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COOL HAND LUC

Dec. 24, 1990
Dec. 24, 1990

Table of Contents
Dec. 24, 1990

Environment
First Person
Bills-Giants
Luc Longley
Jackie Sherrill
Light Heavyweights
Ty Murray
Jimmy Carson
Volleyball
Television
Chess
Sportsman Of The Year
Focus
Spotlight
Books
Point After

COOL HAND LUC

The line on laid-back Lobo Long Luc Longley is: He looks legit

Long Luc Longley looked like a lighthearted leviathan layabout whose lethargy made losing likely. The languid, lackadaisical Long Luc and the lovable, but lately leaden University of New Mexico Lobos had lifted the locals' loathing to a loutish level.

This is an article from the Dec. 24, 1990 issue Original Layout

Lo and below—and not just for the L of it—Lobo fans started booing. Longley could hardly blame them. "I'd probably bang off myself too," he was to say later, meaning, in his native Australian parlance, that he deemed himself worthy of derision. After all, it was one of those frequent times when Long Luc, one of the original boys of summer, looked as if he would rather be at the beach...on a boat...in the bush...or just lying around grooving to some music by, say, the Aussie heavy metal group, AC/DC.

Longley grew up in Fremantle, and on the night of Dec. 7 he seemed for all the world as if he were back there again rather than where he actually was, on his adopted home court in Albuquerque, playing against New Mexico's archrival, New Mexico State, and enduring scandalously rude taunts from several of what Long Luc calls "sepos." That's Australian for "Americans who are mostly full of it." In the manner of septic tanks. Not a nice thing to be at all.

The sepos' ire had been aroused because the Lobos, who have won 20 games or more in each of the last four seasons while somehow failing to make the NCAA playoffs, had figured to be much better this year. And yet they had failed miserably in their first real challenge of the new campaign, losing 59-54 at Arizona State two nights earlier. Longley had taken but seven shots in that game—"one per foot," as some nasty sepo said. (Long Luc is 7'2", excluding his red curls, which if he combed them straight up, Bart Simpson style, would make him 10'2".) And he had been outscored 19 points to 10 by a begoggled journeyman named Isaac Austin, whose only previous claim to fame came last summer while he played on a Pac-10 all-star team that toured West Germany. There, a newspaperman, for lack of a better nickname, dubbed him "the 2.06 meter, 125 kilo man." Upon espying Austin's 6'10", 250-pound frame before taking the court against him, Longley had no trouble coming up with a catchier descriptive, mumbling to a friend the non-Australian term "fat ass."

Now it was halftime of the game against New Mexico State, and the Lobos trailed 53-46. Longley appeared to be equally unimpressed by the smaller, runabout, gadabout Aggies. And the Albuquerque natives were restless. Every time Longley had touched the ball in the first half, he had obviously thought: pass first, think second, dribble third, think fourth and shoot absolutely last. As a result, he had taken but four shots, two of which were stick-back rebounds, which he made. And again he had been outhustled, this time by State's 6'7" forward, Tracey (Be) Ware, of whom Longley curiously wasn't.

This should have been a strange circumstance for a guy who's one of the two or three best college centers in the land to find himself in, but it was nothing new for Longley, who is candid about what he terms "my biggest weakness—inconsistency of mind-set." When Long Luc focuses on his role in the game, however, he is fully capable of sending most everybody else Down Under.

For instance, after some exquisite Longley passes helped pull New Mexico to within two points of New Mexico State with just under 12 minutes left in the second half, he simply flipped the game into his high pockets. Over the next 7:37, he scored 14 points, mostly on turnaround bankers, and he fed teammate Willie Banks with a Waltonesque rebound-whirl-and-rifle pass for another basket as the Lobos took an 86-81 lead. Ultimately, after the Aggies had come back to within one point, Longley rattled in a baby hook with 39 seconds remaining to clinch New Mexico's 94-88 victory and silence the sepos. He finished with 24 points, 13 rebounds and the semiglowing tribute of his coach, Dave Bliss, who replied to those skeptics who wondered if Longley, with a little more desire, couldn't get 50 points and 25 rebounds in just about every game: "It's not that Luc doesn't want to dominate, it's just that he doesn't always know how to."

As a freshman, Longley, who's now a senior, rode the pine as a backup to a hefty upperclassman, Rob Loeffel. In his sophomore year, after he had eaten too much steak and pasta before a game against Arizona, Longley deliberately tried to vomit. He was leaning heavily against a towel rack at the time and, when the rack broke, Longley suffered arm wounds requiring 16 stitches. He then suited up and contributed 10 points and 12 rebounds in 39 minutes of an 80-67 loss that, nevertheless, made him a starter for good.

In his checkered career, Longley has exchanged butt whippings with future NBA first-rounders Alec Kessler of Georgia (Long Luc gave) and Felton Spencer of Louisville (Longley took). In his junior year, he scored a mere nine points against New Mexico Highlands and 12 against East Carolina, but lit up Western Athletic Conference rival UTEP with 63 points, 32 rebounds and 11 blocked shots in three games. In the second of those games, a 61-56 Lobo victory in El Paso that denied the Miners a conference cochampionship, Longley traded elbows and harsh words with UTEP center Greg Foster, after which the laid-back Aussie actually got angry and buried the Miners.

"I think he worked up a sweat and grunted in the same game," says Lobo guard Rob (Duke) Robbins, a close friend of Longley's. "Luc doesn't understand how Americans can get so excited about basketball. It doesn't have the same meaning to him. But when you're Luc Longley, you should at least put your hands up and call for the ball. Sometimes it seems he just doesn't want it. Luc's not lazy. He just has no clue about how good he can be."

At the least, he is the second-best redheaded pivotman ever—at passing the ball. (Sorry, Red Kerr.) "If Bill Walton wrote the book, Luc is almost finished reading it," says Bliss.

A clue to his potential came last summer when Australia lost 79-78 to the U.S. in the world championships in Buenos Aires; Longley contributed 15 points, 13 rebounds and six blocked shots while holding Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning to 2-of-12 shooting. "Luc wasn't just good, he was excellent," says Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, who coached Team USA. "After struggling against the older international guys, he looked so comfortable against us. He was rejuvenated. He's fluid, very strong and has the great touch. I don't know Longley's age or how dedicated he is, but he can only get bigger. And in Buenos Aires, P.J. [Carlesimo, Coach K's assistant at the world championships] saw him at a disco. He can dance. He's socially adaptable as well."

For the record, Longley is 21, and his 7'2" frame holds 265 extraordinarily proportioned pounds. Does he need to get bigger? As for social life, he's well set there, too. For instance, Gary Colson, at age 53, was the Lobos' coach during Longley's freshman season, but the player and coach used to hang out together at Colson's restaurant, Ogelvie's, more as pals than as mentor and pupil.

Colson discovered Lucien James Longley in Perth while he was there recruiting Long Luc's good friend from the Australian junior national team, Andrew Vlahov, who is now a senior forward at Stanford. Luc's 6'9" father, Richard, was a professional football (Australian Rules) and basketball player who was still the starting center for his club basketball team, the Perth Wildcats, when he was 40 years old. Now he's an architect with clients throughout the Far East. As part of a halftime contest at a game in Albuquerque in January 1989, Richard, who for the first time was watching Luc play for the Lobos, came out of the stands, ripped off his dress shirt and swished a shot from half-court.

Longley's mother, Sue Hansen-Smith, is a 6'3" equestrian who has been divorced from Richard since 1984. In '86, she went off on her own—the then Not-So-Long Luc lived with Richard—to get a degree at the University of Hawaii. Now Sue lives in Albuquerque, working on her doctorate in education at New Mexico. One of Luc's younger brothers, Sam, 19, is 6'10" and an aspiring actor in Australia—"His selection of parts is somewhat limited," Luc says—while the other, Griff, 6'8", is a senior at Albuquerque High and would like to play for the Lobos. "But I think Bliss has had enough of Longleys," says Luc.

Not necessarily. On the day Colson was forced to resign by New Mexico in April 1988, Bliss, then the coach at SMU, went to the Dallas Mavericks' office and watched scouting tapes of the Lobos. Earlier, SMU had denied Bliss's star recruit, Larry Johnson, now the UNLV star, admission because of questions about his SAT test scores. Bliss was itchy. His in-laws lived in Albuquerque. He had heard of Longley. "What I saw was this skinny, unrefined 7-footer with great feet and hands. I was excited," Bliss says. All the same, there were rumors Longley would leave with Colson, who had been hired as an assistant coach at California and has since moved on to become the coach at Fresno State. "Or I could just as easily have stayed at home [in Australia] and played ball," says Longley. "Bliss talked some sense into me."

In person. In Fremantle. Bliss applied for and got the New Mexico job, and just before Longley went off to lead Australia to a semifinal berth in the Seoul Olympics, Bliss paid a visit Down Under, as much to introduce himself to Richard as to Luc. "I figured if I had a son going to school so far away, I'd want to meet his coach," says Bliss, who, while in Australia, survived bodysurfing in seven-foot swells and supped at Richard's home, a three-story loft in a formerly abandoned warehouse overlooking the harbor in Fremantle. There were huge, heaping bowls of pork chops and potatoes for dinner, but Bliss balked at eating the Aussies' beloved vegemite, the pasty extract that looks disgustingly like black peanut butter, never mind what it tastes like.

Bliss appreciated Fremantle's "slowed-down atmosphere of the '50s." He took a nap under a tree in a park. But Longley likens his hometown to San Diego in the '90s. "Laid-back, but without all the Southern California sepos," he says.

Longley, a sailing enthusiast, took a long while to get over the absence of water and boats in Albuquerque. He wears a Rolex watch from the 1974 America's Cup campaign of Southern Cross, given to him by his uncle, John (Chink) Longley, a member of the Aussie team headed by Alan Bond. Now he's content to strap on his knee-high sheepskin Ugg boots, climb into his four-wheel drive—the CD system packed with Cold Chisel, Hunters and Collectors and other Australian rock groups—and sneak off to a hideaway in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that is owned by one of his new American "mates," Bob Powell, a wineshop owner.

Longley shares an off-campus house in Albuquerque with John Gustafson, a TV cameraman, and Powell's son, Mike, a carpenter—"The candlestick maker will be moving in any day now," Longley says. Mike made Longley a bed that is nearly eight feet square. Aussie friends also seem to fly in regularly, bringing care packages of vegemite and Chocolate Chews from wallaby land.

At first, Longley and New Mexico's black players had difficulty comprehending each other's vernacular. But teammate Rob Newton's impersonation of the Aussie's twang has become spot-on, making it easier for both sides to communicate. "Luc seems like he's about 30 years old anyway," says Lobo forward Vladimir Horowitz McCrary, a transplanted Jamaican who was not named after Jerry Lee Lewis. "He just sits there observing the rest of us go crazy."

Ironically, Longley got his chance to play full time at New Mexico only after his easygoing buddy Colson was replaced by strict regimentarian Bliss—one of those fortunate (Bob) Knight school graduates. "Colson and Bliss are like cheese and chalk," Longley says in the Australian version of apples and oranges, but he readily adjusted to the coaching change. He showed a hunger to learn, he rose at dawn to lift weights and he practiced free throws at midnight, improving astronomically, from a 39% shooter as a freshman to an 82 percenter last year. And yet in games Longley alternately appears to be an all-world monster and a lost soul, his Kewpie-doll face contorted in confusion. Often, too, he seems not to care.

Following that miserable no-show against Arizona State, for example, Longley joked with reporters as if he truly didn't realize he had played like that old Aussie antihero Crocodile Dumbdumb. Lobologists question his competitiveness, pointing out Longley's upper-class background and lack of a need for basketball. But Australians are among the fiercest fighters in sport, witness their country's tradition in tennis.

If the nonchalant giant rap sounds familiar, that's because it is. In recent years such ascendant collegiate centers as Virginia's Ralph Sampson, Navy's David Robinson and Florida's Dwayne Schintzius have all been branded as dispassionate hounds. Well, two out of three ain't bad.

"Of course I'm trying," Longley says. "I'm just not sure how to raise my intensity every game. Getting revved up doesn't come easy to me. Some time ago I wasn't confident I could play pro ball. But now I'd do anything to make it. Basketball is a game of increments. It has to be learned gradually. I'm getting the skills down now. The intensity will come more gradually. It frustrates me to know the pro scouts want to see me play hard every second and I don't do it. But they must realize you learn as you go. I know I'll get there."

Longley's confidence level hip-hops like one of Australia's desert kangaroos. A month before his signature game against Mourning in the worlds, he played so poorly at the Goodwill Games in Seattle that he lost his starting job on the Aussie team. Last Saturday, in a rematch with New Mexico State—which undoubtedly will win 25 games and be a dangerous crew come NCAA tournament time—Longley scored 16 points, pulled down 12 rebounds and blocked six shots. But, he was shut out over the game's final 15 minutes, and he failed to take even a single shot in that time as the Lobos lost 72-64.

That was evidence again that Long Luc remains puzzled by his—what?—avocation. "I am both amused and entertained by American basketball," Longley says. "I don't want to step on any toes here, but that's not condescension. It's just so unbelievably important here. I have great fun playing the game. I appreciate it. I just don't know whether I understand it."

PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHOften Longley resembles a young Walton, but at other times, he plays like a retired Walton.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHAt the top of his game, Longley is an imposing defender who causes foes to alter their shots.PHOTORICHARD MACKSONAt his worst, the lackadaisical Longley may try an illegal block from down under or get his shot snuffed by a much smaller opponent.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH[See caption above.]PHOTOPAM FRANCISSue's pursuit of a graduate degree at New Mexico lets her keep an eye on son Luc.