If you haven’t worked it out now - or perhaps I haven’t mentioned it in my brief time here on Bulls Confidential - I hail from the land ‘Down Under’. No Americans, not Mexico. I’m referring to Australia.
No, I don’t ride a kangaroo to work. I don’t eat Vegemite (it’s terrible) and Paul Hogan is not an aspirational hero of mine. Now that we have those stereotypes out of the way, if you will allow me, I’d like to proudly wave the patriotic flag and remember a former Bulls champion and an Australian basketball legend – Luc Longley.
To most, Lucien James Longley will be remembered as the man-in-the-middle for the second of the 90s Bulls "three-peats".
To Australian basketball, he will always be so much more.
Spoiler alert - It’s the off-season. For NBA fanatics, it’s the worst time of year. Obviously, I can relate. With no basketball to watch, I sit here counting down the days until the NBA’s pre-season, often filling my time with hypotheticals and ‘what-if’ type scenarios. Fun, right?
Recently, with an abundance of time and a brain free of meaningful thought, I’ve been asking myself, “Where would the game of basketball be in my country without the Luc Longley?”
On the surface, it seems like a rhetoric question. How can one answer that with any certainty or fact? Well, I suppose I’ll do my best to make it factual statement.
You see, prior to the 7-foot-2 center being drafted in the 1991 NBA draft, Australia had only ever had two of its young players ever selected in the world's best league – Carl Rodwell in 1969 (pick 217) and Eddie Palubinskas in 1974 (pick 61).
Though Rodwell and Palubinskas should not be forgotten, nor should their achievements be diminished, the evolution of Australian basketball on a global scale would truly begin with the trailblazing Longley.
Completing a four-year career with the Unviersity of New Mexico, with career averages 13.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and shooting 58.6% from the field, the big Australian would be noticed by NBA teams. As a senior, posting 19.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 3.2 blocks per contest, the league’s then newest franchise - the Minnesota Timberwolves – would select Luc with the seventh overall pick. In doing so, he would become the first Australian ever selected in the first round of an NBA draft.
To date, fifteen Australians have played in the NBA - Longley would be the first.
Three Australians (four if you include Kyrie Irving) have been selected in the first round of an NBA draft - Longley would be the first. You sense the theme, I reckon?
Life was good for the young big. Though becoming an instant millionaire and a professional hooper, it wouldn't all be smooth sailing.
After a difficult initiation into the NBA where he would struggle to find an immediate and consistent role, Longley would find it harder to overpower the big-men of the NBA like he once did as a college senior. Never establishing himself as a long term building block for the Wolves, after a career spanning 170 games, with the averages of 5.4 points and 4.7 rebounds, Minnesota would deal the Australian native to the Chicago Bulls, who would trade Stacey King and future second round pick in return.
If becoming the first Aussie to play in the NBA wasn't big enough, could it possibly get any better than fortuitously waltzing into the greatest team the league had ever seen?
The 1995-96 Bulls would go onto win 72 regular season games, a league record that still stands to this day. Longley would find himself in the middle of it. Literally.
As a key cog within this destroying machine, the often forgotten center would be tasked with dealing with some of the biggest and greatest post-playing big-men the game would ever see. Whether it was having to guard Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O'Neal in the playoffs, or dealing with David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon in the West, the Bulls required a giant body to throw at the game's dominant tall-men. As the three-time Olympian tells Rob White of The Guardian, though it took some time, Jordan would come to understand the need for Longley as a teammate.
It took me a little while to get used to playing with someone like MJ, or someone that good to be frank, and it took MJ a while to realise what my strengths and weakness were. He was pretty brutal in assessments of his team-mates and I probably didn't appreciate that very much to start with, but it all worked out pretty quickly, in fact I was injured for a stretch and it was then I think Michael realised how much he liked having me around.
The Bulls would go onto win the title in 1996, beating the Seattle Supersonics in six games. Thirsty for more, they would beat the Utah Jazz in six games in 1997, and again, in 1998. The Chicago dynasty through the 90s created their own history, forever being remembered as one greatest teams ever assembled. Luc Longley, too, would be creating his own piece of history, albeit unknowingly.
As a three-time NBA champion, the center's resume will always begin with this accomplishment. Though an undeniable and envious achievement, the importance of his four-year career as a New Mexico Lobos should never be understated. His college campaign would open the doors for future generations of young Australians to embark on collegiate basketball careers all across the United States, something that was extremely rare only decades earlier. With basketball truly becoming a global game, scouts were now considering Australian players more than ever before.
Andrew Gaze, Mark Bradtke and Shane Heal, all Aussie basketball icons, would get their opportunity in the big league, with Heal at one point also being a member of the Timberwolves. Everyone remembers the fiery point guard for his feud in international competition against Charles Barkley, but this performance from ‘Hammer’ was equally impressive.
Who remembers former Bulls, Chris Anstey and Luke Schenscher? Though their own success with Chicago never reached lofty heights, would the opportunity have been possible without Longley?
Drafted with the 49th pick in the 2014 draft, current Bulls center, Cameron Bairstow, would not only join the same team Luc had become synonymous with, he also attended the same college, embarking on his own four-year career with the Lobos.
Andrew Bogut would become the first Australian selected with the first overall pick by the Bucks in 2005. More recently, he too would become an NBA champion with the Golden State Warriors, playing against countryman Matthew Dellavedova.
Patrick Mills and Aron Baynes would play significant roles with the San Antonio Spurs, helping the endless juggernaut to a fifth franchise title in 2014.
The new wave, led by Dante Exum, Ben Simmons, and Thon Maker, plan to carry on the torch into the future.
Despite crafting an incredible individual career, in some senses, perhaps the most refreshing thing about the giant Perth local is, that despite all this fame, fortune and esteem, he has always carried himself with humility, candor and the endearing self-deprecating humour that Australians have become known for. As he reminisces on his career with Adam Ryan on the 'In All Airness' podcast, these character traits ring true.
In a 2014 interview with 'Inside Sport', discussing the evolution of the game and the shifts in style from his era, again, Longley would display the self-effacing nature that would make him a popular team-mate in the NBA, particularly in the eclectic group of Bulls in 1996.
David Anderson is one of the early prototypical stretch-bigs in Australian basketball. That’s how he got a job in the NBA – the game started moving that way. Chris Anstey was definitely a stretch-big. Me on the other hand? Not a stretch-big. Maybe it’s time for me to coin the opposite of stretch-big: big hairy monsters.
Now, with wit still in hand and a reinvigorated passion for the sport, the Australian basketball Hall of Famer continues in his role an assistant coach to the national team. As the 'Boomers' embark on a two-game Rio Olympics qualifying series against cross-sea rivals, New Zealand, Longley and his experience will prove invaluable to coach Andrej Lemanis, and of course, the team and it's players.
Have I been able to answer my own pondering thoughts? Has a position of where would Aussie basketball would be without Luc Longley been solidified throughout my revisionist ramblings?
Frankly, I don't know where we'd be, but I do know where we're - Six players (and growing) in the NBA and a realistic medal chance in the 2016 Olympics.