Aussie NBA Icon Luc Longley Tells Us Everything ‘The Last Dance’ Left Out
(Photo by Barry Gossage/MNAE via Getty)
— Updated on 19 June 2023

Aussie NBA Icon Luc Longley Tells Us Everything ‘The Last Dance’ Left Out

— Updated on 19 June 2023

When the world was without sport in 2020, ESPN and Netflix released The Last Dance. The Emmy Award-winning 10-part event chronicled every aspect of the Chicago Bulls championship years, and featured 90 different interviewees to help tell the story. That is with the notable exception of seven-foot-two Australian centre Luc Longley… who is pretty bloody hard to miss.

In a basketball era that was largely defined by dominant big men, the producers of The Last Dance seemed content with letting you believe that guys like Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Brad Daugherty, Rik Smits, Shawn Kemp — even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone during the tail-end of their careers — were magically being guarded by themselves.

While people still widely celebrate the work of players such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman, it was the guys like Luc Longley who had the decidedly less glamourous task of working “around the edges,” which often involved defending the other team’s best player. I asked Longley if that particular responsibility on such a high-profile team came with any added pressure.

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“No, not pressure. Pride. I was proud. I was like, ‘Please give me a job, like, I love the job.’ I’m like a bit of a kelpie like that. I love a job… I was a bit of a sacrificial lamb. That was my paycheque. ‘Go and wrestle Shaq all by yourself.’ If I could hold back the avalanche long enough, it would be alright,” explained Luc Longley.

The modern “pace and space” era of the NBA might have moved away from the traditional bruising big man archetype, but the Luc Longleys of the world were crucial to the success of teams in the 90s. Prior to the 2001-2002 season, there was no defensive three-second rule and big guys could just stand in the paint the whole game if they chose to.

Defenders also couldn’t hedge and play “in-between” the ball and his man. There were no zone concepts or help defence, meaning you had to either put a serious guy on Shaq or commit to a double team that would leave one of the opposing team’s players wide open.

Longley was also exceptionally skilled for the position at the time. He could hit you with a perfectly timed pass out of the post and bury a 15-foot jumper when he got the ball back on a screen-and-roll. When Longley separated his shoulder while body surfing in California in 1996, the team quickly learned how important it was to have him provide space in the half-court, set perfect screens, and execute the micro-details of Phil Jackson’s triangle offence.

It would be a bit of an exaggeration to call him “the prototype Dirk Nowitzki” or “Jokić before Jokić,” but I certainly wasn’t surprised to hear which player had his attention in these recent playoffs.

“I’ve been particularly interested in watching Denver because, you know, Jokic embodies the ‘slow, can’t-jump-white-guy’ thing that I also kind of embraced without any choice.”

“People always ask me, ‘Do you think you could play in today’s NBA?’ And I say, ‘Luc from 90? No.’ I’d have been too slow, and I didn’t have a three. But when I played, I was a stretch big in effect because I could shoot a jumper and I think, if I was growing up today, I’d have taught myself a three. Like, it’s not that hard. You just have to practice it a lot.”

Luc Longley Interview - Everything 'The Last Dance' Left Out
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Allsport via Getty)

“Jokic gives me hope that I could play in today’s NBA. He’s got such amazing footwork and skills. I would have had to double down on some of that. But yeah, he goes against the flow, doesn’t he? He’s not the long, bouncy wing/close-out big guy that you’re seeing as trendy.”

Longley continued: “I’m hoping that cracks the door open for some more heavy-footed, big, lumbering centres to come in and play a little bit of point… I mean, every centre wants to be a point guard and every point guard wants to post someone up.”

Luc Longley was invaluable to the Chicago Bulls, even if he would never tell you as much. Humble, almost to a detriment. I asked him a question along the lines of: “Why is now the perfect time to celebrate this historic team Aussie Legends Limited edition merch range?” In basketball terms, this was essentially throwing the big fella a lob to promote the apparel line that prompted this interview.

“Yeah, well… I didn’t make the decision on the range, the NBA made that decision,” he replied with a chuckle.

“I would never have spruiked, ‘Let’s get some Longley jerseys on the shelves,’ but obviously they’ve decided it’s a good time because of the 25th anniversary.”

25 years ago, the Chicago Bulls secured both the 1998 title to complete ‘The Last Dance’ and the franchise’s second three-peat in eight years. They were the epicentre of the NBA’s explosion in popularity, as it could now be watched on TV all over the world “when we all started wearing long shorts like Michael and the shoes started getting really cool.”

The team was a massive global phenomenon and Luc Longley recounted a story that head coach Phil Jackson had told them at practice to emphasise their accountability to the public.

“Someone had sent Phil a photo and this guy had gone on a pilgrimage in Tibet and he was walking like, I don’t know, three days to get to some random monastery where he was gonna find enlightenment.”

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“And on the whole walk he ran into one guy. There was an old monk in the full monk gear, and he had a hat on, and it was a Bulls cap. It was like, ‘Everyone, everywhere is watching you.’”

The Chicago Bulls were such a phenomenon that they needed to use fake names for their hotel rooms when they were playing on the road. Rusty LaRue, a backup guard for the team, posted an image on Twitter featuring a list of some of the pseudonyms that were used.

Larue, along with teammates Bill Wennington and Toni Kukoč, chose not to use fake names at all, which meant that we could figure out that they were listed in alphabetical order based on the real names on the roster.

Checking LaRue’s list alongside the original 1997-98 team on Basketball Reference, we could determine that Michael Jordan was “Oscar Miles,” Steve Kerr was “Austin Powers,” Scottie Pippen was “Johnnie Walker,” Ron Harper was “Peter Parker”… and in room 1812, Luc Longley was “Stagger Lee.”

Outside of the famous Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds song, Longley used other aliases with equally Australian inspirations. First there was “Norman Gunston,” after the TV character created by comedian Garry McDonald.

“He took his act overseas and people took him seriously. I sometimes felt a bit like a basketball Norman Gunston on those days when I was only faking it.”

Another name he used was “Bruce Doull,” an homage to the Aussie rules footballer that played for Carlton Football Club in the 70s. Nicknamed the “Flying Dormat,” Doull was, as Longley described, “a bald thing with long hair… He’s awesome. He’s never said a word. Never did an interview. Just went out there and punished guys.”

While the thought of Michael Jordan having these niche 70s Australian references explained to him is hilarious, the fake names were more than just a gimmick.

Luc Longley Interview - Everything 'The Last Dance' Left Out
(Photo by John Gichigi/Allsport via Getty)

“Unless you wanted a combination of media, fans, and girls ringing you up at all times just randomly. There was a lot of attention.”

I pointed out the three players that kept their original names and he smiled.

“Well, I wonder what happened there.”

Experiencing this circus together and winning three consecutive championships led to the teammates forming a bond that they’ve maintained over the 25 years since they played together.

After his omission from the Netflix documentary, an hour-long episode of Australian Story was released with a specific focus on Longley’s basketball journey. Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Steve Kerr all sat down for interviews to help tell his story.

Longley stated that, while he expected them all to show up for his documentary, their participation and the words they said about him were much appreciated.

“It’s hard not to go through something like that and not have connections. I came down here and kind of did my own thing for a decade and those connections were still right there when I reached back out again. I hadn’t reached out to MJ for a few years, and he was right there.”

One noticeable absence from the Australian Story documentary was the elusive Dennis Rodman, who Luc Longley admits is the hardest to keep in contact with “because his lifestyle is still pretty erratic.” Interestingly enough, the pair of them were two of the closest on the team.

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It’s one of those things that’s initially pretty surprising — an unassuming Aussie bloke and a guy that “married” himself becoming mates — but it begins to make a whole lot of sense when you really think about it.

“We definitely have different lifestyles and demeanours, but I was just really curious about what Dennis was into and I loved to party at that stage. I couldn’t do a lot of it because, you know, I had a family. So, I was partying at a different level to Dennis, but I loved the places that he went and the places it took me. I suppose when you’re the two big men in the team you have to develop a lot of trust.”

There’s such an enduring fascination surrounding the team to the extent that people are still debating conspiracy theories surrounding its players. They’ll tell you that Michael Jordan’s baseball hiatus was a shadow suspension for gambling or that the “Flu Game” was secretly a hangover. After Longley had initially told me there was no question he wasn’t prepared to answer, I chose to ask him about the latter.

“No comment… But only because I don’t have anything,” said Luc Longley.

“To know me is to know that I don’t remember anything from two years ago. My anecdotal recall is really bad. If I knew something, I would tell you.”

“What I do know is, whatever it was, he felt shithouse and still played really well and that’s a sign of something. Like he’s a special unit to be able to summon that effort through whatever was going on. That should be our focus. I don’t have any conspiracy there.”

We navigate towards the state of Australian basketball and its incredibly promising future.

“It’s become sort of a realistic focal point for young basketballers. There’s good coaching around, we’ve got good junior development leagues, we look after athletes, and so the cream is rising really nicely and it’s amazing the percentage of kids that are getting through.”

Josh Giddey Boomers

The Sydney Kings, the NBL team of which he’s a part owner, are defending back-to-back champions. While Luc Longley labels himself as a “reluctant advice-giver,” he’s more than aware of the challenges that come with pursuing a third consecutive title. He’ll tell players to not “get distracted by your own greatness,” but more importantly, “play for fun for as long as you can. Make it fun for as long as it can be.”

Our conversation quickly descended into a mindless hypothetical all-time Boomers starting line-up chat. In another timeline, Patty Mills running off Luc Longley ball-screens would have given the Dream Team nightmares. We ultimately settled on Andrew Gaze, Patty Mills, and himself as three of five, but I received a bit of pushback on my nomination of bronze medallist Joe Ingles to complete the backcourt (“So we’re not defending anyone, then”).

I had to appreciate the fact that this sort of conversation, which can be heard in pubs around Australia every day, was largely able to even happen because of the man in front of me. He was the first Australian player in the NBA and the only one to this day that has multiple championship rings. He’s either played with or coached every single one of the players we’ve discussed. And yet he was still debating them with me like he was just another fan of basketball.

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

For a while after he retired, Luc Longley was somewhat detached from the world of basketball. He recounts leaving the NBA behind being incredibly difficult, although he’s now able to look back on the experience more positively and watch the game as it evolves with great enthusiasm and insight.

Longley explained that he was able to enjoy all of this celebration recently, with his now-adult children able to appreciate it with him.

“I mean, you know, I didn’t come looking for it. I haven’t positioned myself for it, but I enjoy it. It’s nice that people are remembering it, thinking it was great, and validating the old career highlight.”

“My last three years in the league were horrible. I had two bad years in Phoenix while my ankle was breaking down. Then I got traded to New York and that was horrible. So, at the end of my career, what I remembered was horrible. And so now, with all of this, what I’m getting to remember is the good stuff, which is cool.”

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It seems at this point that his only regret looking back on the time was cutting the ginger mullet that he sported during his time at the University of New Mexico. He could have never foreseen that the hairstyle he pioneered would make such a triumphant return among Aussie athletes.

“I regret ever cutting that thing off because then I’d be trendy again… I should have stayed with it. I missed so many opportunities for self-promotion, you know. I really wasn’t a clever self-promoter.”

A lot of the time we tend to sensationalise this idea of an athlete’s mentality. Basketball fans in particular will discuss the “killer instinct” of guys like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and waste time with conjecture on how feared they were by their opponents.

This focus on a player’s intensity and dominance over the competition sort of neglects the fact that sport is something that requires tremendous skill and is ultimately something that is allowed to be (if not, supposed to be) enjoyed by the people that play.

Luc Longley Interview - Everything 'The Last Dance' Left Out
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Allsport via Getty)

That’s why it’s so refreshing to listen to a guy like Luc Longley, who doesn’t engage in any of that sort of posturing or false bravado. It’s all sincerity and no mystique. His combination of humility and self-deprecating jokes makes you forget for a moment that he’s a literal and metaphorical giant in Australia’s sporting history.

There isn’t one way to be great. There’s definitely a place for the ferocity of someone like MJ, but even he could admit that you can’t have 17 guys on the team like this and hope to be successful. Sometimes you need a seven-foot-two Aussie that’s willing to do the dirty work, purely for the love of the game and his teammates.

You can now purchase the “Aussie Legends” limited edition merch range, made in collaboration with Michell and Ness Nostalgia Co., from NBA stores in Melbourne and Sydney. There’s also a brand-new feature-length documentary called Foundations about Luc Longley’s personal and professional journey available to stream on the NBA app and on NBA Australia’s social media accounts.

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