The long, strange friendship of Luc Longley and Michael Jordan

An interview with Longley documentary producer Caitlin Shea reveals the evolution of this unlikely pairing.

“I might not have been a killer like MJ was, but you don’t need 12 killers. You need a group of humans that appreciate, understand, push and pull, work together. And we very definitely achieved that.”

— Luc Longley


Close your eyes and picture it: Michael Jordan’s dunk on Dikembe Mutombo. You can see it, can’t you? The dunk on the baseline in Mutombo’s face. The finger wag. The technical foul. Red Kerr shouting on the mic, “He finally got his dunk on Mount Mutombo!” The Bulls bench going wild.

Quick:

How did MJ get the ball?

The forgotten man on that famous play has also been a mystery man on one of the world’s greatest teams: Lucien James “Luc” Longley. Though Longley was one of six full-time playoff starters during the six championship seasons, starting 53 of 58 games, the place he holds in our collective memory is less than his fellow starters, and less than plenty of guys who came off the bench.

The MJ-Mutombo play is one example of that forgotten history, while his absence from The Last Dance is perhaps both effect and, for the future, cause.

“I can understand why Australia would say, ‘Well, why wouldn’t we include Luc?’ And we probably should have,” Jordan said in July. “And if I look back and could change anything, that’s probably what I would have changed.”

Jordan made those comments in a 30-minute interview for a new Longley documentary that is must-see viewing for every Bulls fan. Titled “Luc Longley: One Giant Leap,” the two-part, hourlong doc is the work of Australian Story, a 30-minute documentary program from Australia’s public television station ABC.

The documentary tracks the life of Longley as he becomes the NBA’s first Australian player and a starter on one of the most successful, iconic runs in modern sports history.

The film’s first half aired a week ago, Sunday night in Australia and Monday morning in the States, while the second half is newly released now. I watched Part 1 last week, and it’s marvelous. Here are both parts.

The story of the dynasty Bulls, particularly the second three-peat, comes with many important MJ pairings, starting with MJ-Scottie and MJ-Phil. Krause, Reinsdorf, Kerr, Rodman, Kukoc, Harp, Wennington, even Scott Burrell — most Bulls fans can describe the relationship each man had with MJ.

While you don’t necessarily think of an MJ-Longley pairing, the documentary reveals the importance of their relationship. In fact, perhaps nothing speaks to their connection and mutual respect more than the story behind the documentary itself.

An email between friends: How Australian public television got MJ for a Luc Longley documentary

The idea for a Longley documentary came to producer Caitlin Shea in the wake of The Last Dance. She had not planned to watch it — she is, in her words, “not particularly interested in basketball.” But her husband was watching and her interest was piqued by two players.

“I was hooked right from the start just with the superhuman feats of athleticism of Michael Jordan and the really poignant stories of the different players,” she told me in our own interview last week. “As the episodes went along, I started to go, ‘Oh, that's that Australian guy. What was his name? Luc Longley. That’s right. There was an Australian on that team all those years ago.’ I kept on looking out for him and trying to see him in the background of the shots. I just went, ‘There is a story in that guy.’”

Shea asked Australian Story’s researcher to try and set a meeting with Longley, which happened almost immediately. (“Our researcher Vanessa (is) just awesome,” Shea told me. “She can track anybody down.”)

When Longley signed on, he brought with him his rolodex: Steve Kerr, Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan. 

CAITLIN SHEA: I have to give complete credit to Luc for securing these interviews. I always say that Luc should get a researcher credit on this program because there's no way that if I’d just gone to these guys and said, “Oh, I’m doing a doco on Luc. Would you be part of it?” — that they’d said yes. Luc had contacted all these people, even Dennis Rodman too, to say, “Hey, I’m having this doco done on me. I’d love you to be a part of it.”

Steve said “Yes” straight away. Phil was keen. Scottie was, “Yes, I’m in.” I think Dennis had even said “Yes" right at the beginning, but fell off the radar a bit. MJ had said, right at the start, that he was open to participating as well. 

There’s really no way that I would’ve gotten those interviews unless Luc had trusted us enough that we were going to not be sensational with his story — that we were going to do the right thing by his friends who were prepared to be involved. That’s really how that came about.

COVID-19 shutdowns prevented ABC from sending a crew from their offices in Brisbane — the eastern coast of Australia — to Luc in Western Australia. So in February 2021, ABC flew Longley from WA to Brisbane for their interview. Shea and co-producer Greg Hassall then proceeded to hire local crews to film the interviews with the four Bulls legends, which Shea and Hassall conducted remotely1.

The interview schedule included:

  • Phil Jackson, April 7, 2021, at his home in Los Angeles

  • Steve Kerr, May 2, in New Orleans

  • Scottie Pippen, July 1, also in Los Angeles, at his home

Jordan was the final piece. Shea connected with Jordan’s management through The Last Dance director Jason Hehir, “who I am just in awe of, I have to say. What he did weaving all those competing storylines together — as somebody who’s been making television for 25 years, it was a masterpiece, really.”

Yet capturing Jordan remained a challenge.

CAITLIN SHEA: Michael had told Luc that he was open to learning more and open to being involved. We'd put in the official request through Michael's manager and we got a “Thanks, but no thanks” email. I was a bit bummed about that. 

I let Luc know and Luc then emailed Michael because they still keep in contact with each other and have a very warm and friendly email relationship. Michael said “Yes” straight away. Then it was all systems go.

On July 19, 2021, just three weeks ago, ABC hired a crew to meet Jordan at his Florida golf course in Hobe Sound2, with Shea conducting the interview with Jordan via video remote. Among the elements of Part 1 that made headlines last week was Jordan expressing regret that Longley wasn’t in The Last Dance

I wasn’t expecting that,” Shea said. “That’s not, certainly, a question that I said to him. ‘Do you regret this? Don't you think you should have?’ I didn't ask those sorts of questions. He just came out with that. I thought that was interesting.”

Jordan was so interesting that Shea and Australian Story are releasing his entire 30-minute interview as a standalone piece.

(UPDATE: Scroll to the bottom for the full interview!)

“I was determined not to exceed my half an hour, so at 29 minutes I was like, ‘Yes, that’s it. I’ve got all I need. Thank you very much,’” she told me. “And he goes, ‘Is there anything else you need? Is there anything else I can do for you?’”

Longley prepared Shea for Jordan’s desire to help, and coached her on avoiding any bumps.

CAITLIN SHEA: I found it quite a different Michael Jordan to the Michael Jordan that I saw in The Last Dance. I thought there was a lightness about him that I thought was interesting. 

I was really nervous about doing it. I’ve never interviewed anybody of that profile before. Luc had called me up beforehand, just to talk it through. In hindsight, he was coaching me. Giving me a little bit of a game plan, in a way.

What he said to me was, “The thing with Michael is you don’t want him to feel defensive. He will give you all you need. He will talk. He will be wanting to tell you stuff about me. Just don’t make him feel like he’s under attack in any way.”

Not that I think that I would’ve adopted that interview style but, as the interview was playing out, I went, “Yes, Luc was right. This man is just really keen just to talk.”

At a certain point, I went, “Oh, I’m not going to be nervous about this interview anymore. Michael is really enjoying sitting here and being interviewed. He’s being very generous. He wants to do the right thing by Luc, so just have a nice conversation with him.” 

It was really good.

“I didn’t love MJ … and that was cool”: How the Luc-MJ pairing defines the second three-peat

There is a moment in Part 2 that resonates deeply with Shea. From the way she describes it, I think it will resonate deeply with all Bulls fans too.

CAITLIN SHEA: You know what I thought was really lovely about Part 2? The Last Dance just covers all that basketball playing, but what this talks about is that Luc was the social glue of that team. He used to host all these barbecues at his house for the team. We’ve got this beautiful home movie of them all sitting around there. I think it’s Christmas Eve.

You see Steve (Kerr) and you see a couple of other players. They just don’t talk about this wonderful social life that they had going on behind the scenes. Their little kids are growing up and their daughters and kids are playing together in the midst of this iconic franchise and winning all these games. 

It’s really, really nice, but Michael wasn’t part of that because Michael lived in his own bubble and was so isolated. Michael talks about, “I wish I could have been more laid back. I wish I could have enjoyed it more, but I had to win. That’s just what I had to do.”

It’s really quite a poignant moment in the sense that he realizes what he missed out on too, but he was so compelled to win that that's just what he had to do.

While we obviously had two transcendent talents in Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, a major element of the success of the 90s Bulls was the way that Phil Jackson created an infrastructure that tapped into the skillsets of nearly every man on the roster. Pick a player who won two or more rings with the team and the odds are strong that you can articulate that person’s precise value and function.

That was particularly true on the second three-peat, yet I bet for many Bulls fans, Longley’s role on the team is trickier to define than his fellow starters and big-minute performers. I bet most Bulls fans can describe Ron Harper’s perimeter defense and Toni Kukoc’s offensive wizardry. They can identify the shooting specialists of both three-peats and explain the contributions of and differences between Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman. When it comes to centers, they can tell you about Bill Cartright’s defensive acumen and Bill Wennington’s trademark 15-foot jumper.

Yet I think that if you ask most Bulls fans about Longley, the best they can say is that at 7’2, 265 pounds, he gave the Bulls a massive body with which to defend the big centers of the era, starting with Shaq (7’1, 325) in the ‘95 and ‘96 playoffs, and later in key battles against Greg Ostertag (7’2, 280) and Rik Smits (7’4, 250).

Longley was more than just a big body. He had a reliable jumper of his own, along with a nifty hook near the basket. And he was a strong passer, which was of utmost importance in the Triangle offense, which often began with a pass into Longley in the post, where he would read the defense and decide how best to capitalize on the offense’s cutting actions. 

Playing with MJ, of course, is easier said than done. In Bill Wennington’s autobiography3, Wennington recalls a game when Jordan did not pass to Longley despite the natural flow of the offense dictating that the pass be made. Jackson called timeout and told Jordan to pass to Longley. He refused, saying Longley already missed two of his passes. 

At a meeting in practice the next day, Jackson reiterated that MJ pass the ball to Luc when the offense’s triggers and actions demanded it. 

“Michael,” Wennington recalls Longley saying, “I am trying my hardest.” 

“Luc, you are not,” Jordan said. “You are not catching the ball. If I pass you the ball, you have to catch the ball.”

“I was still that kid from Fremantle who was reshaping himself, and MJ was three-time world champion, best player on the planet, had his own shoes,” Longley says in the Australian Story documentary. “There was me and there was him and somewhere between us was the rest of the team, and we had to figure out how to be together. It wasn’t his priority, but it was mine.”

Luc goes on:

“I’m deeply thankful to MJ for showing me how to be a better basketballer. … You don’t have to love a bloke to be on his team, to care about him, to play basketball together. I didn’t love MJ. I thought MJ was difficult and unnecessarily harsh on his teammates and probably on himself. I just didn’t enjoy being around him that much, and that was cool. It was cool with MJ and it was cool with me. At the end of the day, we found a way to respect each other on the court and to co-exist.”

That coexistence grew into a mutual respect, one strong enough that 23 years after the team celebrated its final championship together, a simple email from perhaps the greatest Australian basketball player ever brought to a documentary perhaps the world’s greatest basketball player ever.

“He matters to me,” Jordan told Shea when she asked him why he took the time out of his busy schedule to do this interview. “He does matter to me. And his story needs to be told. … We went through the trenches. We competed a lot. And I would take him any day of the week if I had to go through a competition again.”

Jordan went on:

If you asked me to do it all over again, there’s no way I’d leave Luc Longley off my team, no way possible. Because he mattered. He had an impact on me. He helped me change as a person. … Most people think, “What can they be saying about Luc in a documentary?” You can be saying a lot about the guy. I am an example of what he meant to me and how he made me better as a player and as a person.

That story needs to be told, about a person who people think is very minor. But they’re not. They’re very major when it comes to winning a championship. Those people do matter.

Watching the footage, the 7’2 “gentle giant,” as Jordan called him, was touched.

“Wow, go MJ,” Longley said with a light, humble smile. The smile that lit up team barbecues at Christmas time. The smile that helped MJ see that basketball is not life and death. The smile that Bulls fans are now understanding came from a key piece of three championship teams.

“Wow, wowee,” Longley said, smiling again. “That’s something.”

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“When you’re no longer an elite athlete, where does all of that energy and intensity go?”

More below from my interview with producer Caitlin Shea, which I have lightly edited…

SILVERSTEIN: I don’t know if you saw it on Twitter, but there was a clip in the last 48 hours that blew up. It’s Jordan saying Luc had a game where he had 12 points, 4 boards, and 4 blocks in the first quarter. He complimented Luc, who then finished the game with 12, 4, and 4, with Jordan saying something like, “That’s the last time I’m complimenting you during a game.” Of course, that’s raw meat to basketball fans.

What did Luc think about seeing Jordan relay that story?

SHEA: Luc was completely cool about that. He loved it. He's really thankful that Michael agreed to be interviewed, was generous with his thoughts. He just thought it was fantastic. He was pretty pleased with it, I think. Not that I’ve asked him specifically about that, but I know that I’ve heard that story elsewhere. Whether Luc told me that story or somebody else told me that story, I think Luc’s cool with it.

What has the reaction been in Australia on the documentary?

SHEA: It really blew up for us on Twitter. I thought it was a big deal getting an interview with Michael Jordan. I knew it was. Greg, the co-producer, and I, we were just so thrilled and so nervous that something would happen and that he might get sick and not show or he'd have an important business meeting and not show. We were just really thrilled to get that. 

And my oh my, getting MJ was huge.

SHEA: I didn’t realize that he was so difficult to get an interview with. I didn’t realize that he didn’t actually give many interviews. I just thought he was very busy. I didn’t really understand that concept.

This isn’t a question, but I will say it. I remember immediately thinking, “How could Luc not be in The Last Dance? How could Netflix and ESPN say they didn’t have a budget to do it remotely?” I loved seeing that MJ was in your documentary and also, obviously, that Scottie and Phil and Kerr were in this as well, and that you were able to connect with everybody.

SHEA: Yes. I have a bit of a feeling that the producers didn't realize that Luc would be such good talent. Which is what we call somebody who's a really good storyteller, able to tell the story well, able to articulate themselves well. I didn't think they realized that he could have been such an asset to The Last Dance.

They (must have) just thought, “Oh, he was that quiet Australian. Maybe he’s not the greatest talker." I think he could have made a good contribution to The Last Dance. I don't think he needed to be his own whole massive storyline like Steve Kerr was or Scottie or whatever, but I think he would have had some interesting insights to offer.

Luc said that he had to spend some time molding himself and adapting to what he needed to be to succeed in this environment on the Bulls, and that he has then spent the subsequent two decades unlearning it. I assume he's seen a finished product.

Has Luc expressed any kind of catharsis from participating in the Australian Story documentary? Any personal well-being? 

SHEA: This would surprise you, but because we are a public broadcaster in Australia, we operate under a very strict editorial charter. That is that we must be fair, balanced, independent journalism. That independence means that you don't go and show anybody the material before you put it to air. Luc hasn’t seen anything. Luc saw (Part 1) for the first time when he watched it at a party with all his friends and family in Fremantle on Monday night.

What I do do is I work very cooperatively and collaboratively with people so that there are no nasty surprises. I say, “Look, we're going to be talking about this. We’re going to be talking about that.”

He knows what Part 2 will look like because it’s his story, but no, I’m not allowed to go and show it to him. I’ll be interested in having that conversation about what he thinks about it.

That is the sign of the trust that Luc put in us to tell his story, when you go, “Oh my God. I’m not going to have any control over it other than to trust these people to be fair and balanced and independent and not sensational about my story.”

I’d be interested to see what he thinks. I think he’ll probably be very happy with it, but I know he was very sensitive about that idea of the rebuilding and the relearning that he had to do to go back to being that very gentle, slightly alternative person that he was before he started his NBA journey.

Certainly, Part 2 explores that, but Luc doesn’t want anybody to feel sorry for him or anything like that. That was one of his fears. “I don't want people to think I’m this big sad sack or anything.” I do think it is an interesting insight into the athlete’s mind. When you’re no longer an elite athlete, where does all of that energy and intensity go?

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For more on Luc Longley, listen to the terrific interview with Bulls historian — and Longley’s fellow Australian — Adam Ryan, from 2015. And s/o to Steve Smith.

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August 10 update: the full MJ interview is here!

August 14 update: Caitlin Shea tells the MJ interview in her own words.

Included in her piece is this exchange with Jordan:

He made me promise to send him a copy of Luc’s story and tell Luc to visit him in Florida.

“He’s got to repay me for what I just did for this interview. And that’s lunch or dinner. Doesn't matter, either one," he said.

MJ knew he'd done Luc a big favour.

Then, his parting words to me: “You got it, babe”.

I certainly had. 

1

The filmmakers for each: Longley by Anthony Sines ACS and Ashley Eden (sound); Jackson and Pippen by Timothy Myers ACS; Kerr by Golden State Warriors videographer Ryan McGinley; Jordan by Mark Parsons and Jim Weinberg of North Beach Media.

2

https://www.golfdigest.com/story/an-inside-look-at-michael-jordans-new-course-the-grove-xxiii