Australia has provided it’s share of super-talented basketball centres to the NBA and WNBA (the world’s premier basketball competitions). Aron Baines, Lauren Jackson, Andrew Bogut, Liz Cambage, Luc Longley and Chris Anstey are just some of the great Australian big men and women that spring to mind. Of the entire crop, Longley was the first. He started the ball rolling when he was drafted into the league in 1991. After a couple of seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves he moved to the Chicago Bulls where he teamed up with a bunch of blokes that became arguably the greatest club basketball team that there ever was.
When Chris Anstey joined the Dallas Mavericks, a few years further down the track, he was just a new kid in a strange town drafted to play sport in the biggest pro sports league in the world. A long time has passed since Luc and Chris banged bodies in the NBA but Chris still remembers the welcome he received from his Chicago Bulls superstar opponent and fellow Australian. He told this story at his Facebook Page. Thanks to Chris for allowing me to reproduce it. There are plenty of dickheads in professionals sports. There are also some great people. It’s great to hear a story about one of the good ones once in a while.
Here is Chris’ story.
Before I was drafted to the NBA, I had never met Luc Longley.
A few weeks after I had moved into my Dallas apartment, my phone rang.
I was surprised to hear an Australian accent. “G’day Chris, it’s Luc Longley. How’s it going?” During the call, Luc offered me advice for navigating the NBA and what to look out for, from travel, to clubs and teammates.
I hung up the phone with a greater sense of clarity about how to better tackle my rookie season in the NBA.
I hung up with an invitation call any time I wanted to chat, and to dinner at the Longley’s when we played in Chicago just after Christmas.
Luc was similar to me in that he did not grow up aspiring to play in the NBA. He saw the NBA through a different lens than those who had battled their entire lives for their shot. He took the time to observe and formulate his own opinions. I really liked his perspective.
I gleaned a little about his perspective on fame not being real, his battles in Minnesota and most importantly, his life away from the cameras being more important than his life in front of them.
It sounds like such a small thing, but when Luc opened the door to his family home to me the night before we played Chicago in December, an NBA road trip was personal for the first time.
I am sure I overstayed my welcome. We ate dinner and had a few drinks. We talked about the NBA, the AFL, about the AIS and the NBL. We spoke about Australian beach life. All the while it snowed outside. All the while, the sporting world was in a frenzy about the team that Luc was figuratively in the middle of.
As is the nature of the NBA, I did not see Luc again until March when his Chicago Bulls travelled to Dallas.
The Bulls schedule had them departing the day after our game, so Luc and I organised to catch up at a bar after the game. The thought of having a beer with Luc seemed to be as exciting for my visiting family and friends as watching the Bulls play.
“Hey mate. You don’t mind if I bring along a few of the boys do you?”
The fact that we ended up erasing a 17-point deficit to beat the Bulls that night did nothing to sway Luc’s decision to catch up. In fact, Luc thought that getting away from the hotel might do a few of his teammates well.
“Hey mate, you don’t mind if I bring a few of the boys along do you? They might need an area with a bit of privacy if you think you can swing that.”
I had been to the bar a few times, and the owner liked me enough. I am sure he liked me a little more when I turned up with my group and asked if it was ok to set aside an area for the Chicago Bulls.
The night was great. We were given a private room attached to a cigar humidor. Luc bought along Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc, Dickey Simpkins and Jud Buechler.
Everyone had beers together, a few smoked cigars, and my family and friends left with the Chicago Bulls in the early hours of the morning.
What the group did not see just before we left was Luc putting his arm around the owner to thank him for a great night. They certainly did not see Luc hand him a wad of cash to cover the entire bill and a generous tip.
More than a year later I found myself in Hong Kong, sitting on a team bus with Luc. I had made my first Olympic team and Luc had made himself available for the Sydney Olympics.
To this day, every Australian senior basketball representative receives a per diem while fulfilling national duties. Luc, and to a lesser extent I, were criticised for accepting $330 a day to prepare for and play in the Olympic Games given we were being well paid in the NBA.
What very few knew was that because only NBL contracts were covered by Basketball Australia’s insurance in the event of an injury, so Luc had been required to take out his own contract insurance for his US$6 million a year contract.
Luc was out of pocket over $20,000 to represent Australia at the Sydney Olympics. He never asked for a cent and never bought it up amongst the criticism levelled at him.
“Fellas! It’s my shout tonight!”
As we sat on the bus, Luc made the comment that he was sick of the food at our hotel and would like to eat out that night. The coaches okayed it, and the choice was left with the players.
That night we squeezed ourselves into a Maxi Cab to take us to Luc’s choice of restaurant. “Fellas, it’s my shout tonight. I wanted to eat at one of my favourite restaurants. I want to enjoy dinner with my teammates and want you guys to be able to enjoy it without worrying about the price.”
That was the thing with Luc. From the minute I picked up the phone and spoke to him in Dallas, he had been one of the most generous people I had met. Generous with his time. Generous with his money. Generous with his advice.
A couple of years ago, Luc was quoted as saying this about his career- “The further I get from it, the more of the good me I remember and the less of the bad me I remember. I’ve met fans who only remember the bad me- because I had bad days. I used to call it swimming with seals. You’ll be out of your element, in a different universe.”
I know I do not remember the bad Luc Longley, and I remember his good being better than maybe even he knew.
My universe changed the second I turned left as I boarded an aeroplane to Dallas. Luc’s generosity with his time and advice normalised the NBA for me. He made it ok to not be fully absorbed in my “basketball persona” and to keep a broader perspective on life.
“Just keep the beat”
Phil Jackson used to tell Longley to think of himself as the Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. “Just keep the beat. Don’t try to be the lead singer.”
Luc, like Charlie Watts, had the best view of his band. He kept the beat on and off the floor. While the spotlight shone on those around him, he observed and learned.
As the world watches The Last Dance, and the spotlight once again shines on the Chicago Bulls, Luc is again conspicuous to many in his silence.
But my bet is that Luc is not silent to those around him. He is likely sharing a much broader perspective on the phenomenon that he was a part of. He is unlikely silent to those who are interested in more than the 3 and a bit seasons he lived in the centre of the sporting world.
Luc Longley paved the way to the NBA for Australian basketball players to follow. He also held some hands while they took their first steps on the path that he paved. He does not self-promote and gives of himself without expecting or needing anything in return.
I remain grateful for the time he took to reach out to me and offer his support and advice. Grateful for the memories he gave my family and friends. Grateful for his generosity.
I hope to have another beer with Luc Longley one day. I promise not to ask him about Michael Jordan.
Check out Chris Anstey’s fantastic Facebook page that provides analysis and storytelling from the world of sport. You can’t do better than get the inside story from someone who has played at the very highest level with some of the world’s greatest athletes! Click here for a link.