For all the US basketball team's dazzling, disparate talents there is one aspect that will vary only slightly when they take to the court for their Olympic warm-up in Manchesteron Thursday night: the players are either very rich or extremely rich. Their opponents, Team GB, on the other hand must blend a multimillionaire NBA All-Star with players from the British league earning £20,000 a year. And that's before you factor in the university student who walks to home Games.
That disparity, however, is not a problem for the team's one world-class player, Luol Deng. "Most of the guys I've known for a long time, I've grown up with them," says Deng, whose six-year contract with the Chicago Bulls is worth £45m. "It makes things easier on court that we've spent time with each other, that we know each other real well. And one of the reasons I wanted to play [at the Olympics] so badly was that growing up we all decided we were going to do this."
Deng's story is an extraordinary one. He was born in what is now South Sudan but fled the second Sudanese civil war and ended up in Egypt where he and eight of his brothers and sisters shared a two bedroom flat. Eventually they were reunited with their parents in London and at the age of 10, Deng started playing basketball with the Brixton Topcats before moving to the Blair Academy in New Jersey on an athletics scholarship.
Deng is known as one of the NBA's more humble players but his lifestyle is still a huge contrast to Team GB's point guard, Andrew Lawrence, who is currently a student at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.
"At college I stay in an apartment, as I'm on a scholarship they provide all that stuff. It's a little like being in dorms but it's an apartment for the athletes. I don't have a car. That's one of the reasons I picked the school I go to. The school is built inside the city, so you don't really need a car. Most of the places are within walking distance."
While college basketball draws big crowds in America – the College of Charleston's arena seats 7,000 – Lawrence will face the game's biggest stars this summer, nowhere more so than in Manchester on Thursday where LeBron James, acknowledged as one of the of the sport's greatest ever players, is likely to be among his opponents. "[At international level] the guys are a lot bigger," says Lawrence, who at 22 is the youngest member of the British squad. "There are a lot more NBA guys, but I'm a competitor, it's something I cherish competing against some of the top guys in the world. I can't imagine the crowds at the Olympics. I can't wait to have a packed house and just hear the crowd going crazy."
This year's USA team is the best since the all-conquering Dream Team that played at the 1992 Olympics, so British prospects on Thursday lie somewhere between heavy defeat and evisceration. Team GB have only won twice this year – against Portugal, one place below them at No44 in the world rankings – but they got within four points of world No2 Spain earlier this month and only a missed shot in the dying seconds deprived them of a victory against the fifth-ranked Lithuania. Those performances have given Team GB's captain, Drew Sullivan, hope they can make an impact at the Olympics. "We'll be disappointed if we don't give ourselves a chance to medal. Some people say that's a throw too far but we're playing at home and you see it a lot where the home team gets support from the crowd and they produce something special."
Team GB will play in front of packed houses this summer but the fact is that – despite the success of players such as Deng and his team-mate Joel Freeland, who has just joined the Portland Trail Blazers – basketball still lags behind other sports in Britain. Deng says "the talent is there" but is not convinced that enough has been done to ensure that basketball will kick on once the Olympics are over.
"I think the system could be better, I'd be lying if I told you I was [happy the system is there to develop young players]," he says. "There are a lot of kids out there who are not necessarily playing rugby or cricket or football and when they're not interested in those sports they go elsewhere rather than basketball. I think we need to introduce more and more effort in basketball to try and help kids see if that's where their talent should be."
For all their varied backgrounds one thing the British players have in common is the thrill of competing at their home Olympics. "It means a lot to me," says Deng. "It means a lot to the basketball community in the UK to see finally us walking out." And there are other advantages of course. "My mum lives in Edmonton," says Sullivan. "So I'll try to nip home and see her if I can."
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