We caught up with "Crocodile Longley" ahead of Basketball's World Cup.
There's a saying in America that a college student has more chance of becoming a neurosurgeon than an NBA star. That said, Luc Longley is top of the class when it comes to basketball in this country. Our finest export was the first to hit the big time in the US, and his opinion and knowledge of the game is still highly valued – he was hired as assistant coach of the Boomers by the man Luc recommended for the top job, Andrej Lemanis.
At 18, Longley was recruited by US talent scouts, leaving Australia to play for the University of New Mexico. When he was picked seventh overall in the 1991 NBA Draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves, he became the highest-paid team sports star Australia had ever produced. At 218cm (seven-feet-two) and a playing weight of 120kg, “Crocodile Longley” did Australia proud across 11 seasons in the NBA, starring in the second of the Chicago Bulls’ two title three-peats alongside legends of the game like Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen and His Airness, Michael Jordan. The last few seasons of his career featured solid campaigns for the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks between 1998 and 2001.
The big bucks will take a back seat to national pride this month (Aug 30-Sept 14) when planet basketball slam-dunks Spain for the 2014 FIBA World Cup, contested by 24 nations, from the Ukraine to Egypt. Our ninth-ranked Boomers have been placed in Group D alongside fourth-ranked Lithuania, Slovenia (13th), Angola (15th), Korea and Mexico. We can’t think of a better man for the star-depleted Boomers to have in their corner than the 45-year-old Longley, who was kind enough to tell us what the Aussies have planned for the rest of the World at this month’s Cup.
Your NBA playing career ended all-of-a-sudden with the New York Knicks. Are you able to remind us how that happened?
I retired when I was still living with my young family in New York. The planes hit the twin towers and we decided to pull the ripcord, so to speak. When we left New York we still had cars for sale, guys packing up our house, I had my lawyer putting the house on the market ... We just decided to head for Australia. At that stage there were no commercial flights, so we boarded a friend’s jet and put the parrot and the dog in that. We stopped at Chicago to drop the parrot off with my mother, dropped the dog off with a restaurant partner of mine who liked the dog, then we hung out in LA for a couple of days and organised a Qantas flight home. We landed back in Australia around September 15th or 16th. I knew I was retiring. It had been sorted out with the Knicks and we just kind’ve rushed it a bit in the end. I had to fly back a little bit later so they could verify that X-rays on my ankle matched the claim against my salary; they didn’t believe I was playing on a gammy ankle. I went back to New York for less than 24 hours for that, and didn’t return to America until two years ago. I was home in Australia for quite a long time without having to go back and I was pretty happy about that.
So did you enjoy a bit of R ‘n’ R before launching into your next life back here in Australia?
I’d say I’m still enjoying the R ‘n’ R a little bit ... I’ve sort’ve dabbled in a few things. My good mate Andrew Vlahov talked me into buying the Perth Wildcats, which was probably not what I wanted to be doing, so I left most of the running of that to him. I dabbled in business, in this and that. I separated with my American wife ... I call myself a hat-juggler. I’ve put on a lot of hats, taken them off, tried on different ones, liked them, didn’t like them ... I’ve been living in Perth the whole time, but I’ve had a property down in southern part of WA as well. I’m just getting ready to move down there to the bush in the next six months. I’ve been passionate about my marine conservation work with the Australian Marine Conservation Society. I got involved with them and with Tim Winton when we protested the Ningaloo Reef development. That was a big environmental issue over here. Most recently I’ve been busy with the Commonwealth marine parks and marine sanctuaries’ work – which Abbott’s busy trying to unwind. We’ve had some good luck with that and are currently world leaders in that department, thanks to the Gillard government and their ministers. I enjoy the environmental campaigning stuff. Um, about five years ago my house burnt down; that was pretty freaky. I had separated with the mother of my daughters by that stage. My girlfriend had only just moved in. The lot went. She literally had nothing and I had nothing, so we started again. We ended up marrying. She’s a high-school buddy – was in a band called the Jam Tarts, who were very popular when we were young. I used to go watch her play. Anna [cooking TV personality Anna Gare] and I ended up with a “Brady Bunch” – two kids of mine and two of hers. Now they’re all off at university, so we’re going to pack up the camper and head down south.
A few of the big names will be missing from the Boomers for the World Cup – does that make this campaign all about testing the squad’s depth?
This World Cup is multi-faceted for us. We’re going to be forced to plumb our depths a little bit. But guys like Dante Exum, who have big reputations, are pretty keen to get in amongst it and galvanise that with some action. Hopefully the Jazz lets him come along and play. We’ve got Ben Simmons, who hasn’t really hit the newsstands yet, but is going to be, I think, at least as good as Dante, if not better. He’s in high school wowing everyone right now. We have a kid, who’s not going to come on this year, but will be a chance for Rio, called Thon Maker. He’s in the Kevin Garnett mould: world-class. He could potentially be the number-one draft pick in the NBA. He’s in high school as well. So we have some really exciting young talent and then we have crusty, old veterans like Joey Ingles and Brad Newley, those sorts of guys.
Is there an “Australian way” of playing basketball?
No doubt. If you ask the Europeans what that is, they’d tell you it’s “blood-thirsty”. We always play hard, we’re a very defensive-orientated nation from a basketball point of view; always punching above our weight as far as talent goes. We are a defensive, hustling, punchy sort’ve outfit.
You’ve done it all on the biggest basketball stage in the world, so what was your motivation for becoming Australia’s men’s assistant coach?
Really candidly, mostly it was an accident. When I retired from basketball not on my own terms with a career-ending injury, I was pretty jilted. I didn’t want to be around the game. I needed a break from it and I really did stay away from it for ten years or so. I’d coached kids and what not, had a daughter who was pretty good but she bloody quit! The Boomers were conducting a camp in Perth and asked me to come in and give them a hand. I really surprised myself by enjoying it and probably more than that, got a bit of traction with a couple of players and had what I felt was a positive impact on their basketball experience. I started getting a sniff of it and then was involved in helping to choose the head coach, Andrej Lemanis, who I think is a very good coach for our national team. He started looking around for an assistant and turned the tables on me by asking me to give him a hand. I’m glad that I got caught up in it because I think it’s something that’s good for the game, having the older guys around with the younger guys and having that cross-pollination of knowledge and youth; you can get a bit of gold out of that. I genuinely like the guys on our national team. We have a fantastic combination of character guys, interesting guys, talent, youth, age, all those things. I have an affection for the coaching staff and players.
What are the Australian squad’s realistic expectations heading into the 2014 World Cup?
We expect to compete and compete hard. The loss of Patty Mills has hurt us a lot; we really don’t have that proven, genuine scorer. It’s going to come down to team hustle, chemistry, that sort’ve thing. I think we’ll be lucky to be in the medals, but I’ll be disappointed if we’re not in the top six or eight: that’s without Andrew Bogut or an Aleks Maric or a Mills, any of those guys. We’re yet to find out if Dante Exum is going to be allowed to play, but he’s still unproven on an international stage. He’s a young boy. We don’t want to pin too many hopes on him. But I tell you what, there’s no one in the tournament who’s looking forward to playing us. I don’t know where we’ll finish, but I know we’ll get some skin under our fingernails along the way.
When you watch the NBA these days, what is it you notice most about how the game has changed since your playing career?
Probably the glaring difference is the lack of “monsters”; it’s not such a scary movie anymore. A lot of the monsters are smaller and more agile. When I say monsters, I mean the big guys. I was effectively a monster, but a monster with small teeth ... There were plenty with big teeth – the Ewings, the Shaqs. There’s just not a lot of those around anymore. They try to say that Dwight Howard is the current version of the old-style monster, but I’m not buying that. A lack of monsters means the floor is more spread; there’s less interior defence. The game seems to have sped up and got more athletic as a result. Some of the “bigs” are really becoming what we call “stretch-bigs” – they can stretch the floor and hit threes and that sort’ve thing. We have a couple on our national team – 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 ...
Do you have a Michael Jordan anecdote which proves everybody wrong about how arrogant and unlikable the great man is/was?
What you see is what you get with Michael. Michael was that. Michael is that. I’m just finishing reading a book by Roland Lazenby, a very good sports journo who wrote a biography on Michael called The Life. It looks at Michael from early childhood-on. A fair bit of time and effort has been spent on his prime years – when I was part of the club. Roland’s story is the same as what I got out of it all. Michael is a world-class competitor and professional athlete and that’s pretty much the sum total of my experience with him. Until you’ve been alongside that and seen the day-to-day consistency of it, the non-negotiability of it, you can’t really get a grip on it. I will tell you one story, but just to warn you, it’s not what you’re looking for ... Scottie Pippen reminded me of this story recently, actually. We were playing Detroit and I came out on fire in the first half. I think I had 17-18 points, half-a-dozen rebounds, a couple of blocks – playing like an All-Star. For the first time ever, because Michael was very cautious with his praise, he came into the locker room high-fiving me, slapping me, hugging me, saying, “Man, you play like that, we’re going to win the world championship. That’s awesome! You’re an All-Star. Why don’t you play like that every day? I knew you had it in ya.” Anyway, so we went out for the second half ... and I finished the game with exactly the same stat line as I had at half-time. I had a terrible second half. We came in after the game – we’d won. When everybody else was happy to be winning, Michael was furious. He said, “Luc, I am never, ever going to say a nice thing about you again.” It demonstrated how Michael thought that because he said something good ... Like, it had nothing to do with Michael, really. It was me playing the game. I just drew a couple of fouls and didn’t play as well and didn’t get my opportunities. He was true to his word; never said anything nice again. But I wasn’t the only
one he was like that with. It was the whole group ...
Are you a keen observer of Australia’s men’s domestic league and do you have any comments about what officials are doing right or wrong?
I’ll start by saying that I certainly do watch the NBL; I think it’s a nice product. I think there’s a fair bit of parity, with competitive games every week. It’s good to see it on TV. However, I hesitate to offer comment on how they should do it because I’ve been there. It’s not an easy task. I think they’re doing their best. So I’ll leave it at that.
You mentioned the Perth Wildcats club earlier – everytime you look at a ladder they’re at the top or near the top, year after year. What are they doing right?
Well, it’s an interesting question to ask me because some of our poorer years were when I was the owner! In this case, Perth has owners with deep pockets who are prepared to spend money to win championships. You can couple that with a fantastic new arena. It’s a one-horse town from a basketball point of view – but I suppose they all are now though, actually. I was a big Rob Beveridge fan; I thought he was a fantastic coach, as is the new coach Trevor Gleeson, who is on the Boomers’ World Cup coaching staff. They get big crowds, they do a lot of work in the community, spend a lot of money on advertising. They do all the things a pro team should do. On-court success contributes to that. There’s a legacy in place now – people expect success.