Aussies in College: Luc Longley - The First Australian in the NBA

Johaan Forbes-Anthony takes a look back in time in reviewing the best Australian collegiate careers as part of an ongoing exclusive series.

Rewriting history is one thing, but creating it is a whole other ball game.

For Lucien “Luc” Longley, it might have been hard to believe when then New Mexico University coach Gary Colson recruited him alongside his junior basketball teammate Andrew Vlahov to make the move to the United States. Despite Vlahov choosing to attend Stanford University, being scouted together would’ve meant quite a bit having progressed through the junior ranks in Western Australia. Very few Australian's had chosen the college pathway before him, yet little did Longley know he was about to create history.

photo credit: iccsports via photopin cc

The towering 7'2" center out of Scotch College in Perth commenced a college scholarship spanning all four years, drawing the attention of professional scouts, and garnering national media attention for his on-court presence and performances. History shows that he then nominated for the NBA draft in 1991 where he was selected #7 overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves and became the first Australian in the NBA.

After starting off slowly at New Mexico in playing a role coming off the bench, Longley warmed to the task of college basketball and became a starter during his second season. He justified his promotion by improving in all facets of the game; shooting a very respectable 57.8% from the field whilst nearly doubling his scoring output from the free throw line. The sophomore’s strong season was further accentuated after receiving the honour of being selected to represent Australia at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games where the 'Boomers' finished in fourth place. At that time it was Australia’s best ever result in Olympic history and it arguably helped propel Longley onto the pathway to individual success.

Courtesy of New Mexico Athletics

Longley returned to the Lobos as a more confident and complete player. He recorded the first triple-double in Lobos history in 1989 with 23 points, 15 rebounds and 10 blocks - the first double-digit blocks recorded in University of New Mexico history. His dominance for the Lobos became more evident as a junior, able to defend the rim and score in the post, using his size to his advantage. At Madison Square Garden in 1990, he recorded his second triple-double, logging 17 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists against Penn State in a phenomenal performance by the big man.

By his fourth and final year he averaged a staggering 19.1 points and 9.2 rebounds per game and was shooting a supreme 65.6% from the field. It comes as no surprise that Longley ended his career with the Lobos as the all-time leader for blocks, however, what was intriguing for a player of his size was the fact he exhibited amazing passing skills as he also averaged 3.6 assisted per game. His on court performances were outstanding, and they were garnering plenty of attention from the media and more importantly, NBA scouts.

Despite the Lobos having strong regular seasons during Longley’s tenure in compiling an 84-49 overall record, they failed to make an impact in the NCAA tournament. The Lobo's rode Longley's amazing senior performances all the way to the 'big dance', and despite being the #14 seed that year, they were ousted by an even stronger #3 ranked Oklahoma State in the first round. It proved to be an unremarkable end to what was a remarkable rise to fame by the quiet big man from the land down under.

There is no doubt that Luc Longley enjoyed a stellar career with the Lobos throughout his four years. Despite not achieving the team success he most likely craved, his individual success was outstanding. He went agonizingly close to averaging a double-double of 20 points and 10 rebounds per game in his final year, and almost single-handedly carryied his team to the NCAA tournament. It was his on court individual exploits that allowed him to be recognised even further in being selected as a lottery pick in the 1991 draft.

Longley’s rise through his collegiate career has certainly paved the way for future Australian’s to consider attending US colleges in chasing their dreams in making it to the NBA. His success allowed many young Australians come to believe that they too could make it to the top-level of the sport through choosing the same pathway, with current Australian NBA stars Andrew Bogut and Patrick Mills now heavily featuring for their respective teams. His Australian legacy at New Mexico is now continued through the on-court action of Cameron Bairstow and Hugh Greenwood.

Whilst Longley went on to famously win 3 NBA championship rings with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls from 1996-1998, his career with the Lobos opened the door to college basketball for many Australians for years to come. After his 11-year, 4-team NBA career came to an end in 2011 after battling injury and chronic knee problems. He has since been inducted into the Australian Hall of Fame in 2009 and is currently an Assistant Coach with the Australian national team. In recognition of his outstanding career with the Lobos, Longley was recently named to the University of New Mexico Hall of Honor.

Was it Longley that first opened the doors to the influx of Australians in college basketball? Where does Longley's collegiate career stand in relation to other Australians? Please share you thoughts and opinions as to Longley's college career.