'A scripted nightmare': How Luc Longley rediscovered his pride after storied basketball journey

Luc Longley used to keep his three NBA championship rings inside a safe.

The symbols of the height of his professional basketball career, as a key member of arguably the most successful and famous team in the history of the NBA, were purposely left out of sight.

"I didn't pull them out and think about them," Longley told ESPN.

For the Australian basketball legend -- who remains the country's most accomplished NBA player -- there was no desire to brandish the fruits of his success from his time with the Chicago Bulls, because of the few years that followed it.

After winning his third title with the Bulls in 1998, the team was broken up and Longley was signed-and-traded to the Phoenix Suns, where he performed below his expectations. He was then dealt to the New York Knicks for the 2000-21 season, in what would be his final year in the NBA as a degenerative ankle issue forced him into retirement.

"Candidly, the ending of my career was a scripted nightmare," Longley says.

"I had a miserable end of my NBA career. I had an ankle that was degenerating, and I had a couple of bad years in Phoenix. As it was exploding, I was in New York not able to really train. Coming out of Chicago, where it had been such a basketball utopia sort of a situation where we're winning... to have my body break down at the same time, and not be able to play well. Even the fact that I was being paid out of my contract felt weird. Like, you wanna earn your money. I accepted it because that's the way the collective bargaining's written, but it felt horrible to be a compensation claim at the end of a great career. I hated it; I was really sad about it."

The idea of Longley almost ignoring the memories of what should be the most cherished years of his basketball career is even more confounding due to the enormity of the circumstances. Those Michael Jordan-led Bulls won three straight NBA championships, and were the first team to ever win 70 games in a regular season; they thrust the league into a level of worldwide popularity it hadn't seen before. And Longley wasn't just a bit player on those teams either; he averaged 11.4 points and 5.9 rebounds a game as the team's starting centre.

Longley mentions the "frenzied crowds at hotels" and "people lining the freeway as our bus drives down... to win our 70th game", having to use aliases, and filling up arenas that are usually half-full.

The superficial fruits of that success were fun and flashy, but Longley has a favourite way of describing the gravity of the situation, and it all begins in the video room of the team's legendary head coach, Phil Jackson.

"He had various bits and pieces in our video room, that he thought gave us the message of our responsibility to the public, to play beautiful basketball, and to live up to being a Bull," Longley said of Jackson.

"He had a photo on the wall. The story goes that this guy had gone to Tibet to do a pilgrimage, and he walked for three days... he thought he was in the middle of nowhere and about to arrive at a monastery, and he met a monk; who was in this photo. The monk is in his monk gear, and a Bulls hat.

"The message was that, everywhere, wherever you go on the planet, people are watching you. This is the biggest sports story on the planet. It was because of Michael Jordan's transcendental, amazing star power. It was because of the other characters: Scottie [Pippen's] beautiful way of playing the game, Dennis [Rodman's] maniacal way of playing the game, Phil's spooky whatever-you-wanna-call it aura. Everywhere on the planet, people were interested in what we were doing, and we felt that responsibility.

"That was more powerful to me than crowds in front of a hotel, or a crowd in the gym. It was that sense that everyone was watching, and everyone was digging the fact that we were doing it in an egalitarian way, and we were sharing the ball. And, while we still might've run 23 down the stretch to close out games, we were playing a brand of basketball people loved to watch, and having a ball doing it."

At the time of his retirement in 2001, Longley was a part owner of the Perth Wildcats in Australia's National Basketball League, but the non-basketball side of life took over, further distancing his mind from his immense basketball success.

Longley's house burned down, he built a charter boat and traveled to New Guinea, he learned how to surf, grew his own vegetables, went through a divorce, and was affected by the Global Financial Crisis.

"Life took over, basically," he says. "I wasn't sitting around thinking about the Bulls years; I think it was that the last bit of my career was so yucky.

"It wasn't that I didn't love basketball. I actually felt a bit embarrassed about the end of my career, and didn't focus for a very long time on the good years. My recency bias, as I've said before, were those last two or three years and my experience in New York. That's what happened.

"Now that other people have generated some interest around it, and brought it to me -- between the Netflix thing, the amazing job The Australian Story did, and the NBA and Mitchell and Ness -- and said, hey, we appreciate it. I guess that's just revitalised my pride in it. Equally as important, is my kids have seen that be recognised. I've never wanted to make a song and dance about it, but I'm happy that other people are.

Speaking about his career and experiences was something Longley almost had to convince himself to do, and is something he has leant into more over the past 12 months. His lack of involvement in Netflix's The Last Dance -- a 10-part miniseries focusing on Jordan and that Bulls dynasty -- and, more specifically, the public uproar toward the omission, convinced Longley that there was interest in his career, and that he should help people understand and appreciate the journey he took.

Most recently, Longley conducted some meet-and-greets at the NBA stores in Melbourne and Sydney, as a way of promoting the release of the inaugural 'Aussie Legends' apparel range. The lines stretched out the door, onto the streets. Australian basketball fandom is at its peak -- particularly when it comes to the NBA -- but such a significant turnout is usually the sort of thing reserved for the current stars of the league.

"I thought those days were over a long time ago, and I wasn't missing them," Longley said.

"I was pretty happy. But then, dropping into that environment and seeing the people just digging the 90s basketball and wanting to buy my gear was actually really poignant for me. It put me straight back in those good years, and having fans come up and tell me how much they loved it and how impactful it was.

"I had one young man tell me stories about how he watched it with his dad, and that's how he remembers his dad. That's how they connected. Then, you have someone else with their baby named 'Pippen'. It's just really quite wild how connected people still are to that era of basketball. I underestimated it."

The flurry of fans had Longley reliving his glory days; something he hasn't done much of since he retired. It brought him back to the immense pride he once had in his career, and the impact he knew he was forging.

"At the end of the Seattle series, when the clock's winding down, and we know we're gonna win, I remember having the reality of it come flooding into me," Longley said.

"Not just that we're winning a championship, but that I was Australian and the whole country was gonna be excited, and mum and dad. The moment of knowing I was gonna be a world champion, would be one of the strongest emotions I've ever felt in my life. My response to it wasn't to jump up and scream; it was different to that. I knew [what it meant for Australian basketball]. And the media was there to remind me, and connect me back to Australia."

Longley is quite literally an example. He was the first of what's emerged as a long line of Australian basketball talent playing in the NBA, paving the way for a list of athletes that's becoming too long to count. Now 54, his legacy in the country's basketball space -- as a player, coach, and owner -- is undeniable. There's a sense that Longley recognised it, but it took some time for him to truly embrace it.

Longley's NBA championship rings are now a symbol of pride, and no longer festering in a safe. They're in his cabinet, displayed proudly next to his shell collection.

Watch the full interview here