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Golden Heartbreak: Reliving the Boomers' Brazilian Mission
It was really happening, and everyone knew it.
“This was the opportunity for us to achieve a goal,” Andrew Gaze recalled.
Similarly, Luc Longley recognised the stakes they were playing for.
“We had an awful lot invested in that game,” Longley admitted.
At least one Boomer knew the moment for what it really was, but did not dare to say what crossed his mind.
“I remember thinking we were doing something special,” Damian Martin said. “We were caught up in the moment.”
This was the moment Australian basketball had been waiting for. And the Boomers bench, which contained an irreplaceable cocktail of legends, pioneers and warhorses, was euphoric.
Ryan Broekhoff jumping around without a care in the world. Andrew Bogut raising his fist in triumph. Kevin Lisch transforming into security guard, as he attempted to control the hype man bursting out of Martin. These men, just like millions back home, knew it. It was finally happening.
“We were right there,” Joe Ingles admits.
The cause of the Boomers’ commotion was something rooted in basketball fundamentals. A lumbering five man, turning over his left shoulder, vaulting the most impactful hook shot a nation has seen.
And the suspense was only beginning.
As the basketball bounced around the rim, a sporting nation held its breath. Fittingly, this journey in flight was synonymous with the history of those who were willing it home. Left rim… backboard… front rim… and back down; it was anything but easy, and challenged at every turn. As the basketball careened through its nylon goal, there was a flash of astounding realisation.
One made field goal is the extent of this moment in the history books. It was only two points, but these particular two points represented so much more.
Like Jon Aloisi burying a penalty in 2005, Cathy Freeman trundling around an arena in 2000 or Cadel Evans pedalling his bike in 2011, this foray onto the scoreboard was tapping into the Australian sporting psyche.
The Australian Boomers were leading with 9.7 seconds remaining in an Olympic medal game. Australia’s first Olympic medal in men’s basketball was no longer just a talking point. It was now within reach. Thanks to an Aron Baynes hook shot, it was just one possession away.
“I remember thinking we might have a chance to win a medal here,” Lisch remembered. “And then, that happened.”
The that is all anyone wants to talk about. The who, what, where, why, how and context all played starring roles, but that play will live on in Australian sporting infamy.
“That was a pretty horrible thing to be a part of,” Andrej Lemanis, head coach of the Australian Boomers, said.
In basketball, when even a split second has the potential to change everything, those fateful 9.7 seconds twisted a knife into the Boomers' fortunes that night.
“I’ve tried not to think about it.”
It’s 10pm on a painfully frigid January evening. The harsh Wisconsin breeze swirls off Lake Michigan, right outside the BMO Bradley Harris Centre, home to the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
Inside, Matthew Dellavedova is the centre of attention. On this night, he is equal parts NBA athlete and national delegate.
"It’s Australia Day," proclaims the Bucks' in-court entertainment team to a bewildered audience.
Vegemite-eating contests, slang tutorials and green-and-gold bubbleheads mystify a humble American crowd. Beaming with pride, Dellavedova waxes poetic as he describes the honour of playing on this national holiday.
“It means a lot,” Dellavedova explained. “Even though I’m on the other side of the world, I’m still representing Australia, no matter where I am playing.”
No, this isn’t Maryborough. It most certainly isn’t warm, sun-soaked or synonymous with a January day back home. 14,241 kilometres is what separated this export from his humble roots, yet despite the aching distance, if only for one night, this Midwest town is made to feel like home.
The NBA has embraced Australiana, and Delly is front and centre.
So consider Dellavedova in that moment. At just 26 years old, he is Australia’s foremost cult hero. A reigning NBA champion, and recent recipient of a $50 million (AUD) contract from the Milwaukee Bucks. Engaged only a few months prior to his collegiate sweetheart. Spokesperson for a nation on its biggest day. The mood is friendly and life is good for this Aussie abroad. But post-game, something is amiss.
His Milwaukee Bucks had just suffered a capitulating defeat to a rudderless Philadelphia 76ers outfit, but that’s life in the NBA. Wins and losses, ups and downs; these are defining features of a relentless 82 game grind. One night’s misfortune is washed away with the next opposition scouting report.
Something much more pronounced is afoot.
Dellavedova, standing in an already sombre locker-room, charmingly responded to the only Australian media member present.
In between providing local dining recommendations and showering affection on countryman Thon Maker, Dellavedova is bombarded with those clichés that international media types love. The benign “how can this team turn it around” and “what does it mean to play on Australia Day” inquisitions come barrelling down. As always, he is upbeat and talkative, defining features of a character who is universally adored.
Until that day comes up.
The perpetually jovial Dellavedova is rendered speechless. His lips tighten, as a moment of raging disappointment is vaulted into his consciousness. Like a fresh wound, time has not yet allowed this memory to scar. The pain is palpable.
“I’ve tried to not think about it,” Dellavedova admits candidly. “I haven’t really dealt with it yet.”
On that day, there was no money on the line and no NBA franchise to impress. As he did on this frosty Wisconsin evening, there was only a native reputation to uphold.
158 days had passed since Spain claimed their fourth Olympic medal in men’s basketball, defeating Dellavedova’s Australian side by one point. 3,792 hours had elapsed, but the visceral agony hadn’t quite dissipated.
Like every Boomers campaign of late, Australia Day 2017 promised plenty, delivered so much, only to be punctuated with melancholy defeat. The Bittersweet Symphony of Australian basketball marches on.
“We came to win gold.”
It’s the little things that stuck with Damian Martin.
Being summoned to the coaches’ office. Opening the office door at 3:20 pm. The wandering eyes of a sporting legend. The foreboding language of a head coach.
During one of the most incredible moments of his life, these subtle details became entrenched into his mind. As too did a feeling of despair, when a paramount conversation seemingly took a turn for the worst.
“This wasn’t going well,” Martin recalls. “Even the wording Andrej [Lemanis] was using, it was leading towards me being cut.”
This was the moment where Martin would discover his fate. Would he be going to Rio De Janeiro to represent Australia at the XXXI Olympiad?
Martin, who had dreamed of being an Olympian since watching the 1992 Games as a child, was so close to reaching his ultimate goal. He was on the precipice of realising a quest that had been 24 years in the making. But the mood wasn’t right and the phrasing was off; so Martin thought the worst.
Until he saw a smile.
“We are going to take you to Rio,” the Boomers coaching staff proclaimed, and with this announcement, a childhood dream was realised.
“Those are words I’m never going to forget,” Martin said with pride.
In the aftermath, excitement first came, which was quickly followed by the emotion that only a lifelong pursuit can extract. Then, the really special part: a call back home. “To be able to go call my wife, and call my mum and dad, and hear how they reacted was even more special,” he says. “It was one of the most incredible moments of my life.”
While Martin had been chasing his accomplishment for an entire lifetime, Kevin Lisch’s sporting imaginings never once contained green and gold aspirations. How could they?
Born in Belleville, a regional town in southwestern Illinois, Lisch was never meant to be here. A well-travelled basketball journey is the sole reason he came to know Australia.
“I never even dreamed of being an Australian or going to [the] Olympics,” Lisch honestly admits.
After playing four years at Saint Louis University, Lisch went unselected in the 2009 NBA draft, before signing with the Perth Wildcats. Lisch entered his adopted home as a single American twenty-something, and seven years later, he was an Australian family man en route to the Olympic Games.
“It was extra special because my wife and kids are Australian,” Lisch said. “I was the one lagging behind before I finally got my citizenship.”
Lisch’s journey to a maiden Olympic Games was no childhood prophecy. It wasn’t borne out of an infant dream. It was, however, the punctuating trademark of his naturalisation. He has come to know Australia, its sporting underbelly and the importance of two colours that signify its residents.
“When you put on that green and gold jersey,” Lisch added. “You really feel like you’re part of this country and representing it. For me, it was particularly special.”
On 11 July 2016, the day the Boomers Olympic squad was officially announced, Lisch and Martin achieved something so remarkable it cannot be tangibly measured. Both men were now Olympians. More than that, they had taken the first step towards their ultimate ambition.
“Our goal was to win a gold medal,” Lisch says, before giving voice to the critics. This newly-minted Australian was well aware of how such a daring mandate could be perceived across the basketball galaxy.
“Maybe a lot of people who didn’t know us would have scoffed and smiled,” he says. “But looking back, I think a lot of people see that it was very achievable.”
From NBA superstars to NBL veterans, the playing group was united over a common goal. No, this wasn’t Sydney part deux, there were no Medal or Bust proclamations. Edicts are more distinguished these days.
“The goal is going to be a gold medal,” Martin noted when reminiscing about the lead into Rio. “This is the message we are going to send and we are going to have complete buy-in.”
The power of this imagery is striking, and perhaps the ultimate sign of Australian basketball’s maturation. Lisch and Martin are certainly distinguished athletes. They perform on a prominent national stage, and respective tickets to Brazil validate their standing in global basketball. But they aren’t NBA players. They don’t have ‘NBA’ talent.
It’s one thing for Patty Mills to believe he can climb Mount Everest, but these two NBL players, what gives them to right to believe a gold medal is achievable? They don’t even play alongside the likes of Kevin Durant, Pau Gasol or Rudy Gobert; how can they expect to beat them? It may not seem obvious to the public at large, but the answer was always clear for Martin.
“I’m sitting back in the NBL, getting home from training and watching the NBA on TV,” Martin explains. “Yet these guys are saying we are going to win the gold medal.
“It was amazing, it was powerful and Andrew Bogut led that from the front. His confidence was instilled in all of us.”
“He was never going to play.”
Andrew Bogut was ready.
As he took the Oracle Arena floor for Game 5 for the 2016 NBA Finals, his place was guaranteed. An oft-injured body was willing, finally, and a third Olympic campaign was just weeks away.
The plan hatched with Andrej Lemanis in 2013, was seemingly a fait accompli. A trip to Rio de Janeiro, the South American oasis which had long been earmarked to complete Bogut’s national team revival, was so close.
Cue the Shakespearean twist.
As Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith drove to the basket during the third quarter of Game 5, Bogut rose up, swatting away Smith’s lay-up in the process, and landed awkwardly on his opponent. While the aftermath could have been much worse, Bogut suffered bone bruises to his proximal tibia and distal femur, two major bones in the leg.
His NBA season was over, and Olympic preparations descended into chaos. In the days following this latest injury setback, an honest Bogut questioned whether a third Olympic campaign was even possible.
“When I did my knee, I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Bogut confessed.
He wasn’t the only one with doubts.
Coaches thought he was done and started planning schematic adjustments without him. Those covering the team thought he had no chance of recovering in time. Jon Ralph, who followed the Boomers in Brazil for the Herald Sun, had a firsthand view of Bogut’s struggles.
“Bogut was never going to play,” Ralph said. “Even the warm up stuff that he did in South America behind closed doors, [it looked like] he was never going to play.”
Even simple logic dictated Rio was too insurmountable a challenge. It seemed impractical to risk millions of potential NBA dollars, in a tournament many high-profile American athletes aggressively avoided. Sometimes, however, national pride can trump logic. Bogut wanted so desperately to play in these Olympic Games and so he did.
Bogut led the Boomers out in their Olympic opener against France, putting forth a performance for the pantheon. He delivered 18 points in 23 minutes, and Australia administered a crushing defeat to open their campaign. Any doubts over a wounded knee were evaporated with alley-oop slams and defensive rejections. Even for someone as decorated as Bogut, this was a watershed moment.
“I know how much it means to him to pull on the green and gold,” Matthew Dellavedova said about Bogut, following the victory over France.
Fifty-nine days after collapsing in Oakland, Bogut delivered the performance of a lifetime. He has played better games, scored more points and blocked more shots, but these 23 minutes of basketball delivered a transformative power that motivated a nation.
“For [Bogut] to emerge in that first game and be so extraordinary," Ralph says. “All of a sudden, we realised that they were capable of something special.”
Bogut’s impact on this Boomers squad began well before the injury that threatened his Olympic campaign, although the impediment of one more obstacle certainly helped reinforce his message.
“The way he shows national pride," Lisch said. “By coming back from an injury just to limp around in a few of those games, is pretty incredible.”
Those around the team credit behaviours sighted long before 2016 as the true power of Bogut’s motivational force. According to Lisch, Bogut would speak his mind during the entire Olympic cycle and took pride in pushing the squad to greater heights. The memo was this: we are all in it together, regardless of reputation, and there is nothing we cannot accomplish.
“It’s funny,” Martin remarks. “You’ve got all these NBA players who are doing really well in the NBA. A handful of them have won NBA championships, but the passion and pride they put into that Australian team was overwhelming at times.
“It means the world to Delly, Patty, Joey and Boges and all these guys to do something special for Australia.”
Both Martin and Lisch were playing in the NBL when 2016's All-Star Weekend rolled around in February, but were quick to reference the NBA Boomers' San Diego get-together that weekend, as an example of the mateship and camaraderie that characterised the squad.
“To have your best players and your best leaders sending that message so early on into the process,” Martin admits. “Before the team has even been announced, [that] was powerful.”
When the Boomers finally reached Rio de Janeiro, they were ready to achieve something special, and importantly, they were adamant it was about to happen. “We were ready and rearing to go by game one against France,” Martin recalls. “With the goal and belief that a gold medal was achievable.”
“I want a medal.”
Luc Longley wouldn't accept anything less. For him, it has been a lifelong quest.
As the first Australian to play in the NBA, Longley’s journey from Perth to the peak of American basketball is as charming as it is unfathomable. A chance sighting in 1986, as American colleges flocked to Western Australia to recruit his more fancied childhood friend, Andrew Vlahov, was how the basketball world uncovered Longley.
The University of New Mexico became an incubator for Australia’s first NBA career athlete, who made stops in Minnesota, Phoenix, New York and of course, Chicago. Time in the Windy City allowed Longley to reach the NBA’s apex, becoming an invaluable member of Michael Jordan’s second championship trifecta with the Chicago Bulls.
In the eyes of many, Longley had achieved the highest level of basketball success imaginable. You can hardly blame those who adopt this train of thought, as it is rooted so deeply in logic.
Longley played alongside the greatest basketballer --and perhaps athlete-- ever, at a time when Jordan was still the NBA’s undisputed warlock. Longley made millions, broke barriers, and achieved a level of success previously unattainable for those who came before him, but there was still one thing missing.
“I never went to the NBA expecting to get an NBA championship,” Longley explains. “I got on teams and that happened, but I didn’t spend my whole life getting there.”
So where has Longley’s basketball opus been leading? What could surpass the glitz of playing with His Airness, or the wealth of a decade-long NBA career, or the triumph of holding aloft the Larry O’Brien trophy?
“I spent my whole life wanting a medal at the Olympics,” Longley confessed.
Now serving as lieutenant on Lemanis’ staff, Longley proudly decrees that he’s been involved with the Boomers for over 30 years. He has put forth a stupendous lifetime as Australian basketball servant and now, after all the battles, only one aspiration captivates his mind.
“Personally, it would mean an incredible amount to get over the hump and get a medal,” Longley reinforced. “Not to devalue the championship, but an Olympic medal of any colour would make me incredibly proud. I would be telling my grandkids that story right alongside NBA championships.”
As the Boomers readied for their semi-final in Rio de Janeiro, Longley was one victory away from living his fairytale. Triumph over Serbia would deliver a maiden men’s basketball medal to Australia, and complete a quest that began a long time ago, way before many of those who would take the floor on this day.
With ominous joy, Australia had never been in a better position to break its duck. Just 11 days earlier, the Boomers had defeated Serbia 95-80 during the tournament’s group stage. Martin praised that victory as one of the most amazing performances of his career, despite the fact he didn’t even step foot on the court.
“I’ve never been more inspired by my teammates than watching them from the bench,” Martin recalled of the victory over Serbia. “Just how hard they threw their body on the line, how incredible they were at sticking to the game plan.
“That game was one of the most amazing games of my career, and I never even got to play a minute.”
Victory over Serbia followed a barnstorming conquest against France, as the Boomers showcased their potential ahead of a showdown against Team USA.
Andrew Gaze, who was in Rio commentating for Channel 7, remembers the power of these early victories.
“They came out of the blocks really strong,” Gaze recalled. “Then we had a remarkable game against Team USA, where they really took them to the limits.”
Team USA defeated the Australia on the back of a Carmelo Anthony shooting barrage, maintaining their perfect record over Australia in Olympic play. For Gaze, that performance reinforced the potential of this Boomers squad.
“I think that [performance against Team USA] got the attention of everyone,” Gazes notes. “The basketball community could see how close we were to not just winning a medal, but being competitive against the very best.”
Defeat to the Americans was simply the interlude to an Olympic campaign that, with every passing performance, grew in stature. The Boomers trounced China and Venezuela to close out group play, before stomping Lithuania in a quarter-final that was never close. Serbia was up next.
One more victory would secure a virgin medal, and complete Longley’s mission. One more triumph would keep alive the prophecy that Lisch and Martin believed so strongly. One more win would take men’s basketball to a place it has never before been.
Confidence was sky high.
The playing group was ready and history was imminent, and that is what stupefies Longley.
“I don’t think about the Spain game much,” Longley says. “I think about the Serbia game. That’s the game where we dropped our pants.”
The Boomers' aspirations were violently crushed, as they suffered a 87-61 thrashing. The dream was over.
“We didn’t play well against Serbia,” Joe Ingles admits. “It was our only bad game of the tournament."
“We absolutely shat the bed.”
As the months passed, Longley has looked everywhere for answers. He replays the lead-up over and over in his head, curiously searching for reasons behind the Boomers’ only meagre performance. Reflection has led Longley to every member of his basketball cognoscenti, including confidants human and otherwise, yet the remedies don’t exist.
“I’ve talked to the players, I’ve talked to the coaches and I’ve talked to my dog,” Longley ponders. “I still haven’t decided exactly what happened.”
Longley is quick to applaud his charges, in spite of their one miserable showing. He reinforces that the entire group played extremely hard all tournament. He praises the leaders, citing significant workloads placed on NBA veterans like Dellavedova and Mills, both of whom were playing club basketball well into May.
He appreciates courage shown by Bogut in the face of rapidly declining health. “Bogut was banged up to the point where he couldn’t get any more juice out of his body,” Longley says.
These are the best explanations he can give. Ultimately, Longley realises there is no golden elixir that justifies the second Serbian performance. Each piece of anecdotal evidence merely serves as a fragile tool to ease his mind. The long-serving Boomer is left clutching at straws, as the realisation of another lost opportunity sets in.
“I’m just massively disappointed for the guys because they put in so much, they played so hard and brought into our game style,” Longley said. “They gave it an incredibly good effort and at the end of the day we didn’t get it done.”
The players themselves are more direct when reflecting on the semi-final defeat. Joe Ingles called the defeat pathetic and proclaimed there was “nothing Australian” about the performance. Patty Mills regretfully called the entire game a shame. Andrew Bogut agreed that defeat to Serbia was bewildering, although there is a much simpler explanation in his mind.
“We absolutely shat the bed,” Bogut frankly admits. “Nothing went right and we couldn’t make a basket. We couldn’t get stops, and they smashed us.”
Trust Bogut to boil so many complex emotions down to its bluntest truth, for there is no debating his message. Serbia smashed his basketball side and with it, ended a magical march to golden glory. The Boomers were now relegated to yet another bronze medal match; the fourth in their history. Redemption and a virgin Olympic medal remained possible, but there was zero room for error.
Nathan Templeton, who covered the Australian Olympic team in Rio De Janeiro for Channel 7, was charged with interviewing the Boomers after their defeat to Serbia. In the face of a loathsome setback, Templeton admired their accountability and instantly recognised there was one final battle to be had.
“I was extremely impressed with how they fronted up to the media and Australian public after a horrible performance.
“I could see from their reaction after that bad loss that they were extremely determined to make amends.”
“Most heartbreaking defeat of my career.”
Andrej Lemanis has never experienced a more difficult locker room.
Minutes after the Australian Boomers lost the bronze medal game in Rio De Janeiro, their head coach couldn’t help but feel responsible.
“As a coach you feel kind of… you certainly feel responsible,” Lemanis admits. “You feel kind of helpless. You want to be able to do something to take away the hurt, and you can’t.”
Lemanis has been in countless environments, and thought he had experienced every plausible emotion, but Rio was a new variety of mental trauma. He remains steadfast that each Boomer played with a selfless spirit, sacrificed, and again, in his opinion, had gone about the game of basketball in the appropriate manner.
His team had given their all and to not be rewarded was utterly heartbreaking.
“Seeing the hurt in the group was tough to deal with,” Lemanis adds.
While Lemanis’ natural inclination is to praise his players and play the role of selfless leader, this was also his moment of disappointment. Since being appointed head coach in April 2013, everything had been leading right up to this day.
"We expect that the Boomers will go into the 2016 Rio Olympics with the strongest squad to date and their strongest chances yet of winning a medal - particularly with the increased resources we're putting behind them.”
Kristina Keneally, the then Chief Executive Officer of Basketball Australia, uttered these words when presenting Lemanis at his introductory press conference in 2013. There was no doubt over the objective, and to come up short was devastating.
As for Longley, he knew there were no words to alleviative the disappointing atmosphere that permeated the locker room. There was too much at stake. “Nobody knew what to say," Longley admits. “Nobody said anything and there was nothing to say. It was all over and it was one of the tougher environments.”
Which brings us to that moment, when the Boomers were leading with 9.7 seconds remaining, with a chance to clinch an Olympic bronze medal. Understandably, the waning seconds are all anyone talks about, although this accident of timing unfairly masks the theatrical masterpiece that preceded a single contentious moment. Talk about a historical injustice.
The gravitas of a few seconds overshadows an almighty heavyweight duel. It eclipses Brock Motum posterising Pau Gasol. It masks Dellavedova recklessly picking up a technical foul and donating one point to the Spaniards; could that have made the difference? It temporarily conceals Ingles being called for a dubious offensive foul as the game tightened up.
Do you remember Gasol slashing past three exhausted Boomers to empathically dunk home a Sergio Rodriguez miss? Can you recall Mills’ heaven-sent, high arching finger roll? What about Rodriguez’s free throw line jumper or David Andersen valiantly crashing the offensive glass in the final minute?
The second ranked team in the world and their upstart combatants played out a free flowing, back-and-forth slug-fest. There were nine lead changes during the final three minutes. With each basket, one point leads were exchanged and the stakes grew higher.
For the Boomers, everything seemingly culminated in Baynes’ hook shot, the one that gave the team a 88-87 lead.
“We were right there,” Ingles admits. “We had a chance to get a medal and be that first team.”
All that stood between the Boomers and their pendant was one defensive stop. It sounds so simple now.
The history books will show that one final stand proved elusive, although in the minds of many involved, history isn’t a fair arbiter of what really happened.
“The Spain [loss] was tough, because it was just blatant bad calls towards the end of that game,” Bogut says. “As a professional and someone who is in the public speaking eye, it’s always wrong to blame the referees or to make an excuse, but if you watch the tape and watch those last two fouls, they are absolutely ridiculous.”
It’s the last foul that garners notoriety for all the wrong reasons. It is that moment which changed everything for Lisch and his teammates.
Mills was judged to have fouled Rodriguez, an infringement that sent the Spaniard to the free throw line. Once there, Rodriguez calmly secured two points, facilitating the final lead change of a frantic match.
“The circumstances around the officiating decision were highly debatable,” Gaze proclaims.
“I guess we are biased as Australians, but we look at that and say we weren’t given the benefit of the doubt. Some may even go to the extent to say it was an error by the official. It’s hard to overlook that because it’s in the dying seconds, and really it determined the game.”
It’s easy to see why Rodriguez’s final drive to the basket drew flashbacks to Fabio Grosso for so many Australians. It’s the finality of the moment that penetrates the psyche and Gaze recognises the depth of this conclusion.
Was the foul call on Mills correct? Australians will say no and Spaniards will say yes, and ultimately, it doesn’t matter now. The moment referee Steven Anderson’s whistle blew, a national debate was borne at the expense of a sporting heartbreak.
“That Spanish game was the most heartbreaking defeat of my career,” Martin admits. “When the Olympics are mentioned, the first thing I think of is that bronze medal game. I always have a sickening feeling in my stomach because of the loss and the way that we lost.”
Dellavedova calls it the worst defeat of his career. Bogut agreed, reinforcing the end sequence as the source of his annoyance.
“You wish you could bring back a couple of minutes and do little things,” Ingles concedes. “We’ll bounce back; we have no doubt. The majority of that group is going to be back.”
“F**k, it hurt.”
Luc Longley won’t accept moral victories. In his mind, finishing fourth was a failure and no amount of adulation can mask the disappointment. “I thought that we underachieved in the end, “ he says. “We’ve come fourth a number of times with much less talent.”
Make no mistake, Longley is intensely proud of the Australian Boomers. Better than anyone, he can appreciate how far his nation has come as a basketball force, despite the many challenges.
He acknowledges population theory as one obstacle, the relative infancy of basketball in Australia as another. In his eyes, however, these are not impediments to success anymore. Rather, they are challenges that nurture a sporting underbelly full of blossoming athletes with immense talent and character. That is why Rio de Janeiro hurt so much.
“It’s a little bit like taking off on a massive wave and getting completely drilled,” Longley says. “Then people patting you on the back and saying that was brave. Nah, fuck, it hurt.”
The surfing analogy is apt in Longley’s mind. Defeat to Serbia was definitely a wipe-out. Then just as the Boomers had found their next wave and looked destined for a triumphant journey into shore, a stiff Spanish current intervened at the worst possible time. Despite all their progress, another Boomers campaign ended as they all have: without tangible reward.
To a man, the playing group believes they should have medalled. There is no doubt. “100 percent – we should have medalled,“ Joe Ingles says.
Yes, the Boomers failed to achieve their goal in Rio. Although in a heightened irony, the coverage of their calamitous anguish revealed an accomplishment more powerful than any accolade.
Persistent attention from the Australian media, who just won’t let go of that moment, ensures that Longley’s disappointment is never forgotten. Those 9.7 seconds followed Ingles into his NBA pre-season, travelled with Matthew Dellavedova to Milwaukee, sought out Andrew Bogut in Dallas and even lingered with Damian Martin in the aftermath of another NBL championship.
The Australian Boomers, with their history of failure riding shotgun, are back in vogue.
“We really put basketball on the map,” Martin says. “We were one of the last teams standing, so it felt like all of Australia got behind us.”
Rio saw the most talented Boomers side ever assembled. It was the first time Australia could field a starting five full of NBA players. For the first time ever, the talent and passion of those playing in the green and gold were on a level footing.
Martin adds that the team was inspired by the support they received, and in particular blown away by the reception when that landed back in Australia. “We really felt the love,” he says.
“Knowing how much it had put basketball in the newspapers. How much passion people were throwing support behind us. It was something we were very proud to be a part of.”
Basketball is mainstream once more, and the Boomers 2016 Olympic campaign helped illustrate Longley’s vision. Rio was the first opportunity for this collection of high-profile athletes to collectively inspire the parochial fan base on a national level.
Perhaps that is their ultimate legacy. They failed to reach unchartered waters on the court, but succeeded in ways that cannot be tangibly measured. They punctuated the end of Australian basketball’s resuscitation, spawning a new dawn where limitations don’t exist and expectations are justifiably high.
“When I can stand there with a medal,” Longley says. “I’ll feel like that’s the end a long personal campaign.
“I’ll be much prouder when we have the hardware to show for it. I think it’s a hollow victory for us to be saying we can expect a medal now.”
Fittingly for Longley, surfing will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo. Athletes from all around the world will be hoping to harness the ride of a lifetime en route to a maiden golden reward. Australian basketball will be no different. The Boomers are determined to find their own perfect ten ride in the land of the rising sun.
Matthew Dellavedova is absolutely committed to Tokyo. He states the players will regroup quickly, before getting ready for an assault on the FIBA World Cup in 2019 and the Tokyo Games a year later.
“There is nothing better than pulling on the green and gold and representing Australia,” Dellavedova says. “It’s what I dreamed of as a kid growing up in Maryborough. I’m definitely in for Tokyo.”
Patty Mills and Joe Ingles have both echoed Dellavedova’s thoughts publicly. As for Andrew Bogut, he remains willing if the body holds up. “If I’m fresh and feeling okay in 2020,” he says. “I would possibly put my hand up.”
Damian Martin accepts he won’t be in Tokyo, although he is anything but upset. Martin pledges to be the Boomers’ biggest fan in 2020, sitting on his couch and hoping that his mates can achieve a gold medal.
“To have come so close in Rio,” Martin says. “I dare say they are going to carry that chip on their shoulder to Tokyo and I’ll back them all the way in to win a medal.”
As the likes of Martin step aside, opportunities will open up for the so-called golden generation of Australian basketball. The cavalry is coming.
“We’ve got some great young players coming through,” Dellavedova adds. “I think the future is really bright for Australian basketball.”
Ben Simmons has indicated his desire to play in Tokyo. Dante Exum and Thon Maker have done likewise, while recent NBA draftee Jonah Bolden acknowledges the possibilities that await.
“It’s something that I’m looking forward to and excited for,” Bolden says. “It’s definitely exciting and we can do something very special.”
A motivated playing group is ready to launch off the coast in search of stupendous treasure. The golden generation of Australian basketball is coming to serve as willing reinforcements. Luc Longley and the coaching staff are ready for the ride.
Thanks to their efforts in Brazil, a nation is watching basketball like never before. That’s the lasting accomplishment for this group of Australian Boomers.
Call it revenge or redemption, whatever you will. That glorious shining light emanating from the heartbreak of Rio will be there to guide the Boomers towards Tokyo, where the promise of that elusive Olympic medal awaits once more.