That time an Iowa girls' basketball star was drafted out of high school by the NBA's Warriors
Editor's note: This story was originally published in June 2019.
The 2019 NBA Draft mirrors its 1969 counterpart in this way: There is little doubt who the first pick will be. This year, most expect the New Orleans Pelicans to draft Duke superstar Zion Williamson, believed to be a transformative player for both his future team and the league.
A half century earlier, the Milwaukee Bucks selected UCLA’s Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with similar expectations. Those proved true as Abdul-Jabbar won six NBA championships and scored more career points than anyone in league history during his hall of fame career.
But in the same draft that the future Abdul-Jabbar was selected, another history-making moment happened in the 13th round. The San Francisco Warriors drafted 19-year-old Denise Long, a 5-foot-11 star from Union-Whitten High School.
She was as surprised as anyone.
“I couldn’t turn this down,” Long, now Denise Rife, recalled 50 years later from her home near Wichita, Kansas. “I decided to go to San Francisco.”
That bizarre culmination of events started in Whitten, a north central Iowa city of about 147 people where Long shot a countless stream of jump shots on the court at her local playground.
Long played girls’ basketball in the age of six-on-six, which ended state play in 1993. In its prime, the six-player game packed gyms across Iowa during frigid winters where combined final game scores often finished well above 200 points.
“The school was the center of entertainment for a lot of towns across Iowa,” said Jean Berger, executive director if the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, herself a former six-on-six player for the Winterset Huskies. “It was its own game. There was no comparison with the boys, and the girls really put on a show.”
Six-on-six basketball was essentially two games of half-court three-on-three with players limited to two dribbles. Guards were a team’s best defenders. Forwards were the team’s best shooters.
And Long was a shooter. She started playing basketball at age 12 and vowed to be the best.
Long was once seen working on her shot at the Whitten playground in the dead of winter with the temperature 11 degrees below zero.
No statistics were kept for her outdoor, subzero average, but in the gym, she was straight fire.
From her freshman year to her last shot in the 1969 state tournament, Long wore out the nets at Union-Whitten and across the state.
She finished her career with a then-record 6,250 career points, later eclipsed by Lynne Lorenzen of Ventura who tallied 6,736 points in her 1983-1987 career.
Every one of those shots came before the 3-point shot, by the way. Just two points for jumpers and layups and singles for free throws.
Just 34 people populated Long’s Union-Whitten class, so she recruited help to win a berth in the girls' state tournament, a 16-team gauntlet culled from nearly 500 schools that was broadcast statewide on Iowa Public Television.
Long convinced her cousin, Cyndy Long, to join her on the team. The duo proved a powerhouse too great for the rest of the state.
The Long girls led Union-Whitten to the 1968 state title game against Everly, itself led by Jeanette Olson, whose 4,634 career points is sixth all-time in six-on-six records.
Everly double-teamed Denise Long, who had scored 93 points in an earlier tournament game, limiting Denise to “just” 64 points. That left Cyndy Long open and she scored 40 points and proved the difference in the 113-107 victory for Union-Whitten in front of 15,000 fans at Veterans Memorial Auditorium.
The game is considered the best girls’ high school contests in state history.
Berger, who was in elementary school when the game took place, remembers sidling up to Long last year at the girls' state tournament, when the Union-Whitten team was honored for the 50th anniversary of their championship.
Berger asked to take a selfie.
“I was still star struck after all these years,” Berger said.
Union-Whitten lost the title Long’s senior year, but she averaged 69.6 points per game, scored 100 points three times, including 111 points against Dows.
Her feats earned national attention, including a three-page spread in Sports Illustrated that focused on her exploits and the madness of Iowa's state basketball tournament.
When Union-Whitten lost the title game, Long figured her days of sinking jumpers were over. She received a few college scholarship offers, but so few teams played women’s college ball, the offers that came didn’t interest her much.
For perspective, Title IX, the civil rights law that prohibited sex discrimination in schools, paved the way for women’s college athletes did not come until 1972. It would be another four years before women’s basketball became an Olympic sport.
The first women’s pro league formed in 1978 and more colleges followed with women’s athletics that year, but the NCAA didn’t sponsor women’s college basketball until 1982.
But before all of that, Denise Long sunk so many high-arched shots that she caught the eye of Franklin Mieuli, owner of the NBA's San Francisco Warriors.
He drafted her in the 13th round of the 1969 NBA Draft, mostly as a publicity stunt.
The NBA commissioner vetoed the pick because the NBA did not draft high school players at the time. And didn’t draft women.
But the stunt worked. Long’s selection drew national media attention, including an appearance on Corning native Johnny Carson’s revered and highly rated “Tonight Show.”
Mieuli wanted to make Long the star attraction of a women’s pro basketball league, though he had a funny definition of “professional.”
He recruited Long and players from all over the country to fill the rosters of four teams, but they weren’t paid a salary.
There was talk then about introducing women’s basketball to the 1972 Olympics and Mieuli used that as an excuse for not paying salaries.
The teams played four-quarter games before Warriors home games and another quarter at halftime. The game was a modified version of the six-player game Long had grown up playing.
The games weren’t as high-scoring as her Iowa high school days, Long said, but the women enjoyed the sport and were competitive.
“We played five quarters a night and it was competitive and fun,” Long said. “It was fun to be a part of the Warriors’ family.”
Long met many of the NBA stars of the era including Wilt Chamberlain, the 7-foot-1 great who began his career with the Philadelphia Warriors and finished it with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Chamberlain, as a member of the Warriors, was famous for scoring 100 points against the New York Knicks in a 1962 game in Hershey, Pennsylvania. That's still the only time an NBA player has reached triple figures.
When the Lakers visited the Warriors one day while Long was playing, she approached him for an autograph. Chamberlain recognized her.
“Aren’t you the young lady who broke my record?” Long remembers him saying.
In a quintessential Midwestern, aw-shucks humility, Long said, “Yes, but I didn’t mean to.”
Mieuli’s league didn’t catch on and Long and the other players went their own way after a single season.
It took until 1996 for former NBA Commissioner David Stern to create and foster the WNBA.
Long attended a variety of schools over the years.
She earned a degree in Bible theology from Faith Baptist Bible College in Ankeny in 1975.
Twenty years later, she earned a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from Drake University and spent her career working for Osco and Walgreens until she retired in 2015.
Now 69, Long lives with her husband, five Pomeranians and a German shepherd-Alaskan sled dog-coyote mix on ranch in Rose Hill, Kansas.
In 2018, the Golden State Warriors invited Long back to the Bay area to meet the defending NBA champions. She was greeted by Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and other stars of the current team.
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She took a few shots on the Warriors practice court and was honored at halftime with one of the other women from the league.
“Even though I haven't been out to see them play,” Long said. “They remembered me and that was very touching to my heart.”
In her hometown of Whitten, they never forgot.
That park where she fired shot after shot even in subzero temperatures?
These days they call it Denise Long Park.
Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset, where girls played six-on-six, and east Des Moines, where girls played five-on-five. Suggest stories at 515-284-8144 or email@example.com.