(Image source: Reuters)
Luc Longley made history as the first Australian to play in the NBA, and to this day remains the only Australian to win multiple titles in the league. Standing at 7ft 2, he played an integral role as the starting centre for the legendary Chicago Bulls team of the late 1990s, which many consider to be the greatest sporting team of all time. The interesting thing about Longley is that he never really aspired to be a professional basketball player. He almost stumbled into the professional leagues - but soon rose to levels of fame most of his Australian team mates could only dream of.
From aspiring architect to the NBA
Born in 1969 in Fremantle, Longley grew up with basketball in his blood. Both of his parents were tall and played the sport, his father even representing the Australian team. Despite this, Longley never took basketball all that seriously. He wanted to become an architect. After his parents split up, however, he found some solace in the game, and decided to enrol in the Australian Institute of Sport. In his own words,
"I stumbled into [basketball]. However, it provided me with a family when mine was broken down"
(ABC My Story).
Longley's friend Andrew Vlahov introduced him to New Mexico college recruiter Gary Colson at age 16, after which he went to New Mexico for a college career. His talent was apparent, and he was selected to the Olympic team in 1988, at just 19 years old. It was then that Longley realised he might be able to make something of his basketball career. As it turns out, he was right. Not long after the Olympics wrapped up, NBA team the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted him with pick 7 in the national Draft.
Tough love and decisions
Longley spent only three middling seasons with the Timberwolves before being traded to the Chicago Bulls, where he played a critical role as the team's starting centre for another three years. During that time, the Bulls won three championships (1996,1997,1998). The team, which is the subject of the popular Netflix series "The Last Dance," is considered by many as the best in the world. But Longley was sensitive, and some doubted whether he had the competitive spirit required to win. Basketball legend Michael Jordan is said to have used tough love as an attempt to make him better. The beginning of the end came in 1999, as the Chicago Bulls team was broken up. Even though Longley got traded to the Phoenix Suns (for $45m AUD), he struggled to find a role in the new team, and left for the New York Knicks only a year later.
It could have been a new start for the star, but due to several injuries including a failing left ankle, he retired from the sport after only a year with the Knicks.
Going full circle: Coach Longley
Returning to Australia, Luc Longley felt lost after his basketball career ended, and at first didn't want anything to do with the game. However, after a devastating house fire that lost him everything, Longley once again found his way back to basketball. Just like when he was a child, he found solace in the sport, and it helped him get through the tough times. He ended up being the assistant coach for the Australian national team, the Boomers, for over five years (2013-2018). In ABC’s My Story, Longley said his coaching “ended up filling some sort of a void” in the same way it had in his youth. “[It] brought me back to being whole again," he said.
Whether you’re an aspiring player or coach, it’s hard not to be moved by Longley’s story. It’s a story of ambition, resilience and hope - one that reminds us of the value of team mates and maintaining a purpose in life.