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Denise Long, the Patron Saint of Girls Basketball, Is Now 33 : LONG

February 10, 1985|KEVIN SIMPSON | Denver Post

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.

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