Throwback Thursday: John Long

A hometown Piston, Long returned in time to win ’89 title

How good a teammate was John Long? Good enough that five seasons after he’d last played an NBA game, when he was 40 years old, Isiah Thomas called on Long to suit up with the Toronto Raptors and mentor the teenager he’d just taken in the 1996 draft lottery.

Of course, Isiah also knew he was getting one of the great shooters of his era.

And in his first game, John Eddie Long – the local kid from Romulus High who spurned Big Ten programs to play for Dick Vitale at the University of Detroit and spent the first eight years of his NBA career with the hometown Pistons – nailed a game-winner for the Raptors.

He never expected he’d be on the court in such a situation, but Raptors coach Darrell Walker had him out there when he called a last-play timeout to set up a shot for Damon Stoudamire. After the huddle broke up, as the Raptors were walking back to the court, Long pulled Stoudamire and Doug Christie aside.

“I said, ‘Damon, as soon as you come off that screen and roll, they’re going to double team you, and when they double you, kick the ball to Doug. Doug, you might have a shot, but I guarantee if they force Damon to give it up, they’re going to rotate to you right away. Remember our saying: one more pass. I’m going to be in the corner, wide open. You make sure you one more pass over to me.’

“We went back out and, just like we talked about, it happened. Damon came off, they doubled, he kicked it to Doug, a player came right at Doug and they threw it to me. Chris Webber is stuck in the paint. Chris saw me, I catch the ball, pull up and hit the winning jump shot – as soon as I get to Toronto.”

That was always John Long’s calling card – that sweet, sweet jumper, all economy of motion. If he’d been a pitcher, they’d have said he threw an easy 95 mph heater. It was what had Bobby Knight eager to get him to Indiana and Johnny Orr pining for him to be a Michigan Wolverine. But there was something about the passion and energy that Vitale threw into his recruitment, and at a time Detroit and its suburbs groaned with big-time college talent, Long and Detroit Northwestern’s Terry Tyler took the plunge and wound up leading the revival of U of D basketball at Calihan Hall.

Long and Tyler starred four years at Detroit, then were teammates another seven years with the Pistons when Vitale spent his two 1978 second-round picks on “Thunder” and “Lightning.” Long was mindful of the sentiment that Vitale was merely staying in his comfort zone and that the U of D products weren’t likely to stick for long in the NBA.

He worked like crazy that off-season, determined to report to camp in the best shape of his life, but also arrived fully confident he would dispel any doubts.

“Everybody thought, ‘I don’t know how this is going to work,’ ” Long said, “but the two of us had incredible heart and a belief in what we could do. At the time, my confidence level was unbelievable. Vitale said, ‘Hey, I’m getting a lot of pressure for drafting you guys, but I believe in you.’ Once we got that opportunity, it was non-stop. I was playing basketball at 12 o’clock at night.

“Vitale used to have summer basketball camps with Bob Lanier, so I had the opportunity to work out with Lanier, M.L. Carr, Chris Ford, Kevin Porter and those guys when I was in college. It made the transition easy for me.”

Bad luck befell the Pistons in Long’s rookie year – Lanier and Bob McAdoo suffered nagging injuries and John Shumate, coming off a productive season, missed the season with blood-clot issues that effectively ended his career. That, essentially, wiped out the frontcourt.

Yet Long certainly showed he belonged in the NBA, averaging between the 16.1 he posted as a rookie to his career-best 21.9 in his fourth season. That also happened to be the rookie seasons of Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka, when Long – who still works for the Pistons as a community ambassador and part-time radio analyst – saw the seeds of a title contender planted, and the trade acquisition of Vinnie Johnson.

“I knew when we first got Isiah that he was definitely going to be an impact player, no question about it,” Long said. “The guy had unbelievable talent. When guys ask me today who did I compare him with, I would say Derrick Rose. The only difference between Derrick Rose and Isiah is Isiah had a better shot, Derrick jumps a whole lot higher and Isiah had more flash. Isiah had the full package.”

The backcourt got even deeper in Long’s eighth season, when Jack McCloskey drafted Joe Dumars. Still, Chuck Daly made Long the starting shooting guard to start the 1985-86 season. When Long’s wife went into labor with their daughter Brittany in January 1986, Daly pulled him aside.

“Chuck Daly told me, ‘John, go ahead and be with your wife. You have a new baby coming. Take two or three days off.’ So I did that. When I came back, Chuck called me in his office and said, ‘John, we’re going to make a change in the starting lineup. I know you’ve been starting. We’ve been experimenting while you were gone for three days and we want to start Joe and bring you off the bench.’

“At that time, I’m like, how can you lose a starting job after just being with your wife when she had a brand new baby? That’s when it started to kick in what Bob (Lanier) said to me early in my career, that it’s a business and you can’t take this sort of stuff personally.”

After the season, with Dumars now entrenched as the starter and Johnson a sixth man for the ages, Long reluctantly asked McCloskey to trade him. Indiana wanted him badly, but McCloskey didn’t want to move him to a division rival. So he swapped him to Seattle – which turned around and sent him to Indiana, anyway. Long had 2½ good seasons with the Pacers, the first two as a starter who averaged in double figures, when ex-Daly assistant Dick Harter tried to get him for the Charlotte Hornets.

Long didn’t want to start over with an expansion team, so he balked at reporting to Charlotte via trade. Indiana waived him after the trade deadline and his phone started ringing immediately from contenders looking to add a veteran known leaguewide for his utter professionalism – and his deadly jumper.

But once McCloskey and Daly let him know they wanted him back with the Pistons, it was an easy call for Long. He joined the team just in time for the 1989 stretch drive that culminated in the franchise’s first NBA title.

“Jack McCloskey called me and said, ‘John, I don’t want you to sign with anybody else. I want to bring you back home and help us prepare to win a championship. I want to bring you back home.’ I got a call from Chuck. He said, ‘This will be a perfect opportunity for you to come back and be a part of a championship.’ I was there for the tough times. I had left on good terms.

“I thought about (the crowded backcourt), but the thing that pushed me the most, you can make all the money in the world, but you have bragging rights when you win a championship and that’s what it was all about. I could have gone somewhere else and gotten more years on my contract and more money, but I still wouldn’t have had a championship.”

Long actually had a third tour of duty with the Pistons down the stretch of the 1990-91 season, after being waived by Atlanta, to close his NBA career. Or so he no doubt thought while he was barnstorming the world with Magic Johnson after Johnson’s HIV diagnosis forced him into a premature NBA retirement. That team, which also included players like Mark Aguirre, Reggie Theus, Kurt Rambis and Lester Conner, went 75-0 playing the national teams that the Dream Team had humbled to win the 1992 Olympic gold medal.

So when Isiah was looking for an ideal mentor – someone he knew would teach young players how to take care of themselves and, by the way, have the moxie to hit game-winning jump shots – it’s no wonder he placed a call to Long, even at age 40.

“Isiah said, ‘Steady’ – they always called me ‘Steady Eddie’ – ‘I want you to come back and mentor (young players) and play with the Raptors. I don’t want you to play a whole lot of minutes, but I need you to work every day with them and I want you to come back and play.’

“I said, ‘I can do that.’ The next morning, I go to Toronto and the first game, I’m playing Washington with Chris Webber and those guys. And that’s when I made the game-winning shot.

“Isiah knew me from being my teammate for 10 years. He knew my work habits and how I prepared.”

And he also knew about that sweet, sweet jump shot.

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