WHEN Deng Adel and Deng Deng meet on the Hawks practice floor, they go at it like brothers might. There's an edge to it, like they're picking up a backyard game from long ago, the type on which the buzzer never sounds.
It's a kind of fraternal bond, one where everything is always forgiven ... but nothing forgotten.
"When I was younger he would pick me up and take me down the park and then just have me rebound for him the whole time," Adel recalls.
"I didn't get to take any shots, he just said 'come and rebound for me'. That was all I did. He was a lot bigger than me then, so he used to bully me a lot physically. These days, whenever I play him one-on-one, I'm saying 'I'm not young no more, I'm not little no more'. It's definitely all payback."
He couldn't have known then, that those often chilly days on Fitzroy asphalt would set him on a path to high school and college in the US and ultimately the NBA. Deng wasn't sure either, but he had an inkling.
"It was a little tiny Deng Adel," Deng says of the playground days.
"He was a young kid just getting introduced to basketball but I always knew he was going to be special."
Their reunion all these years on is evidence that, even in a world turned upside down by a global pandemic, some things still land where they should.
Back then, they were separated by five years in age but just two floors of an inner Melbourne apartment block, both there with their families by way of war-torn South Sudan.
Like most Sudanese youths, Adel's first love was for another round ball - a soccer one - spending his early years on the football pitch and on the athletics track. It was only when he shifted to the inner suburbs of Melbourne as a teenager that he traded the turf for hardwood.
"I grew up playing soccer and doing track and field, so I didn't really get to basketball until later when I moved to Fitzroy," Adel said.
"Soccer's the number one sport in the world, it's very international and growing up in Sudan everybody played soccer. It's the first sport we get introduced to.
"Deng and I lived in the same building [in Fitzroy], he was two levels above me. I went with him down to the park and started playing with these guys. That's when basketball really started for me."
Growing into his 6 foot, 7 inch frame - with a wingspan far exceeding that - he possessed all the physical attributes that are becoming more and more prized by basketball scouts.
That potential earned him a scholarship to attend Victory Rock Prep in Florida in 2014. Shifting to the US with no family in tow was a huge leap of faith but, as he's quick to point out, it was far from the most daunting journey he'd ever taken.
Born in Juba, the Adel family came to Melbourne as refugees via Uganda in search of a better life. The experience also ignited the drive that's spurred him to the heights of NBA with Cleveland. On that journey, there was simply no room for half measures.
"For us coming here from South Sudan, you've got to make something of yourself and not just waste your opportunity because there's so many people back in Sudan who don't have this opportunity," he says.
"Even little things like education. Not a lot of people have that opportunity. When you're here, if you want to play basketball, you want to do anything in life, you want to be the best that you can.
"You can't half-bake it or have one foot in and one foot out, you've got to go all the way in. My whole experience when I got to the US was, 'OK, I'm here, I can't bullshit'.
"With what my parents went through to give me this opportunity, I have to utilise it. I think that's the biggest thing for us and one of the biggest drives."
Deng, who arrived in Australia with his family at the age of nine, echoes that sentiment. A pioneer in his own right, Deng shifted to the US in 2014 to play Division 1 college basketball with Baylor University at about the same time another Sudanese Aussie named Thon Maker. The now 29-year-old was driven by, not merely a desire to succeed, but a responsibility.
"Definitely, it pushes you," Deng said.
"We obviously came here for a better opportunity and a better future, so you just can't come all the way here and not try to do well in life. There's definitely a chip on our shoulder to be better. That's how it is for every one of us I believe."
The ethos is far from unique in the Sudanese community, sporting and otherwise. It's why the often gross misrepresentations in sections of the media and politics - particularly in Melbourne - can sting.
It reached its height in 2018 when even then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wasn't above stooping to his own free kick on the issue being played out in newspapers and on television screens.
Far from leaving him bitter, Adel says he's simply appreciative of the opportunity to change the narrative and present a truer representation of his community.
"I think the biggest thing in the media is just how things are portrayed," Adel said.
"It was hurtful to watch that, I was mostly in the US seeing it and I just thought 'man, we're not like that'. It was hard to see but that's the way things go sometimes.
"Nobody's perfect in this world, no culture is perfect in this world. The media just portrayed that side of the Sudanese culture. There was never anything positive about who we really are.
"Australia's been really, really good to us. It's a very accepting country and culture and that's why there's a lot of Sudanese people here. I love to represent that as much as I can, being an Australian South Sudanese basketball player."
It's a noble goal and he's far from alone. When Perth-raised Maker was drafted straight out of high school into the NBA in 2016, it brought fresh attention to the largely untapped well of Sudanese talent in Australia.
It's untapped no more, with Adel returning from the NBA to an NBL featuring the likes of Kouat Noi, Majok Majok, Majok Deng and Sunday Dech. The Hawks have an exciting contingent with Deng and young gun Akoldah Gak - a player NBA-bound if you ask coach Brian Goorjian.
"If you can play the game and you get presented that opportunity, everyone should take that opportunity, not just Sudanese, any culture," Adel said.
"Showing those young people [it can be done] is one of the biggest things for me. If you can play, why not make it to the biggest stage?
"With the guys we have in the league this year, the young guys growing up can see it and think 'OK, I can make it as a South Sudanese, I can make it as an Australian, and follow the same pathway.
"I think in the next couple of years we're definitely going to see more Sudanese people playing in the NBL and the NBA. That's going to keep happening for sure."
Like Adel, Deng made the switch from soccer to basketball in his teens, falling in love with the sport at Melbourne's Box Hill Senior Secondary College under Kevin Goorjian - brother of Brian. He says more and more Sudanese youths are now picking up a basketball as their first love.
"There's a huge amount of Sudanese kids who play basketball, it's only now coming out at professional level," Deng said.
"I played soccer when I was young. I didn't know a word of English and sport really helped me adjust to life in Australia. I was lucky to be introduced to basketball when I was older but now we're seeing kids get introduced to the sport a lot younger.
"It's really good to be in the NBL and be role model for all these kids that are watching us and trying to get to that level. I know there's a lot kids who look up to us and it's a blessing.
"I feel like there's a lot of us in the NBL, the AFL and all other parts of life. I love the position I'm in to encourage a lot of kids in our community to follow our path."
As far as blessings go though, the chance to reunite with his former rebounder in the NBL with the Hawks this season is hard to top, though he hopes it's a one-off.
"I believe he still belongs in the NBA but everything happens for a reason," Deng said.
"You always see he was going to be special. Now he's on our team, he's our best player. We never thought we'd be here on the same team, so it's a real blessing."