Rewind time a little, jog back to the early/mid 90s. Some of you weren’t even alive back then, some were too young to remember things. You may not have been witness to it, but the word has spread far and wide. The 90s were the era of world dominance of the one Michael Jordan and his legion of the Chicago Bulls. Jordan played six full seasons in the decade, during which the Bulls won six NBA Championships and Jordan was the undisputed best player in the game, if not the best athlete of any sport, ever.
All of this is kind of a big deal. After winning three consecutive championships, Jordan took a year and a half-long hiatus from the NBA before returning to the Bulls in 1995. This return sparked another run of three championships from 1996-1998. In this three-year period, the Bulls won 213 of the 246 total regular season games (a ridiculous 86.6 winning percentage) and 45 of the total 51 playoff games (an even more ridiculous winning percentage of 88.2). In 1996 and 1997, the Bulls posted the greatest (72-10) and second greatest (69-13) regular season records in NBA history.
Few would argue that this squad was one of – if not the absolute greatest – of all time.
The greatest ever player in basketball history near to his prime, Michael Jordan? Check. The greatest ever sidekick in basketball history, who also happens to be one of the game’s best ever perimeter defenders, Scottie Pippen? Check. Frequent nutcase slash the game’s greatest ever rebounder and legendary defensive presence, Dennis Rodman? Check. Croatian legend that brought his versatile talents to this squad, Toni Kukoc? Check. Two reliable ball-handlers and clutch shooters, Steve Kerr and Ron Harper? Check. The greatest ever coach in NBA history, Phil Jackson? Check.
But this team had one other piece to the puzzle. A piece that was definitely less important than all of those mentioned above, but a piece nonetheless. A player who was in this legendary squad’s starting five for the better half of the second three-peat. A player who, despite his low NBA career averages (7.2 ppg and 4.9 rpg) retires with three rings.
Ladies and gents, let’s rouse our hands together to welcome definitely the fifth-best starting player in the NBA’s greatest ever team, Luc Longley! According to reports, Longley will be present in New Delhi as a special guest from October 4-7 at the first-ever national championship event of the Mahindra NBA Challenge.
This is the second time in two months that the NBA is bringing a retired NBA player to India, a player who played small roles in big teams. Robert Horry – who won seven championships with the Rockets, Lakers, and Spurs – was in India a few weeks ago. And now, its Longley’s turn to flash his rings (if they weren’t lost to an unfortunate fire in his home five years ago) here.
I wrote about how Horry retired with a complicated legacy, a player mostly in the backgrounds, but one that always found ways to be an important game-changer. Horry was the ultimate lucky charm, always finding himself at the right place at the right time.
Well, Longley’s legacy is equally complicated. The Australian was a star in the making in his native country when he led the ‘Boomers’ to their best ever fourth-place finish in the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Drafted 7th by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1992, Longley became the first ever Australian to play in the NBA. He made history for Australia, but his Minnesota career was forgettable in a forgettable team from the NBA’s perspective.
These were still the days when the idea of winning an NBA championship without a solid offensive big player was considered preposterous. All the great teams had a great Center/Power Forward – George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens, Bill Walton, Moses Malone, and Kevin McHale. The late 80s Pistons and early 90s Bulls changed the mould a little, as they won with relatively mediocre big guys (at least on the offensive end). Still, by the mid-90s, giants like Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, and Shaquille O’Neal made sure that Centers were still on top. Olajuwon had won back to back championships in ’94 and ’95. Bigger was almost always better.
Unless you were in a team with Michael Jordan.
Jordan became the single-most important entity in shifting the NBA’s offensive focus from the big guys to the small ones. But the Bulls lineup from 1996-98 was shockingly small: Ron Harper (6’6”), Michael Jordan (6’6”), Scottie Pippen (6’7”) and Dennis Rodman (6’6”). Longley – at a towering 7’2” – was recruited for his size first and foremost, a role which he played well enough to help this team succeed. He was a good interior passer, a crucial cog in the pick-and-rolls and Phil Jackson’s complicated triangle offense, and a big body for the defensive end. He survived the wrath of the NBA’s most competitive force in Michael Jordan on the wing and the nuttiness of the NBA’s most unpredictable force Dennis Rodman in the post.
Longley didn’t have much personal or team success post his Bulls years with the Suns and the Knicks before retiring from the NBA. Yes, he was one of the least-famous players in the NBA’s most famous team, but despite all that, and despite his unflattering career averages, he retired a winner. He is a legend back in his homeland as one of the greatest Australian players ever and a man lucky enough to earn valuable playing time in the legendary Bulls.
You may not return to present day. 14 years since that last Bulls championship, the Miami Heat won a championship with a roster of similar philosophy to the 90s Bulls: focus on defense, heavy reliance on two super-talented perimeter players, and the contributions of open dead-eye three-point shooters. Miami’s 6’10” power forward Chris Bosh was recovering from an injury and was never an imposing post-presence anyways. The team started with a motley mix of Bosh, the undersized Udonis Haslem, Ronny Turiaf, Joel Anthony and Dexter Pittman as their starting Centers. And they won. Joel Anthony should’ve thanked Luc Longley in the championship parade!
Luc Longley, India welcomes you. Now be prepared to be bombarded about Michael Jordan’s “secret stuff” by the Indian media!