Assembled in a ramshackle cluster, adorned in monoblock team regalia ?C?black, red and white ?C?the Chicago Bulls at the peak of their ethereal powers posed for photographer Annie Leibovitz.
The outcome was a New York Times magazine cover headed dramatically, artlessly, accurately: “The ?Best ?Team. ??Ever. ??Anywhere.”
Hovering over the back of the group, behind Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen, at about 2 o’clock from the cluster’s iconic centrepiece, Michael Jordan, stood a flame-haired seven foot two centre who not only was the first Australian to compete in the greatest basketball league, ever, anywhere, but became an important cog in its most phenomenal playing machine.
Not that Luc Longley brags about it. To the contrary. Approaching 20 years on from the whirlwind, the three-time Olympian and Sport Australia Hall of Famer ?C?now an assistant coach of the Australian Boomers ?C?is far more self-effacing than self-applauding of his time at the Bulls. It’s as if he is bashful, if not uncertain, about the orbit he traversed among the stars.
“I was probably suitably-placed in that picture, I think, right up the back,” Longley says. “[Coach] Phil Jackson used to tell me to think of myself as Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones drummer. He’d say ‘Just keep the beat. Don’t try to be the lead singer’.”
So perfectly composed did Longley feel the photograph was, the framed copy Leibovitz gave him became his prized memento from the era. It was, he says, the only piece of memorabilia inside his Perth home when it burnt down in 2007.
“People think I lost everything in the house fire, but I didn’t,” he says. “All the memorabilia was in the shed out the back being eaten by moths. There was just one piece in the house and it was that picture. To me that was the seminal piece. I was so proud of that cover because I think it summed up that whole period. The only thing I have in the house now is a little mini action-Luc that someone produced. The kids like to throw darts at it and the dog tries to chew it. Sometimes he goes for swims in the toilet. He has a bit of a hard time, old action-Luc.”
Longley’s diffidence is curious. Among 11 seasons in the NBA between 1991 and 2001 he also played for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks. During his five seasons at the Bulls, he featured in the legendary “three-peat” championship wins between 1996 and 1998, including the record-breaking 72-10 1995-96 season, the year Leibovitz took that photo and the Times declared them the greatest ever.
“I guess I’m just a realist about how great I was or wasn’t,” he says. “I was pretty much just a role-playing big guy who landed in the right place at the right time. I did some things well, some things poorly. I guess I’m proud but ?? You know, you’re making me give voice to something I’ve never tried to explain before.”
That Longley, 46, has never properly articulated his reflections on the Chicago years seems something of an historical travesty. In the same way retired wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist says he had the best seat in the house for Shane Warne’s career, Longley had the extraordinary, hard-won ?C?and equally hard-managed ?C?privilege of working intimately with the genius Jordan for nearly half a decade. He may always feel unsettled about his place in the greatest team ever, but on the topic of its greatest player there is absolute clarity.
“Michael was the real thing. There is no doubt about that,” he declares. “His appetite for competition and for winning was ferocious. It was like nothing you’ve ever seen. He was hard on people. He was harder on himself. He just hated losing. No amount of time with sports psychologists or team builders could bring what Michael brought to the team. It was far more than people will ever realise. His energy and will was unbelievable.”
The stories about Jordan’s prickliness and aggressive insistence on perfection are not denied by Longley. But, he suggests, it was calculated and brilliant. “He would criticise people for poor performance ?C?and it was a force of nature-style criticism. But it was to effect,” he explains. “Michael didn’t do many things by accident. He used all sorts of tools to get results. And, my approach was, ‘mate, I’m cool because the result is three [championship] rings, so go for your life, Michael’. Everyone these days talks about the fights and personality clashes ?C?and that stuff was all there. But it worked for us because we were a professional, go-to-work team. We were all business.”
Jordan’s ruthless intensity made being his teammate extremely challenging, Longley says. “But it also made him a fantastic teammate, the ultimate teammate, because he got the best out of people and drove the whole thing. As far from my personality as he was, he found a way to work around me and get the most out of me. I really respect him and thank him from the bottom of my heart for that.”
Lon?????????gley deserves respect, too, for having found a way to work around Jordan. The fans could be harsh, but Jordan and Jackson realised Longley’s value, countering all the team’s yin with much-needed yang. “Luc was the guy with the big body but also the biggest and warmest heart,” Jackson said in 2012. “He was always ready for a ‘G’day mate’ or a ‘Good on ya’ when someone did something good. Luc was the one that threw a steak on the barbie and invited his mates over. He was a unifier.”
In a team “very heavy on ego”, Longley knew his role could be to promote balance and humility. “Don’t get me wrong, I loved the attention,” he says. “We had the keys to city, I went out and hung out with interesting people ?C?I wasn’t shy of all that. But I just didn’t want to promote myself among all the hype.”
Little has changed. Longley remains disinterested in “cashing in” on his fame and has no need to, having “made enough money out of playing that that pressure is not there”.
“It’s not about hiding from the spotlight, I’m just naturally a private sort of person,” he says. “I like the fact that people think I’m a recluse and leave me alone.”
But not always. A couple of years ago while watching one of his daughters play basketball, Longley says he received a “wake-up call”.
“I was there for about three hours and not a single person came up and said hello. I walked out of the stadium and thought ‘What do you have to do to get people to say hello? I mean, how many rings do you have to get!’ Once I got in the car I realised it was because people think I’m not approachable. I suppose that’s when it dawned on me that I’d created a persona where people sort of stayed away.”
Moving to the south coast of Western Australia after the house fire added to the sense of Longley’s aloofness. It was part of a long journey he has been on since retirement to discover a passion to replace basketball, his “singular purpose” since leaving home at 16. To date, his forays have centred on the ocean. He had a boat charter business, became a divemaster and learnt to surf.
“I’ve just been about discovering my own life, really,” he says. “The thing I loved about my career was having a total focus. I stumbled into it with basketball and it’s a state I’d like to find again.”
These days Longley has business interests, keeps fit and supports his “very very busy” second wife, Anna Gare, an old school friend who is a celebrity chef, writer and television personality. Longley became the main carer for his two children and hers. But as they got older, he began to hear basketball’s call once again. Injury had forced him from the game ?C?”a bit like being dumped by your girlfriend, I needed some space”. When he was invited by then-Boomers coach Brett Brown to speak to the players, he decided to meet again with his former love.
“There was no strategy around it. I had no plan to get into coaching. But, after doing some work with the guys, I realised I was enjoying it. The next thing I knew I was at a team camp helping out the bigs. I found some traction with the guys and some of the stuff I told them even seemed to be useful. I found myself for the first time in years watching games on TV. I’d think to myself ‘I wouldn’t mind watching Chicago play’ and would feel excited about it. I took an interest in the whole league and I suppose I fell back in love with the game.”
Longley accepted an official role with the Boomers “because they needed one good-looking bloke on staff”, and has found it fulfilling. He has a good relationship with San Antonio Spurs forward Aron Baynes and wants to build ties with Golden State star Andrew Bogut in the lead-up to the Rio Olympics.
“I think Andrew is the best centre we’ve ever had in this country,” Longley says. “I always wanted to win a medal and couldn’t get it done, but if we’re going to win a medal at the Olympics, he is the absolute centrepiece of our chances. His game has really evolved as he’s got older and adapted to his teams. He’s a bit of a dinosaur like me in that he doesn’t have a range jump-shot ?C?the modern big guys need that ?C?but he’s found his potency in offence by becoming a very good passer.”
Bogut is part of an unprecedented Australian presence in the NBA, a result, Longley tells you, of a talented generation and the NBA’s broadened search for talent. But it is also because of the path he blazed in the 1990s. “It’s a lovely notion and there is certainly some merit to it,” he replies when that assertion is put to him. “If they watched me on the wrong day, it could be argued that I showed them how not to do it. But, certainly yes, I am proud of helping put Australia on the world stage. Not that I would ever shout it from the rooftops.”
Maybe Longley’s reticence to trumpet his achievements is as much cultural as innate. He explains how, if he sees someone in Australia driving a yellow convertible Bentley “I think he’s a wanker”, but in LA or Chicago, he thinks “‘Nice car”.
“Contextually, it’s a completely different response,” he says. “That’s just who we are as a nation. It does make it hard to shine in some ways, but it keeps us closer together. I kind of like that. In Australia, people just move along and I can go a month without being asked for a photo or autograph. In Chicago I walk down the street and a policeman says ‘G’day Luc’, like I’m on first-name basis with everybody. I can’t buy a beer in Chicago. And, I like that, too.
“I guess it’s just that people across America really loved our team. There was Michael, Dennis, Phil. There was Toni [Kukoc] from Croatia, Scottie ?C?the second greatest player ever ?C?Steve Kerr, me the Australian guy. We had interesting characters, we ran an interesting game, we had a variety and a balance. It was bloody cool. It really was a phenomenon.”