By Rich Myhre
SEATTLE – A year ago, Art Long was in Villeurbanne, a suburb of Lyon in central France, wondering about his future in professional basketball. His dream of getting to the NBA seemed a world away – figuratively as well as literally.
“I never try to think too far ahead,” Long said the other day. “But to tell you honestly, I never really imagined I would be here today.”
Even when the Seattle SuperSonics called last summer, offering a chance to compete for a roster spot in training camp, Long knew the opportunity was hardly a slam-dunk. He was, Sonics coach Nate McMillan now says, “a long shot.”
Yet funny things sometimes happen in basketball, as in all sports. The best team sometimes loses, the best player sometimes misses an easy shot, and sometimes an athlete who figures he is likely to get cut ends up with a place on the team.
And, in Long’s case, with an eventual place in the starting lineup.
Yes, the NBA is a league of big contracts and even bigger egos, and there are plenty of players who believe they deserve every penny of those million-dollar deals. For each of those athletes, though, there are dozens and dozens of guys who have hopes that seem to dangle by a thread. And who, given a coach’s sudden whim, just might be on the next plane to Villeurbanne.
People like Long.
“I knew if I just continued to work hard and stayed out of trouble, I could possibly be (in the NBA) someday,” said the 29-year-old Long. “That’s how I got here (to Seattle), playing hard and being determined. And now, with some of our guys having injuries, I’ve been getting playing time and I’m even starting. So I’m happy.
“But even if I wasn’t starting and if I was just playing 10 minutes a game I’d be happy because I’m here. I’m in the NBA, which has the best players (in the world). This has always been my dream.”
During training camp, the Sonics were expecting free-agent Calvin Booth to be the team’s new center. But Booth, who signed a six-year, $34 million contract in the offseason, suffered a sprained ankle in the team’s last exhibition game and has yet to be fully healthy. In his absence, the Sonics started four different players in the middle before finally turning to Long in mid-December.
And suddenly the Sonics were off on a six-game winning streak.
With numbers that are likely to climb if he continues to get steady minutes, Long is averaging 5.0 points and 4.4 rebounds a game. Over his last seven games, those averages are 8.6 points and 6.1 rebounds. At the same time, the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Long is defending big centers and banging opposing players who try to get to the basket.
“I like his game,” McMillan said. “He does a good job of setting screens, he’s normally in position defensively, and he rebounds at both ends of the floor. Physical play is a style that he brings to the game. He’s back there controlling our defense and controlling the (key), for the most part, when he’s in there.”
The other Sonics “never knew that Art would be at the point he is now,” said teammate and friend Rashard Lewis. “He’s just a hungry guy. He wants to go out there and get the job done. It’s like he’s trying to prove something.”
Long played collegiately at Cincinnati, where he teamed with Golden State’s Danny Fortson to give the Bearcats a beefy inside presence in the mid-1990s. While Fortson turned into a first-round NBA pick, though, Long was never drafted. Since turning pro in the fall of 1996, he has been a different kind of basketball globe trotter, playing in Portugal, Argentina, Cyprus, Puerto Rico, France and the CBA. He played nine games with Sacramento last spring before getting his training camp opportunity with the Sonics.
Still, not everything has changed for Long. A year ago, he didn’t know where he would be today. Today, he doesn’t know where he’ll be a year from now.
“I signed a one-year deal (with Seattle), and that’s how it goes for guys like me,” Long said. “I’m on a year-to-year basis, and I just have to keep working hard and throughout the summer try to make a team. Hopefully the following season you’re somewhere in the NBA.
“Like I said, I don’t like to think too far ahead. I just take one day at a time and thank God for where I’m at today. If anything happens in the future and if I find Seattle being my home, then I’ll be very happy. This is a nice place and we have great fans, so I wouldn’t mind playing here. I’d love to be here.”