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  • Writer's pictureTimothy LaDuca

ART U's Deang Deang - Leaning Into The Legacy

For Deang Deang, a graduate student at Division II Academy of Art University, leaving a legacy is everything.

His begins thousands of feet above the ground. He was on a plane destined for a fresh start and new opportunities. He was not headed to a basketball tournament or a recruiting visit. He was much too young for any of that. It was 1997 and Deang was not even born yet. His mother was traveling from Sudan to the United States, pregnant with her third child.

Deang grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, but his family moved to the United States from what is now South Sudan, the world’s youngest country. It gained independence in 2011 after battling with the central government since 2003. Deang’s mother, Willma Joshua, brought Deang and her family to the United States to escape the war-torn country. That was her legacy. This is his.

Finding the Game

Deang shares a familiar basketball origin story. He began playing at the YMCA when he was 3, eventually joined an AAU team and played varsity basketball all four years in high school.

On his AAU team, Deang shared the court with Golden State Warriors guard Jordan Poole and was driven to win and compete. At Madison East High School, his team made it deep into the postseason, but Deang believed they never lived up to expectations. He played on talented teams, but Deang felt like he developed most as a basketball player working alone. Before games, after wins or losses, or on an off day, Deang worked.

“I love to see how far I can push myself,” he said. “My mom is a workhorse. I’ve seen her grind through it all.”

Willma, a mom of six, works as a certified nursing assistant. Deang says she also cuts hair, walks dogs, cleans houses and does anything to help others while providing for her family. Her work ethic transferred to Deang and his time in the gym helped him to a successful college basketball career. Deang’s goal was to play at the highest level with the most eyes watching. He set lofty goals to prove to his family — and others — that they can do anything they set their minds to. For Deang, that was playing at a Division I school, but Highland Community College in Illinois was first to elevate his game and improve his chances at the next level.

Deang credits Highland coach Tone Boyle for fine-tuning his skills. Boyle let Deang play freely as a freshman and the Cougars had a successful season.

Boyle left after his first year, and Chad Boudreau stepped into the role, implementing a new system and teaching Deang to slow the game. He had to learn to let the game come to him instead of playing at blazing speed, but an injury grinded his season to a halt. Deang would have played through the pain if Boudreau had not intervened.

“I probably would have played until I broke it because I love the game so much.”

Deang overcame the injury and was recruited to some high-profile Division I teams, but decided to play with Jay Spoonhour at Eastern Illinois. Deang said he was so proud to play for a Division I school and represent Madison East at the highest level collegiately, but once again, injury slowed his progress. Averaging 9.5 points through 10 games for EIU, Deang tore his Achilles while playing at Milwaukee, not far from his high school.

Deang would not play another game for more than a year — sitting out until Dec. 30, 2020. He played 17 games in 2020-21, coming off injury to average four points.

Spoonhour was cautious with Deang coming off injury and Deang appreciated the way his coach was able to consider the bigger picture and think about his future and family.

(Photos by Jake Ward/ART U Athletics)

Time to Transfer

Deang entered his name into the transfer portal after that 2020-21 campaign and it was time for him to look for another opportunity. About then, Scott Waterman was cold-calling players in the transfer portal looking to add D-I talent to his squad at Academy of Art University.

Waterman built his team around transfers from high-level junior colleges and D-I teams. With ART U’s campus located in San Francisco, he needed mature players ready to live on their own and focus on basketball despite being surrounded by distractions.

Deang checked all the boxes: His 6-foot-4 frame would add length to the lineup and Deang could bring fierce competitiveness to a team that went 3-10 a season ago. He also had four seasons of basketball under his belt.

Most importantly, Deang was ready to not only make an impact on ART U’s basketball, but the whole school. Waterman gave Deang a chance to play basketball and put the program on the map.

“If you’re coming here for yourself, you’re coming for the wrong reason,” Waterman said.

The Urban Knights implemented athletics in 2008 and became full NCAA members in 2012-13. The Urban Knights attract many student-athletes ranging from media technicians to music production and the institution’s most difficult major, architecture. Athletics are not always a focus, but Deang and the team began to change that narrative.

In his first season, Deang led the Urban Knights in scoring at 11.5 points per game with 36 assists and 38 steals and the team won its first PacWest Conference Tournament title. Prior to Deang’s arrival, ART U had never won a game in the postseason.

At one point, it seemed as if the Urban Knights would end the season without their leading scorer when Deang injured his foot 34 days prior to the PacWest Tournament.

Deang headed to the locker room after injuring himself against Biola and forced himself to get his shoes back on. Coach Waterman subbed him back into the game, having no idea about the severity of the injury.

“It shows he loves the game and loves to compete,” Waterman said.

Waterman and the Urban Knights missed Deang’s presence while he was out. Waterman had four D-I transfers on his 2021-22 team including Deang and said his biggest challenge was turning that group of guys into a team.

“We can have the most talent in the world, but if we are not on the same page, it is going to be difficult,” Waterman said.

Waterman had many individual meetings with Deang where they worked on slowing the game down and learning to work with his teammates. Deang took well to all of Waterman’s coaching and even contributed some advice of his own. Waterman brags about Deang’s basketball IQ and the impact he made on the season.

Deang returned to the lineup in time for the conference tournament. The Urban Knights were picked eighth in the PacWest preseason poll and had already exceeded expectations entering the postseason. Then they really shocked the conference, taking down the top two seeds en route to the program’s first conference championship.

The Urban Knights competed in the Division-II men’s basketball national tournament and lost in the opening round, but Waterman was proud of the season: “The sense of pride that our program has is great right now…it is a huge step forward for the school.”

Family Focus

As concerned as Deang is about his own legacy, his goal is to set the bar high for his siblings and push them to surpass his accomplishments.

His brother, Mandela Deang, plays basketball at Division III Wisconsin-La Crosse. His sister, Baluck Deang, plays tennis at Division I Delaware State. She was also the first person of color to win a state championship in women’s tennis in Wisconsin. Another one of his sisters, Nykour, was a decorated athlete at Madison East. Alwang, Deang’s younger brother, plays golf, and Deang is proud to motivate him through his athletic endeavors as well.

Deang also has a sister with a disability named Gomar. Deang says he and his siblings all play and try to succeed for Gomar. When the Deangs are not out playing basketball, tennis, or golf, they are taking care of their sister.

“She is like our angel,” Deang says.

The Deangs were all active as children and spent as much free time playing sports with each other as possible. Deang does have one more part of his legacy he is looking to work upon: He wants to help out in South Sudan.

“We are very lucky [my family] got out of there. I want to be able to help my family back in South Sudan. And when I say my family, I mean the whole country.”

He is also learning Arabic in order to communicate with his relatives on the other side of the world. Deang wants to leave an impression on the younger generation in South Sudan and inspire them to succeed, just like he did at Madison East. Deang is proud of the way he is paving for himself in college basketball, but understands there are other parts of his legacy to keep working on.

“I told my mom I want to buy some property [in South Sudan],” Deang said. “I want to do something for the community.”

Waterman knew well how important family was for Deang during his recruitment process. Waterman asked Deang, “‘who do I need to talk to in your family to reassert who you are.’ This says a lot about who he is and his family. He had me talk to his younger sister and his younger brother. That says a lot about his family.”

Waterman saw how close-knit Deang’s family was, and how his siblings were looking out for him. They wanted to see Deang succeed in the best opportunity possible.

It is clear the most important factor in Deang’s success has been his desire to create a legacy for his family and pave the way for his siblings to succeed as well.

But it goes both ways: Without the support of his family and his siblings’ interaction with Waterman, Deang may not have had the opportunity to accomplish so much success at Art U.

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