NEW ORLEANS — Shawn Long is angry. Shawn Long is sensitive. Shawn Long is misunderstood.
He is about to wrap up four years of being one of the most dominant player Louisiana-Lafayette has ever seen, but that’s beside the point. While he was racking up all those insane numbers — and they are insane: 2,246 points, 1,410 rebounds, 264 blocks — he was growing up. That’s the point.
Long doesn’t care about how far he ascends the school’s all-time scoring list or how much distance he puts between him and second place on the Sun Belt Conference’s all-time rebounding list. Not right now, at least, not while he has business to attend to at this week’s Sun Belt Conference tournament. He has what many assume to be a long basketball career in front of him, yet he’s trying to hold on to what’s left here and now.
“The thing I’ve been telling myself is — and I might sound like an old man — but I’m just trying to turn back the hands of time,” Long said a few days before his team began the SBC tournament. “As long as we win, that’s all that matters.
“The difference is, if we lose, that’s it. That’s it. That’s the mentality that I have. Leaving it all out there, every game.”
That means angry Shawn Long will likely make an appearance this weekend, because angry Shawn Long is an unrelenting force on the basketball court — as long as that anger is controlled.
It’s when Long is playing with his trademark scowl — dunking on fools with impunity and claiming every loose ball as if it was currency — that Long is at his devastating best.
That’s the Long that was on display for much of this season, when he finished second nationally in rebounding (12.9 per game) and second in the conference in scoring (18.8) on his way to league Player of the Year honors.
“He’s a fiery guy,”senior guard Kasey Shepherd said. “He plays best when he’s angry. That’s just him, that’s how he gets it. I just let him be himself out there, don’t try to tame the beast, just let the beast do what it does.
“Feed the beast, the beast is hungry.”
But that emotion that makes him so hard to corral on the court can also boil over. Teams will send two or three players to defend Long every time he touches the ball in the post. They’ll push and pull on him, wrenching and shoving for position, and sometimes Mount Long erupts.
That happened Saturday against Georgia Southern. Long was getting tugged on in the post, and he started jawing at an official when he didn’t make a call. The official gave him a look that suggested he’d rather not hear what Long’s opinion was.
Long did it again on the next possession, and the official hit him with a technical foul. Coach Bob Marlin, who’d like to see Long tone it down a little sometimes, went berserk and drew a technical foul of his own.
“I have to get a technical every once in a while so I can keep pace with him,” Marlin said. “I matched him at South Alabama and I matched him the other night (against Georgia Southern), but he’s still got the lead on me.
“He is an emotional player. He gets very excited and he also gets frustrated. If I had two or three guys banging on me and holding on me, I’d get frustrated too, probably. He lets it affect him at times, and he’s got to keep improving and channel his emotions so he can be at his best at all times.”
The Cajuns live with these things and have accepted them as the complete package that makes Long who and what he is — a mercurial but supreme talent.
“Some coaches don’t like players to get emotional,” assistant coach Kevin Johnson said. “Me, I kind of love it. When you inject that emotion into the game, sometimes it can carry you. I like the fact that he plays with emotion, it doesn’t bother me that he gets upset, he gets angry sometimes. I’m OK with him playing angry.”
Shawn Long is more mature now than he’s ever been. Shawn Long is still maturing. It is a learning process.
This might have been the biggest knock against Long at one point in his career. He butted heads with coaches and teammates. He was abrasive and didn’t always react well to criticism. But there have been teaching moments, and Long has paid attention.
One came last year after a win against Arkansas State. Long was magnificent, scoring 27 points on 10-of-11 shooting in just 19 minutes, including a 5-for-5 effort from beyond the arc. Big men aren’t supposed to shoot like that.
He wanted to keep the fun going after the game. He was asked three questions in a post-game news conference asking him to elaborate on the performance, and each time he responded with a non-answer. “I’m thankful,” was all he had to say.
It was harmless, but disingenuous. This publication wrote a column calling him out for his lack of courtesy. Marlin laid into him privately and Long apologized later publicly. That was wake-up call No. 1.
“Last year, that situation with the media, I didn’t mean any harm by it, but it was one of those instances that you learn from,” Long said. “You take what you can from that. I actually think that was one of the biggest stepping points to get where I am right now, that was one of the last things as far as me maturing.”
Long decided to return for his senior season rather than declaring for the NBA draft. He busted his tail over the offseason to get in great shape for what has been a career year, but life handed him another slice of humble pie.
He was honored to make the U.S. team for the Pan American games, beating out some big-name collegiate and professional athletes for a coveted spot. But, for the first time in his life, he rode the pine.
The old Shawn Long might’ve stewed and caused a commotion. But he was well along the way in his maturation process. This version of himself handled the disappointment with perspective.
“I think that was really when I snapped into reality,” Long said. “I think that was a turning point for sure. Just turning a negative — and it wasn’t necessarily a negative, I was blessed to be there — I didn’t get to play as much as I wanted. I love to play, so watching guys was something different for me.
“I understood that at the pro level, some nights I might not play. You’ve just got to be mature handling it and be ready for your number to get called.”
Long played his high school ball at Morgan City. He arrived to the Cajuns a little more than four years ago as a coveted transfer out of Mississippi State, where he spent one semester before he realized he wanted to come home.
The Cajuns took him gladly, but they weren’t easy on their young star.
Johnson grew up on the same street as Long’s family and was close with Long’s uncles growing up. He spent his childhood running in and out of Long’s grandmother’s house.
“Shawn probably has no idea how deep I was into his family before he was born, but it’s hard for me to see him and not remember those times,” Johnson said. “So if there’s something I can do to help him be successful, I’m going to do it, and a lot of it is tied to those memories.”
It was Johnson who drew the task of getting Long to focus his anger on the court. It wasn’t always pretty. Marlin said he had to separate the two a few times as Johnson coached Long hard.
Johnson always saw the talent underneath what was a rough exterior.
“I’ve been tough on him on purpose,” Johnson said. “I think I’m the only one who believes he’s got a lot more in him. I think he can be better than what he is. All I’ve tried to do is help him pull that out. He used to resist a lot in those early years, but he doesn’t really resist any more. He’s gotten a whole lot better accepting coaching.”
Said Marlin, “Kevin has pushed him. I think we’ve brought Shawn to a better level of competing on a nightly basis. To not go through the motions but to amp it up and see how good you can be. We’ve pushed him hard and he’s accepted the coaching, and because of that he’s gotten much better.”
There has been one more thing that has aided the maturation process. Shawn Long is a father.
Jace is 4 years old. Out of nowhere, he started gravitating toward basketball.
“The best thing is it’s something that nobody really taught him, he just automatically started liking basketball before he was even old enough to understand what I was doing,” Long said. “It gives me another reason to go hard and try to make him proud.”
Like his father, Jace can get a little wild sometimes. Long has held off on the hard coaching. He knows what does the trick.
“With my son, I try not to be all strict with him,” Long said. “I try to be a little lenient. He’s young and running wild a little bit. He loves to play basketball. As long as I give him a basketball, I can control him.”