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Suns Guard Jason Kidd was driving with center Luc Longley back to the team's hotel in Flagstaff, Ariz., during training camp three weeks ago when Longley suddenly felt ill. Swerving quickly to the side of the road, Kidd braked just in time for his 7'2" passenger to empty the contents of his stomach on the curb. "I think it was Jason's Starsky and Hutch act pulling over that put me over the edge," joked Longley, who had been suffering from a stomach virus. "It was pretty dramatic."
For Longley, that experience was a lot like his 1998-99 season. He started out riding along comfortably, then took a dramatic turn for the worse and wound up with a sick feeling. After getting his fair share of minutes during the regular season, he was ineffective against the Trail Blazers during Phoenix's first-round loss and spent most of the series on the bench. "I was really disappointed with the end of last year," says Longley. "To be cast aside in the playoffs, that upset me a lot."
Suns fans can only hope Longley is upset—and not just to his stomach. For if Longley, a good-natured Australian, gets fired up, then Phoenix's inside game could shed its perpetual feebleness. That, in turn, might allow the Suns to end their string of four straight first-round playoff exits and make a run for the Western Conference title. Nothing else is missing for Phoenix, which features former All-Stars at the other starting spots: guards Kidd and Penny Hardaway, and forwards Tom Gugliotta and Cliff Robinson. "We've got size at every position and much more athleticism this year" says Suns coach Danny Ainge.
A key for Phoenix will be how well Hardaway—acquired from the Magic in August in a trade for Danny Manning, Pat Garrity and two future first-round draft picks—adjusts to playing alongside Kidd, an MVP candidate at point guard who last year led the league in assists (10.8 per game) and triple doubles (seven) while making the all-defensive team. Considered one of the game's most gifted players, the 6'7" Hardaway gives the Suns a much-needed finisher on the break, a reliable scorer who can shoot from outside and post up, and a tall defender to match up with the likes of the Lakers' Kobe Bryant and the Trail Blazers' Steve Smith. But Hardaway can be temperamental: In Orlando he had trouble coexisting with Shaquille O'Neal and grumbled about having to play the point. It remains to be seen whether he can share the spotlight with Kidd and Gugliotta.
If Hardaway can keep his ego in check, Phoenix could have the NBA's best backcourt to go along with one of the game's most versatile power forwards in Gugliotta and one of its top defensive small forwards in Robinson. The Suns' bench, led by veteran shooting guard Rex Chapman, is solid, though it provides little in the way of size.
As a result, Phoenix's fate may be in the hands of Longley, who was acquired from the Bulls before last season in hopes that he could give the Suns the productive center they've lacked since Alvan Adams retired in 1988. Longley is a good passer with a reliable jumper and decent low-post moves, but he's often passive. Last year he averaged 8.7 points on a career-best 48.3% shooting, 5.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists, numbers not far off his best but not what the Suns expected when they got him and his five-year, $30 million contract in a sign-and-trade deal with Chicago.
Longley's nadir came in the three-game playoff loss to the Blazers. Unable to take advantage of immobile Portland center Arvydas Sabonis, Longley was hooked by Ainge and replaced with the smaller, quicker Manning and Garrity. He wound up playing just 17.0 minutes per game in the series and averaging 1.3 points and 3.0 rebounds.
Longley has vowed to put that episode behind him, and in order to keep his slimmed-down backup, Oliver Miller, from eating into his minutes, he worked hard in the off-season. He played with the Australian team for the first time in seven years, changed to a nearly all-fish diet, cut back on his intake of Foster's and pumped iron regularly with the trainers of the Perth Wildcats, a pro basketball team of which he's co-owner. Longley showed up at training camp leaner, with 11% body fat compared to 17% at camp a year ago. "I knew we were going to be running and gunning this year," Longley says, "and I want to be able to stay on the court."
Like Gugliotta, who struggled at times last year to find his niche in the Suns' up-tempo offense, Longley expects to feel more comfortable with a year under his belt. The added penetration skills of Hardaway should further enhance his game. "With Penny and Jason penetrating, teams are going to have to build walls in transition with their big guys to cut them off. Tom and I are going to be getting a lot of open shots and layups if we just run," Longley says. "And defensively, our athleticism will help us to switch and rotate in our scramble, whether we play it full-court or half-court. Athleticism covers a lot of mistakes, which is why my mistakes are so glaring."
Longley might have lost his lunch, but he hasn't lost his sense of adventure. One day in Flagstaff he encouraged Ainge to organize a team hiking trip four miles up into the nearby San Francisco Mountains. "I really enjoyed it," Longley said, teasing his leg-weary teammates. "We're trying to make it to the top. That's the analogy we're making. We're reaching new heights, we're peaking."