BASKETBALL URBAN LEGEND: An NBA team drafted a female player.
Today, if you are a talented female basketball player, you can possibly play professionally in the WNBA and even if you did not make the pros, women's basketball is a thriving sport in colleges all over the country (last year, eleven different women's basketball programs drew over 100,000 in attendance), with female players setting themselves up for success later in life with athletic scholarships to colleges. However, this was not always the case.
Title IX, the federal law dictating equal treatment between the sexes in college athletic programs, did not become law until 1972 (and it took a number of years for the effects of the law to show up in college sports). The Olympics did not have Women's Basketball until 1976. So if you were a great female basketball player before this era, there were few avenues for you to benefit from your skills. This was the situation that Denise Long found herself in 1969 when she amazingly found herself as the first woman ever drafted into the NBA.
Denise Long was born in Whitten, Iowa in 1951. Her childhood was difficult as she was routinely picked on by her female classmates because of her seeming awkwardness. She found a refuge in the world of sports. During her time at Union-Whitten high school, Long ended up earning four letters each in three different sports! She was a talented softball player and track and field athlete, but it was in basketball that she really stood out from the crowd. The five foot eleven inch Long scored over 6,000 points in her four-year high school career. In 1968, during her junior year, Long led Union-Whitten to the Iowa State Championship. She scored 64 points in the title game (giving her a total of 282 points in her four playoff games). Union-Whitten failed to repeat as champions the next season, but it was not due to Long's play, as she continued to excel, ending the 1968-69 season averaging a remarkable 69.6 points per game (her single-game high was 111 points in a game early in her senior year).
Nearing graduation, Long did not know what to do with her life. When it came to playing basketball in college, she remarked, "[I]t would have been degrading to play college ball, because the only ones who watched women's basketball in those days were the gym rats." And for Long, who was playing in front of crowds of 15,000 people at her high school games, it did not seem worth it. She was soon in for quite a surprise when she received a phone call in the spring of her senior year that she had been drafted. She later recalled that she thought that she had been drafted into the United States Army, as that's the only thing she could think of. Instead, though, it turned out that the San Francisco Warriors (now the Golden State Warriors) had drafted Long with their 13th round pick (roughly 175th overall - amazingly, Mack Calvin was drafted after Long and Calvin ended up having a decent NBA career while also making five All-Star Games in the ABA).
Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli argued that the pick should stand, but NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy voided the pick, both because it was a publicity stunt and because Long was a high school student, something the NBA did not allow at the time. While Mieuli clearly picked Long as a publicity stunt, he did, indeed, have plans for Long. He had Long and other talented female athletes play against each other before Warrior games. Ultimately, he hoped to start up a professional women's basketball league. It never happened. Long recalled the situation, "We were amateurs and we didn't get paid, but Mr. Mieuli was very nice to us. Once after a game he passed out $20 bills and told us to go have fun, and another time he gave us genuine Indian coins." And later noted her disappointment with how the "women's league" idea was going nowhere. "We were good, but we didn't get a whole lot of respect."
After a year in San Francisco (where Mieuli did set up a spot at the University of San Francisco for Long), Long returned to Iowa where she attended the University of Northern Iowa. After just a semester, she went on a tour of Japan with a team of basketball players. She eventually settled down in Iowa and married twice. In 1984, she became the first woman inducted in the High School Sports Hall of Fame. Currently, she works as a pharmacist.
Interestingly enough, in the 1977 NBA Draft, Lusia "Lucy" Harris, a six foot three center out of Delta State University, became the first woman to be drafted by an NBA team without the pick being voided by the league. Harris was drafted by the New Orleans Jazz with the 137th overall pick. She declined to try out for the team (it later turned out that she was pregnant at the time).
In 1980, Ann Meyers made further history by becoming the first woman to actually try out for an NBA team, as Meyers signed a $50,000 no-cut contract with the Indiana Pacers. She ultimately did not make the final squad.
The legend is...
Thanks to Janice Kaplan for her fascinating spotlight on Long in Sports Illustrated in 1977.
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