WHITTEN, Iowa — 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."