We’re going to say goodbye to Cameron Bairstow soon enough.
Perhaps it comes today in St. Louis, a fierce baseball town taking time to host a portion of a certain college basketball tournament. Perhaps Bairstow’s got a couple of curtain calls left as a Lobo.
But as he prepares to exit stage left, Bairstow’s departure calls to mind another Australian who once upon a time roamed the Land of the Lobos. Luc Longley stood 7 feet, 2 inches; had a big, easy smile; and floppy red hair.
On Dec. 7, 1990, before 18,100 fans in the Pit, Longley scored 24 points and had 13 rebounds to lead UNM to a 94-88 win over New Mexico State.
On Dec. 7, 1990, some 7,825 miles away in Brisbane, Australia, Penny Bairstow gave birth to a boy. She named him Cameron David Bairstow.
Bairstow and Longley know each other, but not well. Parts of their history echo, but other segments diverge.
Bairstow, for instance, was on the radar of colleges, having played for the Australian Institute of Sport. Longley was found by accident.
Then-Lobo coach Gary Colson was in a Perth gym pitching UNM to coveted recruit Andrew Vlahov when the gangly Longley wandered in. Vlahov tossed the kid a pass and Longley dunked it. Colson grinned.
Colson lost Vlahov to Stanford (UNM fans hope another loss to the Cardinal is not in the offing), but found a treasure.
Longley first landed on Albuquerque soil in the fall of 1986 on his recruiting visit. By the time his days as a Lobo were done, he had scored 1,769 points, grabbed 922 rebounds and had enchanted New Mexico fans with his easy charm.
Bairstow’s first UNM visit came 23 years after Longley’s did. He has 1,215 career points, but 670 of them have come this year. Of his 629 career rebounds, 243 were grabbed this season. And Lobo fans have embraced this version of the Thunder From Down Under, much as they did the original.
When Longley arrived, he weighed an alarming 215 pounds. Under the supervision of then-strength coach Mark Paulsen, Longley committed to 6:30 a.m. weight room visits. By the time he left for an NBA career, Longley was a sturdy 255 pounds.
The 6-9 Bairstow showed up at UNM’s doorstep in 2010 a mere 210 pounds. He, too, has embraced the weight room, putting the power into his forward position. He’s now a 250-pound brick. But unlike Longley, he seems to prefer late-night lifting, hitting the weight room immediately after home games.
But there’s another night-and-day difference.
Bairstow plays hard all the time. Longley, well, he seemed to lose interest on occasion.
When the mild-mannered Colson was replaced with the hard-nosed Dave Bliss after Longley’s freshman season, the laid-back Aussie lost a kindred spirit. Bliss barked at him much as Michael Jordan would later do in the NBA.
On the day Bairstow was born, Longley had his aforementioned impressive day in the Pit. But in the first half of that game against the Aggies, he took just four shots – making all four.
“I got a little more intense,” Longley told the Journal’s Andy Katz that night. “The first half, I was just taking it too easy.”
Still, Longley improved under the blustering Bliss. He developed good footwork and a nice shooting touch – as Bairstow has. With the help of Rob Robbins, Longley improved his free-throw shooting – as Bairstow has. And Longley became an NBA prospect – as Bairstow is.
Longley so impressed the Minnesota Timberwolves that they made him their No. 1 pick (seventh overall) in the 1991 NBA draft.
For hard-core pro basketball fans, Longley became a target of wisecracks. He was the Sun who got stung in the butt by a scorpion while he sat on the floor of his Phoenix home looking through his CDs. He was the Bull who busted his shoulder body surfing during a trip to Los Angeles.
Still, Longley maintained his humor. About the body surfing, he joked that he was trying to escape a killer shark. About the scorpion sting, he said if he hadn’t been able to play he would have been “the first player ever to have ‘DNP ass bite’ on the box score.”
And, with a little help from that Jordan guy, he earned three NBA Championship rings.
Bairstow may not get drafted, but has plenty of toughness and just enough athleticism to carve out some kind of role at the next level. But Longley, who lasted 11 seasons in the league, can tell him it won’t be easy.
An Aussie life
Longley represented Australia in a couple of Olympics. Bairstow may have a chance to do the same.
Longley’s last game as a Lobo was a 1991 NCAA Tournament loss to Oklahoma State. It was his only NCAA appearance, but it was UNM’s first since 1978.
Today Bairstow plays in his sixth NCAA event, so he’s got Longley there.
But Longley’s done OK. He’s got a good family, some money, a couple of nice homes and days he can relish on the beach. In Australia, he once had his face on a McDonald’s cup, the kind that turns a different color when the coffee cools.
Bairstow should be so lucky.