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Stanford Report, March 13, 2002

From the court to the OR, Longaker plays serious ball


Dressed in a while lab coat and khakis, Michael Longaker, MD, looks every bit the world-renowned physician and researcher. But the staff and faculty at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital is not the first team on which he has played a pivotal role. As Longaker sits down to talk, it’s hard to envision the slender, 6-foot-1 plastic surgeon as he was 23 years ago, celebrating an NCAA Division I basketball championship with his Michigan State University teammates.

Today, Longaker is co-director of the Transplant and Tissue Engineering Center of Excellence at Packard Children’s Hospital, a far cry from where he was March 26, 1979. That night, he played in the highest-rated college basketball game of all time, on a team led by point guard Earvin "Magic" Johnson as they battled the undefeated Indiana State Sycamores, led by another up-and-coming legend, Larry Bird.

On that historic night in Salt Lake City, 50 million viewers tuned in as Longaker’s Spartans defeated their opponents for the national title. His enjoyment of the game has not waned, and he admits that he came to Stanford a year ago from New York University Medical School in part because he enjoys a university with a strong athletic tradition.

Cardinal transplant

When he talks basketball, Longaker is clearly an avid Cardinal fan. "This is a really exciting time of year for the students, fans, players and coaches," he says. "They will be out there fighting for wins and I will be rooting for them." That said, he refuses to choose a favorite between Michigan State and Stanford if they meet on the court. "I want them both to do well," he says. "I’ll be wearing a Michigan State T-shirt and a Stanford hat."

Originally from the Detroit area, Longaker’s father played professional baseball for the old St. Louis Browns, now the Baltimore Orioles, and his mother was a track and field athlete. Despite this lineage, Longaker attended Michigan State on an academic scholarship, but nonetheless walked onto the basketball team a year before the arrival of future NBA legend Johnson.

Although Johnson was 6 feet 9 inches, he played point guard and Longaker drew the unenviable task of guarding him each day in practice. Longaker noted "work ethic" among his greatest attributes on the basketball court. A good thing, because to guard Johnson, he says, "I had to play as hard as I could. If I gave everything I had, Earvin would only dominate me. If I gave anything less, I would be dominated and embarrassed."

Same effort, new team

Longaker, a professor of surgery in the School of Mecidine brings the same level of devotion to his work today. He and his colleagues are attempting to isolate and extract stem cells from human fat and coax them into assuming characteristics of non-fat cells, such as cartilage, bone and muscle. This research into the potential for human fat cells is still in its early stages. Preliminary tests are promising but considerable work remains to be done.

Still, Longaker and his colleagues are hopeful they will someday take fat cells leftover from liposuction and use them to help treat heart-attack or stroke victims, or potentially even grow new organs.

When asked how the pressure of a surgery compares to what he felt when playing basketball in front of 15,000 screaming fans, Longaker doesn’t hesitate to say it like it is. "The stakes are so much higher in a difficult surgery. You’re responsible for someone’s life. Basketball is still a game," he says. "However, when it’s played on a stage at that level, there’s certainly tension." In his playing days, Longaker added, he was so focused that he barely noticed the din of 15,000 people packed into an arena.

While the stakes are higher now, Longaker has taken lessons from the basketball court to the hospital and lab. The need to persevere through the inevitable ups and downs is one. The importance of teamwork is another.

"I was not a star on that Michigan State team," he notes. "You can contribute in seemingly insignificant ways to something truly special or you can be more focused on yourself. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a star and not have won an NCAA championship. But in that same way, I think we’ve built a great team here, a team that’s focused on achieving goals as opposed to just individual accolades."

Though he wasn’t the star on Michigan State’s championship basketball team, Michael Longaker played in the historic defeat over the Indiana State Sycamores on March 26, 1979. Now a researcher and surgeon, Longaker also had the unenviable task of guarding Earvin "Magic" Johnson in practice.