June 21, 2006 - Steve Long remembers stepping into the office of Long Realty Company at age 5 to watch his grandfather, the founder, work at an imposing, old-fashioned desk.

A half-century later, Long owns the desk and manages the thriving company. On the side, he makes novelty pillows.

One design lets grandparents proudly display a likeness of their chubby-cheeked grandbaby on the living room sofa. Another pillow design lets pranksters impose a friend's image on the inside of an image of a toilet bowl.

They're called PhunkyBalls, and they provide release for a guy born into real estate but not quite tame enough for it.

"My brain is way off on the creative side," Long said. PhunkyBall has let my imagination run wild."

This month, Long's throw pillow idea had its 15th anniversary.

Back in June of 1991, Long visited a friend in San Diego and discovered a crudely made stuffed basketball sitting on his couch. Long picked up the ball, threw it around and learned that his friend's mother made it.

"All these bells and whistles went off in my head and I had no clue why," Long said. "It was like a lightning bolt. I had no idea it would turn into this."

Unlike his brother Russell, who has won high honors as a Tucson real estate agent in recent years and exudes passion about his work, Steve could not live by house selling alone.

In 1993, he created his first novelty pillow: a simple red-and-blue football honoring the University of Arizona Wildcats. Coach Lute Olson signed a pile of them, and Long sold them to spirited fans. He called them PilloBalls.

Long's business partner, the Californian with the creative mom, grew weary of the pillow business quickly. He exited the scene and took his trade name with him.

"I had to come up with a new name," Long said. "I looked in the thesaurus and came up with PhunkyBall."

A company such as PhunkyBall needed a phounder and CEO, someone suggested.

"I liked the phounder part, but I didn't want to be any stinkin' CEO," Long said. "So they made me the phunkmeister."

Prone to strange thoughts as he is, Long didn't take long to dream up PhunkyHeads. They would serve as balls, but they'd have the added quality of bearing a striking resemblance to the people who bought them.

Long found a Styrofoam ball and made a prototype. He pinned photos on the ball taken from various angles of his head - his ears, his nape, his crown, his face.

"It was about as crude as you can get, but you have to start somewhere," he said.

For several years, Long didn't do much with PhunkyBall. Basically, he said, he loved his idea but had to wait for technology to catch up.

In the late 1990s, at the suggestion of a friend, Long paid a visit to Tucson graphic artist Thomas Lewis. He arrived with a prototype of a PhunkyHead in his own likeness and asked for design advice.

The options amounted to silkscreen, and the test product looked horrid, but Long laughed.

When the technology caught up in the early 2000s for good photo reproduction on fabric, Lewis's staff of five made up a dozen pillow PhunkyHeads of Tucson newscaster Guy Atchley and dropped a dozen by the news office.

The head made it onto a 5 p.m. newscast.

"They were punching it and tossing it," Long said.

Enamored of his new toy, Long bought a half-mannequin and placed a PhunkyBall atop it in his likeness and named it Unky Phunky. Then he retired the idea. Production cost too much.

If a person could put heads on cotton-filled balls, though, the sky was the limit with photos on pillows, Long realized. His imagination ran wild as he made prototypes.

At first, Long planned to hit the commercial market hard, thinking he'd be the supplier for cushiony bottles of Newman's salad dressing and giant Girl Scout cookie pillows.

But that market proved difficult to enter.

"What we learned through lots of brain damage, time and money is that the pie gets cut up so bad and so much," he said.

After that, Long focused his efforts on making pillows bearing pictures of celebrities. Sting auctioned one to his favorite charity, Metallica purchased 150, and actors Patrick Duffy and John O'Hurley autographed photo pillows for a fund-raising event.

PhunkyBall products are designed, printed and stuffed in Tucson but are sent away for sewing.

Although Long has donated scads of the pillows to charities for the purpose of raising money in recent years, his own earnings so far have lacked substance.

"It's nothing to jump up and down about - yet," he said.

He hopes that will change now that he's focusing on direct sales through the Internet and has a new line of designs celebrating everything from Father's Day to anniversaries to sports triumphs. His company courts sororities, now, too. Eight national sororities totaling 1.25 million members have approved him to sell pillows with their Greek symbols and group portraits.

An interior designer oversees templates. Soon, some pillows will feature tassels. All will feature styles more suited than before for the living room couch.

"She took one look and said these were designed by guys," Long said.

The Web site, www.PhunkyBall.com, will get a makeover sometime in July.

Like most creative entrepreneurs, Long has ambition: he wants to be the world authority in photo pillows. But whether or not he makes it, there's nothing like a PhunkyHead to balance the left-brained work of running a real estate company.

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