ALL IN ALL, these are good times for Australia. Mel Gibson is a lethal weapon at the box office. Wilbur and his pals are Rescuers Down Under. So is (Matthew) Quigley . . . Down Under. Crocodile Dundee is rumored to be knocking out thugs in the Outback, still. More things Australian: Men at Work, Olivia Newton-John, Little River Band, INXS, Australian
Rules Football, Sheilas, the America's Cup (temporarily), Koala Springs, koala bears . . .Australia is in. Take, for example, the country's latest exported natural resource: Luc (as in Luke) Longley - a laid-back, long-locked, long (7-foot-2) center for the University of New Mexico basketball team.
He's a preseason All-America choice, and if you catch him on the right night he looks like one, too. Sports Illustrated did a feature story on him. A handful of pro scouts turn up each game to watch him play. He is touted as a cinch first-round choice in the next NBA Draft. For that matter, he was projected as a lottery pick in last year's draft, but Longley chose instead to finish his collegiate career with his mates in Albuquerque. He mulled over the decision for a month, which might explain why his coach, Dave Bliss, says he was in church when he heard of Longley's decision.
Ah, the power of prayer.
Longley, a senior from Perth, is having his finest season yet, and the Lobos are 11-3 heading into this week's doubleheader against Utah and BYU. The latter game will feature Longley vs. Shawn Bradley - that's 14-feet-8-inches worth of center - a matchup intriguing enough that SI will cover the game.
The only question is, which Longley will show up: the one who scored 10 points against Arizona State earlier this season and allowed his lunch to be eaten by somebody named Issac Martin, or the one who has averaged 23.6 points in the last five games?
The rap on Longley is that his intensity wanders. He played so poorly for the Australian national team in last summer's Goodwill Games that he lost his starting job. But a month later, in a one-point loss to the U.S. in the World Championships, he held Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning to a 2-of-12 shooting performance, totaling 15 points, 13 boards and 6 blocks himself.
No matter what the outcome, one gets the feeling that Longley is having fun, which is the reason he plays the game and which is why he came to the States in the first place.
What a strange notion.
A UNM coach was recruiting another Australian player Down Under when he accidentally spotted Longley and invited him to play in the U.S. Longley gave it long, serious consideration - "I thought it sounded like fun. I wanted to travel. It sounded like a free ticket to America. That's about all." - and two days later he was flying to Albuquerque.
For Longley, basketball is not Bobby Knight-like seriousness - save that for something really important, such as sailing - and to anyone except a coach his view of the game, his borderline naivete, is refreshing. Only four years ago, Longley had never seen an NBA game, had barely heard of it. He turned down the draft last year in part because, he explained, "You can play pro for a long time, but you'll never have another chance to play college basketball."
And how could he pass up such entertainment?
"I am both amused and entertained by American basketball," Longley told SI. "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."
"Luc doesn't understand how Americans can get so excited about basketball," teammate Rob Robbins told SI. "It doesn't have the same meaning to him."
But he's learning. Last year he had to disconnect his phone to end the non-stop calls from agents vying to represent him. "Every kind of agent called, mate," he says. "I've got files and files of letters from agents.
So far this season, Longley, a mobile, athletic 265 pounds, is averaging 18.9 points, 9.9 rebounds, and nearly 4 blocks and 4 assists per game, while shooting a startling 70.5 percent from the field. The Lobos, who haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 1978 despite winning 20 or more games the past four years, are hoping he will take them places this year.
As for the future, Longley said last summer that he didn't think his game was ready for the NBA yet. Another college season should rectify that. Plus, another busy off-season. Longley complains that he hasn't had a summer in four years while migrating from the college basketball season in the States to the international season in Australia, where the seasons are opposite of those in the U.S. But it all adds up to more experience to take to the NBA.
In the meantime, the Australian press calls Longley regularly for updates and interviews. "Basketball's a boom sport back home," explains Longley.
Uh, oh, watch out, the Aussies have discovered hoops.