Longar Longar: The next big thing?

Having to grow up in a hurry, Longar Longar is entitled to enjoy life and break into a dance every now and then. A native of war-torn Sudan and one of 11 children, Longar has known the meaning of adversity and responsibility for much of his life. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Having to grow up in a hurry, Longar Longar is entitled to enjoy life and break into a dance every now and then.

A native of war-torn Sudan and one of 11 children, Longar has known the meaning of adversity and responsibility for much of his life. Today the University of Oklahoma, the freshman still carries a heavy load, though one far more welcome, in the classroom and on the basketball court.

So when people see him around the OU campus these days with his infectious smile and casual demeanor — and sometimes a bit more — they don't mind a bit.

"Yeah, there's his little Nelly dance," said OU guard Drew Lavender. "He'll drop down and get his eagle dance off about twice a week."

The 6-foot-11 true freshman spends much more time finding his groove on the basketball court. He started playing the game only five years ago at age 16, and he remains a work in progress. OU head coach Kelvin Sampson said Longar still has a long way to go, but he is making great strides because he wants to learn and excel.

"When I look at Longar during practice or in a game, he just has this unbelievable approach to learning, to listening, and he embraces everything that you tell him," Sampson said.

Given Longar's limited experience, many wondered if Longar would redshirt this season. That question was answered Thanksgiving weekend at Anchorage, Alaska — quite literally the polar opposite of Longar's sub-Saharan birthplace.

Longar came off the bench during the third-place game of the Great Alaska Shootout and ignited the Sooners to a 67-54 victory over Minnesota. He tallied only two points, six rebounds and three blocks, but his presence was immeasurable.

Longar wasn't the surprising "it" factor in OU's Dec. 1 game against Coppin State, in part because he no longer was a surprise. But he proved again to be a valuable reserve by scoring six points that included a home crowd-pleasing slam dunk and providing a formidable defensive and rebounding presence that makes opponents think twice about coming inside.

Sampson said Longar would continue to come off the bench and, hopefully, be an energizer like he was in those two contests.

"He's improving every day and he got better in this (Alaska) tournament," the coach said. "He's a big reason we won that (Minnesota) game. … He's an energy guy and he always plays hard. He's a freshman and he's got a future, but he's going to help us this year."

The November tournament also opened his teammates' eyes. They had always liked him personally, but the players that night caught a glimpse of what he could do for OU basketball in the future.

"His confidence started going," said junior forward Kevin Bookout. "He had blocks, rebounds, getting loose balls. He was doing those little things that we needed someone to step up and do just to get us going.

"He comes over from the help side," Bookout further explained, "and really contests and really challenges a lot of shots that makes our opponents just have to shoot every shot and not look at the rim like they want to."

Lavender said Longar helps on offense, even when he isn't scoring, by getting open for passes, setting good screens and playing a strong defense that helps kickstart the offense. The guard said "he's real easy to find, seems like he's always open. He's (almost) seven feet; just throw the ball up to him and he'll go get it."

Longar's long odyssey to Norman began in Waw, Sudan, where he was born in 1983. The nation has been mired for years in a merciless civil war that just won't go away. His family moved to Egypt in 1995 and to the United States, to Chicago, in 1998. Within a year, Longar's clan was on the move again.

"His family moved to Rochester, Minn., because of the Mayo Clinic," Sampson said. "His father had an incurable cancer, but the only people he could get relief from were at the Mayo Clinic, and that's how he wound up in Rochester."

Longar was very close to his father, Longar Salvatory. He eventually died, but he is never far from Longar's thoughts.

"If you ask Longar who has made the biggest impression in his life, it was his father," Sampson said. "He has his father's name written on his shoes and he does a lot of things in his memory."

In keeping with family ties, Longar apparently was named after a grandfather. Gamal Malik of the Sudan embassy in Washington, D.C., shed light on why some Sudanese males, like Longar and former Wisconsin basketball standout Duany Duany, have double names.

In Sudan, Malik said, men usually have a given name followed by their father's name and paternal grandfather's name. Thus, the freshman's full name would be — and is, in this case — Longar Salvatory Longar in following the son-father-grandfather naming tradition.

Salvatory's death meant more responsibility for Longar because most of his siblings were older and out of the house. Eric Plitzuweit, his basketball coach at John Marshall High School in Rochester, said Longar was the eldest son at home. The situation "made him grow up sooner than most kids want to grow up."

Plitzuweit never met Longar's father but the coach did know his mother, Rachel Arol. He described her as a very nice and respectful woman and said Longar always demonstrated those qualities too.

"That's something he got from home," Plitzuweit said.

Rochester is where Longar learned to play basketball. The sport provided an escape from his father's health situation, but Longar was raw like steak tartar. Yet, as Sampson would learn later, Plitzuweit recognized Longar's early and intense desire to learn the game. Plitzweit said Longar immediately "saw the big picture and wanted to play at the next level."

Over time, he became a force in Minnesota high school basketball. By his senior year, Longar was an all-state first team member who led John Marshall's Rockets to a 24-4 record and their first berth to the state tournament's Elite Eight.

"His athleticism on the court was second to none in the area," Plitzuweit said of the player dubbed "L-squared" in high school.

"His ability to run up and down the court for a 6-11 kid was terrific," the coach added. "He ran the court like he was 6-3, and he consistently beat other big men down the court. He also had the ability to alter shots because he's such a quick leaper. So many teams tried to pump fake him a lot, but teams had no answer for him."

The respect Longar learned at home remained evident even as he became a star player. Plitzuweit said he often thanked guards for nice passes and never acted as though he was above the team.

According to Sampson, Longar hasn't changed.

"Not everybody knows how to be a good teammate because some kids are self-centered," Sampson said. "They think everything is supposed to be about him, but Longar is a very giving person. He's learned to use his sense of humor to get on these kids, too, so he's fun to be around."

Sampson was so enchanted with Longar — and Longar with OU — the player signed with the Sooners in the fall of 2002. He had to strengthen his academics, though, so last year he attended Laurinburg Institute prep school in North Carolina.

He signed again with OU last November, and then proceeded to average 15.4 points and 11.8 rebounds for Laurinburg. He consistently was ranked among the nation's top 10 prep school players.

Sampson said Longar is an "unbelievable defensive presence. He has great timing, a great shot-blocker." His eye-popping 4.3 blocks per game at Laurinburg would attest to that, but matching that output in major college basketball is altogether another matter.

The Big 12 Conference and beyond is filled with great athletes with more physical strength (at 6-11, he's only 215 pounds) and basketball experience than Longar. While Longar will be expected to contribute this season, his overall goals will be to learn all he can about the game and physically develop.

"Kids in this country are born playing basketball, but he didn't play, so he's a ways away from being a great offensive player," Sampson said. "But he's got a nice shot and he's a quick learner."

Senior forward Johnnie Gilbert saw the raw potential in Longar earlier this semester while playing pickup games with him. "We knew it would take a while for him, you know, with him being a freshman and coming in to a program like Oklahoma. But he's a well-coached kid and he works hard."

"He started out a little slow, learning all the plays and everything" Lavender opined. "But now he's getting a feel for college basketball and he's producing."

With more than three seasons of OU basketball ahead of him, Longar has the time and team support to grow into a force. Let's face it — that many years of OU's weight training and buffet table can add muscle on his long, athletic frame.

Defense is Longar's forte, which makes him Sampson's type of player. And with his sense of humor, occasional dance moves, and mature yet easy-going nature, teammates and coaches are pulling for him.

"When you sign up for coaching and you go into your career, there are some kids who make an indelible impression. They just do it the right way," Sampson said. "He's just a wonderful, wonderful human being. If Longar can come remotely as good to being a player as he is a person, then he will be a lottery pick because he is one of the nicest human beings around."

Gilbert, who mentioned the roughness in Longar's game when he arrived on campus, sees another type of potential in his teammate.

"I just hopes he works hard day in and day out and keeps going strong every day, to be a strong leader for the next generation of kids at OU," he said.

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