Disclaimer: This article was written 2 years ago. It was submitted for print for a basketball magazine but unfortunately they did not like it. It’s been stuck in my hard drive and I thought I may as well post it. So, it is a dated article and much has happened since then (Drive for Five). But I still want to share this. Enjoy.
(Picture by Alyson Yap)
Taking the ball up the right side of the court, Kirk Long spied two Tamaraws between him and the basket, during the first quarter of game 1 of the recently concluded UAAP Season 73 Finals. Without missing a beat he attacks one defenders, pivots in mid dribble, slides by the second defender, explodes towards the basket and lays in the twinner off the glass. As the crowd goes wild he runs back on defense without expression, takes up his position ready to defend the next play. On one hand he just displayed the pizzazz and glamour of modern basketball, marked by the amazing, in search for the highlight. On the other, he embodied his true self as he casts aside the fact that two points had been spectacularly scored and that there is defense to be addressed. Here lies Kirk Long the basketball player, capable of playing the modern game but defined by the fundamentals like discipline, dedication and attention to the game. This has been the hallmark of his basketball playing career.
Kirk Long has been in the Philippines since he was 3 years old. He arrived with his family in 1991 and grew up watching his dad play basketball amongst the common folk in far flung provinces and barangay courts while spreading the word of God. In his mind the guy who has inspired Kirk the most not just in basketball but also his life is his dad, Jeff Long. A former high school and basketball player, Jeff spent a huge part of his life going around the different corners of the Philippines and Asia spreading the good news while playing the game that he loved. In Kirk’s eyes, he sees his dad as one who has “always been a good reminder for me to play for the right reasons”. One of the things Jeff told his son which is deeply embedded in Kirk is “to never take the game for granted.“
By the time he was 7 years old Kirk would be put into the game to bring up the ball as the time wound down. By 13 he was actually already playing with grown-ups in these plaza sorties. Defenders would attack him while he brought up the ball and he eventually learned how to break presses and on court pressures even at such a young age. He also soon earned his reputation as a gym rat. Spending Fridays and Saturdays in the Faith Academy gym, while his dad did his school duties, he would play basketball, volleyball, football or any other game he could get into. As he developed his basketball game though, this took priority and soon he spent what he says are hundreds of hours working on each and every aspect of his game.
After going back to Kansas for a year, taking care of his ailing grandmother, the Long family came back in time for Kirk to join Faith Academy’s basketball team as a sophomore. Standing all of 5’11 and weighing a mere 140 pounds, Kirk quickly made an impression. Starring in the Far East Tournament in Japan, Kirk led the Faith Academy Vanguards in the championship game hitting clutch baskets and being a tough on ball defender on D. Leading his team to an overtime victory, he was then voted as the Tournament MVP, the first of 3 in succession. In his Junior and Senior years he again led the Vanguards to successful stints but not only in Japan but also in Hong Kong during the Thanksgiving weekend tournament, where he faced many players who eventually ended up playing NCAA Division I basketball in the United States. In 2009, perhaps as the ultimate tribute to Kirk’s illustrious high school basketball career, he was named one of the top 5 players on Faith Academy over the past 25 years, joining eventual Division I Basketball player Joe Saunders and Dan Landry who became a US Olympian for Volleyball. When asked what about his character was best developed by his high school career, he says it was over-coming adversity. Being the focus of every team’s defensive schemes he did not allow himself to be distracted from his goal of winning. Teams would punish him physically and yet he prevailed, he overcame. Little did he know that he would need to draw from this character trait again as he moved on to the next phase of his basketball life.
While Kirk considers moving to Ateneo as a great next step in his basketball career, he immediately faced many adjustments on and off the court. From dominating the offense jacking up shots with abandon, while logging 38 minutes a game, he was thrust into a system where he played 10 minutes if he was lucky and he only had a few shot opportunities available to him. He had to learn to be a more efficient scorer where every possession is highly valued, where shots were taken only when it is most optimal to do so. The biggest change though was in the defensive end. Kirk confesses that in high school, defense for him was an after-thought. His coach Toby Landers preached defense to him but it just did not take. He still thought of himself as primarily a scorer. In Ateneo, defense is preached 100% all the time. He realized early on that everyone in college had solid offensive games and he could not allow them to beat him. Being the gym rat he is, he dedicated himself to be a solid defender. Last season, Kirk earned the reputation as an effective perimeter defender, or dare we say a defensive stalwart. He says that he takes pride in putting the shackles on guys like RR Garcia, Paul Lee and even Jayvee Casio back in the day.
Aside from being a stopper, Kirk too is slowly being known as a big game guy. From hitting a clutch 3 point game winner over pro-bound Jervy Cruz early on in his career, to leading a decisive charge of Ateneo over La Salle last season, Kirk can be relied on to be a steady presence on court. He owes his ability to be clutch to the fact that he spends so much time in the gym working on different game situations. Take for example, the shot over Jervy Cruz. He says that before that game, he had been working for hours on taking a three after one hard dribble. When faced with that situation he knew what he had to do, that he can do it and this allowed him to execute the shot to perfection. In his view, games are won “not just by teams who want it more but by teams who also practice more.”
In preparation though for season 74, Kirk says he wants to be more reliable offensively. He explains, “Looking at the last 4 years I just want to be more consistent in offense. I want to make sure my team can rely on me. I just need to be someone who the team can count on whether to take the shot or to set up others. I play a lot of minutes due to my defense so the more offense I can bring to the game would greatly benefit the team.” Season 74 may yet see a further evolution of Kirk Long’s game, where his effectiveness cannot be denied on both sides of the court. He knows that he can succeed in meeting these challenges because of how seriously he takes the game. He says, “I don’t really smile on court. I want to come out with the attitude that every game is important to me. Basketball deserves my respect and I have to give my all in every instance that I play; not just for the crowd and the attention but to give back to the game in the right way.”
In spite of his many on-court successes, Kirk still sees himself as a shy guy, who would rather not be the center of attention. He says, “I don’t usually go out and meet people easily. Not natural. I am more like my mom than my dad (who had to be outgoing if he wanted to be an effective missionary). I can go out of my comfort zone but that is not easy for me.” When asked if this natural shyness will be in the way as he takes on more responsibilities in next year’s Ateneo Blue Eagles team, Kirk says that leadership may be expressed in different forms. He prefers to lead by example such as by pushing himself in practices more, by listening to his coaches and by dedicating himself in each and every practice, and by diligently preparing for games. But if required he confesses, “I may not be the most vocal out there but when needed I can get up and say the things that need to be said.” He knows that each and every guy in the team can be a leader. He says though that with what he has gone through in his UAAP career he has much to offer as far as leadership is concerned. With him as the team’s senior, the Ateneo Blue Eagles Season 74 Basketball Team will be in good hands.
What does life hold for Kirk Long after basketball? Given a choice he would like to still be involved in basketball one way or another after he hangs up his college laces. He wants to have a venue to give back to the game that has given him so much. He avers that he “want(s) to stay in the Philippine basketball scene whether as a player, as a trainer, as a coach even in the grade school level. I’ve had great relationships with coaches who have taught me about life on and off the court. I want to give back to kids in the same way I was given. I want to have an impact on kids’ lives. I want them to play basketball the way it should be played through fundamentals. I want to influence those kids’ lives on how they threat friends and understand what life is about.” He claims that teaching is in his blood from his parents and from other relatives and that it would not be far-fetched for him to follow in their footsteps. He has even taken up teaching internships at the Ateneo High School as part of his training.
He realizes though that his playing career may not extend to the professional level, given present eligibility rules in the Philippine Basketball Association. He shares, “It would be a dream to play for a professional league like the PBA. I would be honored to do it. Lots of my idols have gone to the PBA. If given the opportunity to do it I would work hard and do it and that would be my way of giving back to the game. But if not I would still be thankful for the experience of playing in the college level and in the provinces. Maybe I would just go back to promote basketball in the provinces,” much the same way his dad did in his basketball sorties. Taking up communication courses, he also considers getting into media as an alternative, perhaps in radio or as a sports show commentator. When reminded that he may be the second coming of Alex Compton then, he says, “Alex Compton is a great guy that has accomplished things I could aspire to do as well. I’d love to follow in his footsteps.” Could we see Kirk behind the microphone soon?
In the end though, Kirk simply aspires to be known as a guy “who gave his all in each and every possession regardless who the opponent is. I want to be known as one who gave his heart, intensity and energy in every game; a player who comes in to work every game every night.” Above all though, he says he simply want to, “honor God in everything I do I have to give that glory to God because everything comes from Him. I want to share that with those in my life; that I let God come in and make a difference in my life.”
In the court and outside it, Kirk is indeed Mr. Fundamental. He is a man who lives by a code of dedication, hard work and excellence. In an era of the Decision, smarmy hall of fame speeches, self aggrandizing promotion, Kirk is in the antithesis, the guy to plays for the love of the game, for the success of the team, for the purity of the pursuit of perfection, and above all for the glorification of the Lord. Kirk Long is the true embodiment of Magis.