How Luc Longley proved himself on the Chicago Bulls despite Michael Jordan's trash talking
You don’t become the greatest at anything without possessing a competitive drive. Michael Jordan was a merciless assassin, both on and off the court, and Luc Longley experienced this firsthand.
The Australian centre was traded to the Chicago Bulls in 1994, by the Minnesota Timberwolves – the team that drafted him. A little over a year later, Jordan announced his return from his first retirement with a two-word fax: “I’m back”. The basketball icon would lead Chicago to a second three-peat from 1996-1998, and Longley was the man in the middle of it all. But the lanky Perth native wasn’t a fan of Jordan at first, with the Bulls legend proving to be an abrasive personality.
“I’d have to say after he came back, I really didn’t like the guy,” Longley wrote in his 1996 book, Running With the Bulls. “I found him difficult to be around and he and I obviously didn’t see eye-to-eye. We were at each other’s throats in practice and … that was a case of frustration from both of us, mostly from him.”
Jordan seldom offered praise or encouragement, but Longley briefly unearthed this side of him, early in the 1996/97 season. The big man scored sixteen first quarter points in a regular season game against Detroit, nearly matching his career high after just twelve minutes of play.
“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’,” Longley told Inside Sport, in 2014.
However, Jekyll quickly turned into Hyde, after Longley didn’t score a single point for the rest of the game.
“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,” Longley shared.
If you thought that was brutal, we are only just scratching the surface. Not only was Jordan the face of basketball, but he had a reputation as the game’s premier trash talker. It was only going to be a matter of time before Longley got caught in the crossfire, as nobody was safe from MJ’s barbs.
“21 feet of s***”
Shortly after Jordan’s return in 1995, Longley became one of his targets. The then three-time champion accepted nothing less than excellence, and had little patience for mistakes on the court.
“I told Luc,” Jordan said after a few games back, in 1995. “if he doesn’t catch any more of my passes, I’m going to hit him right in the face with it. I’m going to start throwing them right at his head.”
On another occasion, Jordan threw the ball out to Scottie Pippen on a fast break. Pippen took one dribble and passed ahead to Longley, who lost the ball out of bounds. “I told you,” Jordan yelled at Pippen, “don’t ever pass him the ball on the break.”
Respect wasn’t something Jordan handed out on a silver platter. Luc needed to earn it, and in fact he did just that. As the 1995/96 season went on, Longley slowly earned Jordan’s trust by setting hard screens and filling his role as the starting centre. The Bulls won their fourth title, and the Perth native became the first Australian player to win a championship ring.
When Longley suffered an injury early in the 1996/97 season, his absence was noted. “That was when Michael’s and my relationship went to the next level,” Longley shared, in a 2018 interview with The Ringer. “He realised, at that stage, how good my screens were—how useful I was.” The Bulls won a second consecutive title, and eyed yet another three-peat.
Longley proved his worth to the team, but that didn’t stop Jordan from growling at him every now and then. During one of the Bulls’ playoff runs, Scottie Pippen was trying to pump up the 7’2 centre. “Need you to bring your A game,” Pippen said to Longley. According to Tim Grover’s book “Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable”, Jordan interjected before the big man had a chance to reply, and left him for dead with a brutal line of trash talk.
“Bring your A game? Bring a game.”
Jordan wasn’t satisfied with two consecutive titles in 1997. As far as he was concerned, the job wasn’t done yet. “The Last Dance”, the ten-part documentary that was primarily set in the 1997/98 season, showed fans a glimpse of Jordan’s ambition and determination in winning a sixth title. What the documentary perhaps showed less of, was that MJ still didn’t hesitate to chastise less-talented teammates, despite having experienced so much success in the game.
In 1998, the Bulls had three centres on their roster – Joe Kleine, Luc Longley and Bill Wennington. “You know what I have to play with?,” Jordan once said in the training room, looking right at them. “Twenty-one feet of s***.” Perhaps a bit harsh considering Longley was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game, in addition to 5.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists.
However, the Aussie centre took the barbs in his stride, and ended up starting on one of the greatest basketball dynasties in history. MJ was going to be MJ; Luc wasn’t the only one receiving the Jordan treatment. “I wasn’t the only one he was like that with. It was the whole group,” Longley said in 2014.
Sometimes greatness comes with its challenges, and in Jordan’s case his competitiveness spilled into the dressing room.
Longley entered the NBA with high expectations, after Minnesota selected him with the 7th overall pick in the 1991 draft. Initially a big fish in a small pond at the University of New Mexico, the Aussie now had to start from the bottom in the NBA. It wasn’t an easy adjustment for Longley, especially on the defensive end.
“I had to get serious about my body and the way I prepared for games. The biggest problem for me was learning how to defend at a high level. Coaches can’t put you on the court if you can’t defend. If you’re not on the court, you can’t show how good you are at scoring. I always felt comfortable to score, I just needed to get on the court, so I worked really hard on defending. On strength. On speed. My application to it all,” Longley told The Australian in May 2020.
Longley struggled to make his mark with the Timberwolves, and eventually found himself on the trading block.
“I figured I was on the chopping block. I hoped I was on the chopping block because I was playing for Minnesota, which I didn’t enjoy at the time,” Longley shared. But the lanky centre didn’t view this as a setback; rather, it was an opportunity for a fresh start.
The trade brought the big man to Chicago – the three-time defending champions. Longley was immediately excited by the change of scenery, which would ultimately yield three championships rings. “I had 24 hours to report to Chicago. I got there in about eight. That’s how much of a hurry I was in to get there. I was out the door,” he added.
“It was going from basketball purgatory to basketball heaven, as far as I was concerned,” Longley shared with Inside Slam in 2019. “Phil Jackson was very clearly in control of what we were doing, and had a big vision, and put guys in roles that suited them, rather than bag them for things they couldn’t do.”
The Bulls organisation conveyed a different level of professionalism, and he was finally at home.
“But the Bulls were in a different league in the way they went about practice. They had their own practice facility. Their own car park. That was new. In Minnesota, we were practising in a public gym, public car park, all that,” Longley shared with the Australian.
“There was a lot more media in Chicago. A lot more. Their strength and conditioning guys – there was five of them instead of one, and they were all over it. It just felt like a whole other level of professionalism in Chicago.
“At Minnesota it was everyone to themselves. In Chicago it was very much about sharing the ball, movement, spacing – all the things I hold dear in basketball. They were all back on the table in Chicago. [Coach] Phil Jackson was immediately engaged. I felt like I had arrived at my basketball home. I did everything I could, for as long as I could, to make that stick.”
Longley’s Bulls career culminated in a career-best 1997/98 season. After winning three titles and averaging career highs, he was in a position to get paid. The big man earned a five-year, US$30 million contract as part of a sign-and-trade deal sending him to Phoenix. Unfortunately, a string of injuries marred his twilight years, and we never saw the best of him after the Bulls’ last dance. Longley finished his 10-year career with a 25-game stint in New York, as an ankle complaint forced him into early retirement. By the end of his NBA journey, the Perth native already had one foot back in Australia, as he eyed retirement.
“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,” Longley told Inside Sport in 2014.
The Last Dance
Longley re-emerged from the basketball wildnerness when he joined the Boomers’ coaching staff in 2013. Serving as Andrej Lemanis’ assistant, he would hold this post until 2019, and played his part in two deep tournament runs. Australia very nearly medalled at the 2016 Olympics and 2019 World Cup – if we could change one foul call against Spain in 2016, and one Patty Mills free throw in 2019, the results would be completely different.
More recently, Longley was curiously absent from “The Last Dance”, a documentary which chronicled the Bulls’ sixth championship in 1998. The documentary’s director, Jason Hehir, revealed that Longley wasn’t forgotten; rather, he was left out due to budget constraints.
“Unfortunately, it was because of geography and budget,” Hehir told the Sydney Morning Herald. “We were way over budget with the amount of people that we interviewed. It was tough to justify flying our crew to Australia. It would’ve been tens of thousands of dollars to go there.
“Luc was one of the quiet, more reticent figures in that locker room. If Luc was this gregarious storyteller, and had more of a vocal presence in the locker room, we may have worked harder to get him on camera.”
Always a gentle giant, Longley probably isn’t too concerned about his omission from the documentary. The drama and bitterness conveyed in the documentary, largely by Jordan, isn’t something the Perth native was ever known for. He doesn’t need a documentary to validate his place in Australian basketball history – after all, he is the first Aussie to play in the NBA, and the first Australian to win a championship ring at the NBA level.
After all, as he tells Swanton:
“Once you’ve won the championship together, you’re champions for the rest of your life. No matter what happens in life, you feel like at least once you’ve reached that plateau or peak of — it was a really tangible thing to have accomplished. I felt just immense pride at doing it as an Australian.
“Having children is not to be compared with anything but beyond anything else I’ve ever done, that moment was the most powerful. Some people wanted to jump up and down. Some people wanted to hug and high-five everyone. I just wanted to stand still and soak it all up.
“Getting traded to the Bulls was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Thank you for loving Aussie hoops! From Kein, Damian and #TeamPnR