In Egypt, he was introduced to the game by the late Manute Bol. The former NBA player, who supported Sudanese refugees and human rights initiatives, was from South Sudan and ran a basketball school in Cairo. “He gave everybody hope,” Deng said.

And now, that has become Deng’s mission. The 37-year-old’s passion for philanthropy started young and has roots in how his family related to each other. No one ate alone. Everyone shared.

Institutions outside of the NBA have also recognized Deng’s efforts. In July 2022, he was awarded an Order of the British Empire, which meant a lot to the refugee turned British citizen who competed for Britain’s national basketball team in the 2012 Olympics.

“What made it so profound for me was not about validation or a title. It was about the transcendent power of sport, which has been my primary tool for giving back to the places that have played a role in my life,” Deng wrote on Instagram regarding the honor.

As for his real estate empire? That started around the Olympics in 2012, long before the former NBA All-Star thought about retiring. Once Deng learned about turning a profit on flipped houses and built a strong team around him, he found success investing in properties in the Hamptons, the UK, the Bahamas and Africa.

“I’m more than just an athlete,” Deng said glowingly.

That is something the NBA is working to help its players understand.

Deng said the NBA used to have former players visit with current ones to talk about their lives post-retirement. The problem was athletes only heard stories of failure and how people poorly managed their money instead of success stories to make an example of.

The humanitarian told the NBA to change that. The league has adjusted accordingly and does a better job of empowering players to be successful in all areas of life.

If the league ever does invite Deng to meet with current players, his story will count as a successful one.

“I always knew that in order to be the best that I can be, … it’s about helping those in tough situations and giving them an opportunity,” Deng expressed. “Because I was given an opportunity.”