After a tough loss during his high school career with Detroit Mercy, 16-year old John Long and his teammates received a tongue-lashing at the hands of their coach. The verbal “whuppin” made such an impression on Long that he put his sneakers back on and slipped out the side door of the gym, running the two miles back to his house. He wasn’t running away, he was working himself out after a bad game.
Long was never afraid of hard work, and he usually didn’t need motivation. The Romulus native was driven to be a great basketball player. That drive led him to a college career at the University of Detroit and spot in the backcourt with the Detroit Pistons. After a 14-year NBA career with four teams, Long moved to the broadcast booth. He’s currently in his 18th year as a member of the Pistons radio team.
A second story illustrates the determination that was stamped on Long. In 1981 the Pistons welcomed #1 overall draft pick Isiah Thomas to training camp, with hopes that the point guard would spark the team to success. Isiah had been in camp only a few days when he and Long became tangled while going after a loose ball in a scrimmage. As Long secured the ball he whistled at the rookie, smiled, and said “You’ll have to fight harder to get the ball from me.” Isiah quickly learned that while the Pistons might have been a losing team when he arrived, Long was not a loser, but a veteran from whom he could learn a few things. For parts of six seasons, Isiah and Long shared the backcourt in Detroit, and in Zeke’s rookie season, Long set a career high in points scored.
Long scored more than 2,100 points in his high school career and earned a scholarship in his backyard from the University of Detroit. He quickly grew into his 6’5 frame and established himself as a scoring threat from the second guard position. Long could score from long range but also slide into the paint and create his own shots. He was expert at coming off low screens and curling to the free throw line for a jumper. Lean but strong, Long was also able to get inside and put missed shots back to the rim.
There’s no way of knowing for sure how many of his more than 12,000 career points were made with his rocking set jump shot, but it was quite a few. Long was famous for the quick-release shot, often sending the ball off without getting far off the floor if he didn’t need to. The goal was to get the ball off before the defense could defend the shot. Long shot 46.7% from the field in his NBA career, peaking at 50.5% in the 1979-80 season.
That was the year Dick Vitale lost his job as coach of the Pistons, eventually launching the loudmouth into a career as a basketball analyst. Depending on your opinion of Dickie V, that’s either a good thing or the end of the universe. Long played for Vitale in the pros and in college at U of D for four seasons. In 1977, Long and the Titans won 21 games in a row and eventually advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
On December 13, 1983, Long had the game of his career when he shot 18-for-25 and scored 41 points in Detroit’s record-setting 186-184 victory over the Nuggets in Denver. It remains the highest-scoring game in league history.
Once Joe Dumars arrived in Motown, the Pistons had a logjam in the backcourt, and Long was sent to the Pacers. But a few years later he was welcomed back to Detroit and earned a championship ring. In Game One of the NBA Finals at The Palace, Long rose above Michael Cooper of the Lakers and sank his only field goal try to get his name in the scoring column of an NBA Finals contest.
In 1991 the Pistons cut Long, making him eligible to sign with any NBA team. But his phone didn’t ring. The 34-year old wasn’t ready to leave the game he loved, however. He took his work ethic and patented set jump shot to the Continental Basketball Association. He kept himself in game shape, keeping his weight at the same level as it had been in his senior year in college. In 1996 two of his nephews, Grant Long and Terry Mills, were playing for the Pistons. Now 40, Long secured a workout with his old team but didn’t get an offer. The Pistons recommended him to Toronto and the Raptors brought Long in as a veteran leader off the bench. He played 32 games for Toronto and had the chance to face his nephews in January at The Palace. In front of his family and against his former team, Long scored 12 points, nearly outscoring his nephews, who tallied 14 combined.
That was one of the final games of Long’s career, as his legs started to betray him. He underwent a knee surgery that left him unable to jump or move very well. Today he’s still within a pound or two of his rookie weight, and according to his nephews, John Long can still shoot the ball, but instead of playing, he’s talking about the game as a fill-in analyst on radio.
Long has come a long way since his high school days in Detroit, his stellar career at U of D, and his years as a shooting guard for the Pistons. But he’s still working hard and staying around the game he loves.
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VIDEO: John Long scores 41 against the Nuggets on December 13, 1983.