Denise Long, the Patron Saint of Girls Basketball, Is Now 33 : LONG
In the small villages of the heartland, clusters of modest frame houses huddle around the only two structures deemed worthy of brick--the church and the school. On those winter nights when the church is dark, the townspeople swarm to the school--usually squeezing into some quaint crackerbox of a gymnasium--for a sacred rite of a different sort.
Denise Long, patron saint of the near-religious institution known as girls basketball, once lived in the weathered white house on Main Street, across from the post office where for more than two decades her mother sorted mail for a population of 170. Half a block away, on the corner that constitutes the center of town, stands a small park named in her honor. The asphalt basketball court that serves as its centerpiece later was embellished with a swingset, sliding board and barbeque pit.
Here, on summer days 18 years ago, Long would drag her cousin Cyndy to shoot hoops through the afternoon and into the evening. Near dark, June bugs would congregate on the pavement, testing the girls’ ballhandling skills until they fell exhausted onto a nearby mattress, dragged onto the premises as a symbol of their dedication.
For Long, that endless summer represented a prelude to glory. On the biting winter nights that followed, her uncanny shotmaking ability elevated her to revered status among the legions who follow Iowa girls’ basketball, while also vaulting her into position as the nation’s all-time leading scorer, where 6,250 career points--1,147 more than the runner-up--remain a monument to her perseverence.
In 1969 she became the first woman ever selected--however connivingly--in the National Basketball Assn. draft, although the then-San Francisco Warriors had no intention of playing her with the men and Commissioner Walter Kennedy quickly voided the 13th-round pick. Articles in Sports Illustrated and practically every major newspaper from the New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle created a seemingly endless tribute of national proportion.
The attention peaked, as it does for so many, with an appearance on “The Tonight Show.”
When the glory and the glamor abruptly disappeared after her senior year at Union-Whitten High School, it left a stream of glossy photographs and newspaper clippings--and little else--in its wake. Without so much as a college scholarship to show for her achievements, without Title IX’s equal rights legislation as a springboard, with no Olympic gold available and no place to play, the most prolific high school scorer this country has known put away her basketball and resolved to get on with her life.
“I asked her once if she ever had any regrets,” says Paul Eckerman, the high school coach who taught her the game. “She said, ‘You could’ve taught me tennis or golf.’ ”
At 33, Denise Long no longer wears her hair in the long, shimmering dark sheet she did at 18, choosing instead a shorter, wavier style. The sharp, attractive features of her teens now accommodate a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and the once lithe figure has assumed more mature proportions.
She lives during the week in Ankeny, just north of Des Moines, and attends classes at Des Moines Area Community College, her sixth college since 1969. Some weekends, she makes the 60-mile drive back to Osceola, where her second husband, Lee Andre, waits for his self-proclaimed “absentee wife.” Some weekends she treks up to Whitten to visit her mother and twin brother.
Andre married Long in the summer of 1981, with absolutely no idea he was exchanging vows with a sports legend. When he learned the scope of her fame, he joked that she could shoot baskets for her enjoyment and he would shoot his shotgun. At 29, this marked her first relationship with a man in which her athletic skill and notoriety were of no consequence. While her husband’s approach to the marriage lifted much of the burden she felt from her phenomenal basketball success, the weight could never entirely be removed.
What the public did not understand about Denise Long was that childhood acclaim, abruptly ended by the absence of viable basketball opportunities for women, divided her ego and thrust her into competition with herself--or more specifically, her past. The catch has been that, even now as she pursues something so far removed from basketball as a degree in physical therapy, she can hardly live up to the competition.
“I don’t think people realize that even now I try to emulate me,” she explains. “It’s like there’s another person back there in the past. If I could do well in physical therapy or biology, that would be good for me, but that can never capture the stardom basketball did. I feel a little overwhelmed myself at what I did then.”
Eckerman called her simply, “the eighth wonder of the world,” and hinted at her eventual greatness early on. Before thrusting her into her first starting role as a freshman, he told a friend, “Tonight I’m starting the greatest girls basketball player ever to play the game in Iowa.”
He adds now: “The only really sad part is we didn’t have videotape.”
Consequently, Long’s basketball career has been reduced to a few reels of film from the state tournament and a scrapbook of memories. Had women’s basketball been an Olympic event in 1972 instead of 1976, Long might have prolonged the grandeur.
She felt the aftershock of her athletic career in many ways, some of them horribly profound, some of them humorously subtle. The Des Moines Register did a follow-up story on the former prep star while she was working in the produce department of a grocery store, whereupon a photographer asked her to pose holding a piece of fruit. She grabbed a pineapple. The day the picture appeared in the paper, pineapple sales at the store rose sharply.
That’s one of the more pleasant remembrances. But once she has replayed the memories of the state title in 1968, the 6,250 points, the 111 in a single game, the year spent playing in a four-team women’s amateur league sponsored by the NBA’s Warriors, Long inevitably focuses on the misfortune that followed fame like some sort of inescapable penance.
Ironically, she endured the culture shock of 1970 San Francisco without incident. Only when she returned home and enrolled at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls did her widespread notoriety backfire with frightening results.
Enchanted by her fame as easily as her lean, good looks, boys asked her out and went for the quick score. When she rebuffed them, they responded by spreading rumors that she had willingly accepted their advances. As a final humiliation, Long was subjected to endless obscene phone calls--usually 10 to 12 a night--that could not be deterred by blowing a whistle into the mouthpiece, as Ann Landers had instructed in her advice column. To a trusting 19-year-old still clinging to her naivete, the experience proved devastating--and the recollection alone still puts a tremor in her voice and tears in her eyes.
Things got worse. Later that same year, she reluctantly accepted a date to a fraternity party with a boy she had danced with briefly at an all-school mixer. When a stranger showed up at her dormitory with the lame excuse that her supposed date was too drunk to pick her up, she accompanied the stranger back to the fraternity house against her better judgment.
“It was all guys there,” she recounts. “I said, ‘Aren’t there more girls coming?’ and they said they’d be here in a little bit. There were two guys playing cards at the table and they started laughing. I realized that this was kind of like a set-up type thing. I sat there while I was thinking about what to do. . . . One guy came over to me and started to get physical with me. I just started to break up.”
Although she convinced one of the boys to take her back to the dorm, that experience triggered even more obscene calls--though the most upsetting incident was yet to come. When she left Northern Iowa and enrolled at Marshalltown Community College, her fame plunged her further into confusion. While Long was away from school playing exhibition one-on-one matches on the West Coast, a strip-tease dancer at a local bar started using her name to attract customers--and met with considerable success. When Long returned, the news destroyed her.
“I went down (to the bar), and she was in her neglige, naked underneath her neglige,” Long begins. “I sat down by her and looked at her and said, ‘What is your name?’ She said Jody or Judy or something. I said, ‘Do you know who I am? Denise Long. You’ve been telling people you’re me, haven’t you?’ She says yeah. I says, ‘Why are you doing that?’ and she says, ‘It’s really helped my business.’ ”
Long left Marshalltown at the end of that year and enrolled again at Northern Iowa, but neglected to remove her name from the student directory. This time, when the onslaught of obscene phone calls began, she was somewhat better prepared. Having embraced Christianity--or, as she says, being driven to it--she responded to her callers with compassion and Bible tracts. Finally, the calls stopped.
The following year, 1973, began with promise of peace and normalcy. Long started classes at Faith Bible College in Ankeny, where she met David Sturdy, a basketball fanatic from Indiana who, as a pastor’s son, was struggling against his upbringing. Long, by contrast, was trying to expel basketball from her life and heighten her religious awareness.
Years before they met, Sturdy had heard one of his high school teachers--who had in his possession the issue of Sports Illustrated that featured Long--jokingly tell him that his chances for playing college ball might be enhanced if he married this Denise Long and let her teach him the game. Later, miraculously finding her enrolled at Faith, he cleared the lump from his throat and asked her out. When, mindful of her recent experience, she answered with a terse, “Why?” he rallied with, “To see if you play ping-pong as good as you play basketball.”
They married, and Long became unwilling overseer of her husband’s futile attempts to make the varsity. When they split up after four years, she knew there were many reasons. One of them was basketball. It never helped that Long could handle her husband one-on-one.
“Dave was so interested in basketball and I was so tired of it,” she explains now. “He would drag me here, drag me there, trying to get pick-up games.”
With the single exception of a 40-second cameo appearance with the Iowa Coronets of an ill-fated women’s professional league--during which, at 28, she scored her first and only point for pay on a free throw--Denise Long was through with competitive basketball. So imposing is her athletic legacy, though, that basketball never quite seems to be through with her.
Aside from notoriety, the rewards of being a teen-aged superstar were minimal. Guys from nearby towns would cruise Whitten’s streets (both of them) hoping to catch a glimpse of this winsome athlete of such renown, but Long seldom made time for dating. After her senior year, she heard overtures from William Penn College, Iowa Wesleyan and now-defunct Kennedy College, but no bona fide scholarship offers were forthcoming. And, quite frankly, playing college basketball to empty bleachers could hardly compare to her high school experience, when she played before nothing but packed houses.
“I didn’t really look past high school,” says Long, “because nothing could parallel that. I didn’t want to play in front of nobody for nothing.”
Eckerman, the high school coach with whom she’s still close, probably reaped more tangible benefits from Long’s ability than she did herself. After winning the state tournament in 1968, townspeople presented him with a sow and 11 piglets. The next year, Long’s last, they paid his membership into a local golf club. Midwestern College of Dennison, no longer in existence, offered him a coaching job with the understanding he would bring Long with him.
That never panned out, but when Long agreed to play for San Francisco Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli in a four-team women’s league he organized for the purpose of entertaining before NBA games, Eckerman was paid a fee to fly out to the West Coast and conduct tryouts. Long was never paid anything more than a token sum--and that for working around the Warriors’ office--but Mieuli agreed to underwrite her education at the University of San Francisco.
Their whole arrangement lasted one year before Long returned to Iowa. Mieuli’s league lasted two years.
“It’s not every day you get drafted by the NBA,” Long explains now. “I thought it was expected of me to go out there. It was an opportunity, and I ought to explore it. After I appeared on ‘The Tonight Show,’ it was like I was magnetically polarized to go play out there in that league. I knew I’d never enjoy it like I did in high school. That joy and zest for the game could never be equalled.
“I knew I wouldn’t play that long when I went out there. I’m glad I went, though, not so much for the basketball, but for my friendship with Franklin Mieuli. It was a neat experience, although it was a culture shock. From the little town I was in, I went to Haight-Ashbury, women burning their bras, love-ins, gay marches--I didn’t know what gays were before I went out there.”
Perhaps to his credit, Mieuli never made any pretense of drafting Long with the intent of playing her with his men’s team.
“I needed to generate interest in the women’s basketball thing,” he explains. “So we drafted her in the 13th round--and I think she wore No. 13 (actually, she wore No. 24). I think the statement I made then was valid: I don’t know if women can play this game, but if anyone can, she can. She was a very sweet, innocent, lovable girl.”
Adds Shirley Figgins, a Mieuli employee who had Long as houseguest for her first two months in the Bay Area: “She was way ahead of her time. If she’d been 10 years younger, she’d have been the biggest star ever. She was a good player, but she also had a feminine quality that made her a big star. She was a very attractive gal.”
When she left San Francisco, Long left basketball behind--for good, she figured. It was fame that, even stealing away through the fog, she could never escape.
Although she idolized Paul McCartney, Dean Martin was charged with the task of soothing her before a ballgame.
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.