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From March Madness to medicine with help from mentors

Forty years ago, Michael Longaker was a guard on the championship winning Michigan State basketball team. Now, he is a Stanford surgeon.

Each year, 68 college basketball teams are chosen to compete in the sudden-death tournament known as March Madness. The following weeks are filled with the frenzy of brackets, betting, and behind-the-boss’s-back game watching for which it gets its name.

In 1979, 40 years ago, Michael Longaker was part of that American tradition, but not as an eager fan. No, at over 6 feet tall, Longaker was a guard for Michigan State in their NCAA championship win over Indiana State.

Now, Longaker, MD, MBA, is a surgeon at Stanford known for his work on scarring and skeletal stem cells. When I dropped by to talk with him about his basketball career, he absentmindedly rubbed his ring finger on his right hand. “I got out of wearing [the championship ring] while I was doing surgery... It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years.”

The final game that year pitted Indiana’s Larry Bird, who became a 12-time NBA all-star, against Longaker’s on-the-road roommate: Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

“In the back of my mind, I knew he was exceptional,” Longaker admitted. “But did I know he was going to be one of the top three players of all time? No!”

At the time, Longaker said his own future was unclear to him. He credits his transformation from a first-generation college graduate to an acclaimed academic surgeon almost wholly to a series of amazing mentors, starting with his dentist, Joseph Grimley, DDS.

“Dr. Grimley was a family friend. My father was one of his first patients,” said Longaker. “He used to send me 5 or 10 dollars each semester and wanted me to take over his practice. That’s why I was even looking at medical schools.”

Longaker said he had set his sights modestly, looking to apply at a local school until a summer in the lab changed his course.

James Potchen, MD, was the chair of radiology. He reached out to me to see if I would be interested in doing some research,” said Longaker. “He broadened my horizons and really made an impression on me.”

Longaker ended up earning his medical degree at Harvard University. He then went on to the University of California, San Francisco for his surgical residency where he once again had the opportunity to learn from an extraordinary mentor.

“I didn’t even want to do basic research when my chair assigned me to Michael Harrison’s lab,” said Longaker. “It was pure good fortune.”

It was in the UCSF Fetal Treatment Center that Longaker said he first observed that embryos heal without a scar. That discovery led to his life’s work on scarless wound healing.

“I’ve benefitted from being in the right place at the right time more than most,” said Longaker. “So, I try to give that sort of hand off to the people in my lab.”

Longaker has been a mentor to hundreds of Stanford students including several athletes. His athlete-mentees include Stanford men’s basketball forward Oscar da Silva and former running back Bryce Love.

“Basketball was my first love, and I’ve been fortunate to have an experience in athletics here at Stanford,” said Longaker. “But when students sit in my office, they don’t want to talk about their sport. They want to know how they can make an impact.”

Longaker said he considers the ability to help “super talented people” a privilege and he likens his role to a gutter guard in bowling.

Although his schedule is busy, Longaker regularly roots for the Stanford men's basketball team. But out of the teams in this year's tournament, Longaker plans to watch and cheer for, yes, you guessed it, Michigan State.

Photos courtesy of Stanford Athletics and Michigan State Athletics

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