Michael Jordan or LeBron James? It is one of the essential questions in the modern era of sports fandom, encompassing facts and biases, statistics and anecdotal evidence, and the ever-shifting barometer of cultural relevance. It turns friends into foes, barbershops into the site of parliamentary debates, and the Super Bowl LII champions into bickering schoolchildren. The question of Jordan or LeBron may live on for longer than they do. So, before we fully gear up for what should be a frenzied second half of the season, why not celebrate and examine the impact of two of the most influential players in basketball history?
Welcome to Jordan-LeBron Week.
If basketball Twitter were around in 1996, the November 8 game between the Bulls and the Pistons would have set it ablaze. For a brief, miraculous instant, Luc Longley looked like the best center on the planet. He sliced and tomahawk-dunked his way to 16 first-quarter points—nearly matching his previous game high. Michael Jordan wasn’t—and here we pause for emphasis—a generous coworker. But after the quarter, he offered Longley a compliment. “I knew you had it in ya’,” Jordan said.
You can guess what happened next. Longley didn’t score a single point for the rest of the game. In the locker room, an enraged Jordan vowed, “Luc, I am never, ever going to say a nice thing about you again.” As Longley later told Inside Sport, “He was true to his word.”
For a while, Luc Longley wasn’t telling these stories. After he retired in 2001, he slipped into a Luke Skywalker state of isolation in his boyhood home of Perth, in the southwest corner of Australia. People wanted interviews or endorsements from the first Aussie to play in the NBA. “No one knew where to find me,” Longley said.
For a guy whose passion was occasionally questioned during his career, leaving basketball made Longley a wreck. He missed the NBA so much that for a decade he couldn’t even watch it. “It’s like a girlfriend that you love who leaves you,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is see her at breakfast. … You spend your whole life being a basketballer, and suddenly I wasn’t anymore.”
This week, Longley was sipping tea and nibbling on cake at a hotel in Melbourne, where he was helping coach the Australian national team in a FIBA World Cup qualifier. His red hair is still thick and curly, but there are a few white patches in his beard. His willingness to give an interview is a sign of the new Luc—a guy participating, mostly happily, in his own nostalgia.
This is a good thing. Longley was known to the world as a gangly cog in the Bulls’ title machine. But he’s also a funny self-analyst and a shrewd observer of Jordan and now—spiritually if not exactly in terms of game—the godfather of Ben Simmons.
Longley is watching basketball again. “I still think it’s funny I have to pay for an NBA League Pass,” he said. “I put my name on [the online form] thinking, Maybe they’ll recognize me … They don’t. But they still send me a check for my likeness in the video games. So how does that work?”
These days, Longley finds himself studying how his old teammate Steve Kerr coaches the Warriors. “I should be cross at him,” Longley said. “He’s single-handedly making the lumbering 7-footer redundant. But it’s not because of me anymore!”
Back in the era before 7-footers played like Dirk Nowitzki, Longley was one of those guys that was tough for basketball fans to get a handle on. I thought that and I had a history with him. I saw Longley play all four years at the University of New Mexico, where my family went to school and still has season tickets. Bringing a bouncy-haired giant from Perth to Albuquerque was only a half-step removed from pro wrestling.
“My freshman year, it was all just a big joke,” Longley said. “I’d seen Animal House. I thought, ‘Oh, college looks like fun!’ I can get a toga and off I’ll go.
“Everybody was into me like, Oh, you’re not training hard enough. I wasn’t over there to go into the NBA. I didn’t genuinely think there was a chance.”
In 1989, an Albuquerque Journal reporter followed Longley to class and watched him fill in a questionnaire about aggressiveness. One of the questions was: “When someone crowds in front of you in a ticket line, do you let him/her do so?” As the reporter noted, “Longley circles ‘Most’ of the time.” Longley was 7-foot-2 and two years away from being a lottery pick.
When writers see a big man who doesn’t scream every time he grabs a rebound, the word they often reach for is “soft.” “I don’t think any of the guys I played against ever considered me soft,” Longley said. “I think maybe they considered me … casual.”
It was as if Longley’s public affect was different than that of just about anybody else in the NBA. When the Timberwolves picked him no. 7 overall, he was genuinely stunned by the culture of the league. Stunned that Christian Laettner blew off practices and that Pooh Richardson told the head coach, Jimmy Rodgers, to fuck off.
Longley is too nice to bag on Minnesota now, saying wryly, “It was an unusual professional environment.” But in 1996, he published a memoir in Australia that’s really good—and, by the standards of the genre, really frank. That’s where you get Luc unplugged: In it, we learn that the T-Wolves practiced on a court inside a giant health club, so they were always being ogled by people riding exercise bikes; Longley calls his time there a “living hell.”
In 1994, Jerry Krause and Phil Jackson acquired Longley by trading Stacey King to Minnesota. Longley was so excited he yelled “Da Bulls!” on the outgoing message of his answering machine. It was a huge break to go from basketball hell to the three-time reigning champs. Whatever Longley would become, he would now become it in front of the world. Jackson told Luc he ought to start pronouncing his first name as “luck.”
Another funny thing about Longley: He wasn’t an NBA fan. You almost couldn’t be in early-’80s Australia, where Magic and Larry appeared only on Converse posters. When Longley needed an alias to use at hotels during the NBA Finals, he used Bruce Doull, an Australian rules football player.
Imagine coming into the NBA with fresh eyes and seeing Michael Freaking Jordan. “He was just a demigod,” Longley said. “He was in charge of the basketball universe. He carried his big lightning bolt in one hand and a basketball in the other. You’re not supposed to be intimidated or that impressed by the guys in the NBA. But I was. I wasn’t scared to admit it.”
Longley got traded to the Bulls during the year and a half that Jordan was playing minor league baseball. In 1995, Jordan announced his return by jumping on Longley’s back at practice and saying, “I’m with you guys!” It was an ecstatic moment for the league but an odd one for a number of Bulls players.
“I’d have to say after he came back, I really didn’t like the guy,” Longley wrote in 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.”
“Perhaps if I was more of a Bulls fan and had read up on him I would have realized what he was, what he is.”
Longley didn’t know about the casual wickedness Jordan dished out to big-man teammates like Bill Cartwright and Will Perdue (whom he called “Will Vanderbilt,” because he thought Perdue didn’t deserve to be named after a Big Ten school). One day in practice shortly after Jordan came back, it was Longley’s turn. Jordan tried to throw the ball to Longley while he was moving traffic in the post. Longley dropped it. “Drop another one of my passes,” Jordan said, “and I’ll hit you in the head with it.” The quote wound up in a Sam Smith article in the Chicago Tribune. It hung around Longley’s neck for years.
Later, Longley fastened on a good word for Jordan: his non-negotiability. Jordan was locked in at every second and expected (somewhat absurdly) that his teammates could match him. Longley was never going to talk trash like Mike, get pissed off and reach another level like Mike.
“One of the things I wasn’t comfortable doing was projecting an ego,” Longley said. “This is who I think I am and how I’m going to perform and I’m going to punch my heart and my chest and carry on like a goose. Which is how I would describe a lot of the guys in the NBA.”
“I didn’t go in as a ready-made product with a certain amount of self-belief,” Longley continued. “It was more like an adventure: Let’s see what this can be.”
Sitting in the Bulls locker room every night, Longley became one of the world’s most underrated Jordan observers. He noted that Jordan often wore a suit that matched the color of the Ferrari he had chosen to drive that day. At the team hotel, Longley was often approached by people claiming to be “Michael’s cousin.” “Michael who?” he’d reply. Longley watched Jordan and Steve Kerr’s legendary 1995 training camp fight and remarked, “It was like a grizzly taking a swipe at a koala.”
Jordan still occasionally growled at Longley. But by early 1996, Longley thought their relationship was as good as any Jordan had on the team. He won Jordan’s approval by executing the micro-details of the triangle offense: hitting Jordan with a pass out of the post with perfect timing after Jordan came off a rub screen, or burying a 15-footer when Jordan gave it back to him on a screen-and-roll. Jordan liked that he could do these things again and again.
In 1996, Longley separated his shoulder while body surfing in California. “That was when Michael’s and my relationship went to the next level,” he said. “He realized, at that stage, how good my screens were—how useful I was.”
I told Longley I was surprised to learn that he was good pals with Dennis Rodman.
“Surprised why?” Longley said.
I don’t know. Maybe the image of Longley and Rodman prowling Chicago nightclubs feels like the ’90s buddy-comedy movie the world was unfairly denied. Longley said the friendship was a natural. In his day, Longley was one of the most liberal—by which he means accepting—guys in the NBA. Rodman was the most liberal guy in the universe.
Longley the observer is amazing on Rodman. When he first got to Chicago, Rodman was so quiet around his teammates that he said “uh” when he was interested in something and “ugh” when he wasn’t. But put Rodman in front of a camera and he was suddenly perfectly charismatic. Longley wrote in Running With the Bulls that he suspected Rodman sometimes wanted to fight him. Asked to describe his memories of the evenings they spent clubbing, Longley said, “Murky.”
Recently, Rodman asked whether Longley wanted to go with him on one of his trips to North Korea. You know, coach some basketball. “I was titillated by looking up the skirt of the North Koreans for a minute there,” Longley said. Then the contract arrived, and it was from an Irish bookmaker. Longley realized the trip was something other than an act of international diplomacy.
After a decade away from basketball, Longley was lured back into public when then-Spurs assistant coach Brett Brown, who was coaching the Australian national team, asked him to mentor Aron Baynes. “He said, ‘Come in, I’ve got this big, raw kid who’s got a lot of potential but we just can’t get a bridle on him’—so to speak. I went and had a look at him and started working with him. … That just kind of reset for me a little bit.” In 2016, Longley was on the bench at the Rio Olympics when Carmelo Anthony’s shooting saved the Americans from getting upset by the Aussies.
Australia has never won an Olympic medal in men’s basketball—one of the last bits of glory the emerging basketball power has been denied. Longley, who started playing with the national team in 1988, has suffered more than most. In 1996, he wanted to play in the Olympics but the Bulls asked him to have surgery on his ankle—he was a pioneer in the my-employer-vs.-my-country conundrum that is now common in the NBA. “They came in fourth and lost to a Sabonis-led Lithuania,” Longley said of Team Australia. “I’d like to think I could have been useful against Sabonis and made a difference.”
Longley likes to keep his private life opaque. Asked about his non-basketball work, he said gently, “I’ve got my own affairs.” His second wife, Anna Gare, is a chef on Australian food TV. They live in the town of Denmark, a five-hour drive from Perth—the kind of place you go when you want to be away from crowds. Longley has good relationships with Ben Simmons, Thon Maker, and Joe Ingles, all of whom he coached. Some of the younger FIBA players he was coaching in Melbourne this week were only vaguely aware he won three NBA titles. “You’ve got to remind these blokes, because most of ’em weren’t even around,” he said.
“The further I get from it,” Longley said of his NBA career, “the more of the good me I remember and the less of the bad me I remember. I’ve met fans who only remember the bad me—because I had bad days. I used to call it swimming with seals. Have you ever swum with seals? Well, give it a try and you’ll know what I mean. You’ll be out of your element, in a different universe.”
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Australia has never won an Olympic medal in basketball; it has never won an Olympic medal in men’s basketball.