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The Forgotten San Francisco Warrior

Investigating the overlooked legacy of Denise Long, the first woman drafted to the NBA

Illustration: Vinh Truong for The Bold Italic

In the summer of 1969, the Milwaukee Bucks chose Lew Alcindor with the number one NBA draft pick. He later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, won six championships, and entered the Basketball Hall of Fame. As the best player of his generation, he still holds the record for the most points ever scored by a single human in hoops history.

An unstoppable 7'2" force, Abdul-Jabbar became a giant figure on and off the court by voicing his opinions on racial justice and social equity, though he would fall short in breaking the NBA’s most unbreakable barrier: gender.

But this story isn’t about Abdul-Jabbar. It’s about a society and culture in a time of transition and one teenage girl who would try to make her impossible jump shot while everyone was looking.

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In what has seemingly been erased from most basketball fans’ memories, another history-shattering pick happened during that same 1969 draft. The San Francisco Warriors used the 175th pick in the 13th round to select a player the team felt could rewrite the rules of the game in a more radical way: a woman. Denise Long, an ultra-scoring forward with massive popular appeal in the Midwest, became the first-ever woman to be picked by a professional basketball team.

Standing only 5'11", the high school senior from Iowa was immortalized after single-handedly eclipsing the 100-point mark three times in her young career, including a 111-point outpour in Long’s final season. Locally televised games attracted as many as 3.5 million viewers and packed small-town arenas whenever she played. You can actually watch YouTube highlights from Long’s 56-point performance in the 1968 Girls State Tournament Finals versus the Everly Lady Cattle Feeders, in which her team, the Union Whitten High School Cobras, overcame their rivals with a 113–107 overtime victory.

After a stellar career at Union Whitten, Long garnered even more national attention—after averaging a total of 69 points per game, more than Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan combined in any season they’ve ever played at any level—when the Warriors eccentric owner, Franklin Mieuli, decided to break every convention by asking Long to play for his team in the Bay.

No one — Denise Long included — expected it. In fact, the pick was so out of pocket that when Long was contacted about the news, she mistakenly thought she was being drafted into the U.S military to serve in the Vietnam War. She had never even heard of the Warriors but was suddenly being interview by the Tonight Show, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

“I only knew about the Lakers and Celtics,” Long said in an interview, years after, on the Moonlight Graham Show.

As a 19-year-old girl, Long faced the longest shot of any hooper to ever make the NBA. Yet she did the unthinkable by crossing over into the league, defined in those days by Abdul-Jabbar’s forceful emergence, Wilt Chamberlain’s loud womanizing, and Walt Frazier’s silky smoothness.

In later stories, Long would casually talk about side comments made from star players, such as “I’d play one on one with you any day.” Though she seemed to brush it off in later interviews and spoke about her generally exciting time among NBA players in exhibition events, there was an undertone of harassment that should have been addressed but never was. It goes without saying that Long becoming the first woman to join the NBA — in an era when male-centric blockbusters like Shaft and Dirty Harry were storming out of Hollywood — must’ve felt particularly sharp and unapologetically brash, clouded by cigar smoke and whiskey inside locker rooms.

Though potentially game changing, the bold move to pick Long felt too unfitting to fit the times.

Here’s the shitty truth: Walter Kennedy, the NBA commissioner at the time, immediately nullified the Warriors’ pick before Long could even slide on her jersey for an official game. It’s unclear what his main rationale was, but speculation is that Kennedy deemed it: 1) a publicity stunt; 2) an illegal violation of the league’s rulebook, which supposedly stated that only men could play in the NBA; and 3) in violation of a rule against drafting high schoolers. What seemed like a perfectly arched Steph Curry three-pointer from the corner that could’ve potentially changed the sport ended up clanking off the side iron and bouncing out of bounds into obscurity. Long’s name fell out of conversation, and the basketball world kept spinning as usual.

Due to institutional forces that exist in every arena — quite literally, in this case — Long never had the chance to even show what she was capable of doing. Since when has a player gotten kicked off a team before they even had the opportunity to fight for their spot in training camp? How many other players in history have been drafted and paid to essentially sit on a bench? And that’s where the fucked-up nature of selective rules can derail potential equality. (A few seasons later, Darryl Dawkins would be allowed to play directly from high school, ending the college eligibility rule that had supposedly prevented Long from joining the Warriors.) If a player can hoop, they should be able to hoop. Instead, the commissioner’s block prevented a potential basketball radicalization in the Bay, if not the entire country.

Considering that the Warriors have offered so many chances to unorthodox players in their ranks — including Jeremy Lin and Juan Toscano, the first Taiwanese American and AfroMexicano players in NBA history, respectively— Long would’ve fit the franchise’s narrative of leading the way for unsung players to make their mark on the sport (see: the undersized and heavily doubted Stephen Curry). As a lifelong Warriors fan, I’m disheartened to know that our team’s legacy was redirected by the hand of a commissioner who probably couldn’t even jump high enough to give Klay Thompson a high five.

To Long and Mieuli’s credit, they still found a way to execute their game plan — and I’d argue they are both partly responsible for birthing the WNBA, three decades too early.

When Long, a teen from the Midwest, landed in San Francisco, she lived up to the hype. A man of his word, Mieuli paid all her expenses and hooked her up as the marquee star of a regional women’s league that he would launch — which, in my research, was the first organized form of professional women’s basketball to have ever been played untilthe WBL arrived in the late 70s, and of course, the WNBA in 1996. Mieuli even bought Long a purple Jaguar to get around the city as part of her star package.

With only four squads, the women would compete before the men’s games in every Warriors home contest at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Though imperfect and perhaps seemingly dismissive, the small “league” attracted thousands of interested fans and provided an opportunity for post-college women who otherwise had no other outlet for professional balling.

Like every great idea, though, it was so far ahead of its time that it didn’t fully manifest and folded after only one season. But Long recalls those days vividly, and by all accounts was was nothing short of championesque in her performance and demeanor. Afterward, Long would quietly return to Middle America, earn multiple college degrees, and work as a pharmacist in Wichita, Kansas, until her post-basketball-retirement retirement.

Recently, Long’s legacy has gained more of the respect and attention it deserves, as 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of what was technically the first woman to be drafted into the NBA. Even though she didn’t play in an official game, Long’s presence is a reminder of how she, the Warriors, and the Bay Area have made efforts to challenge oppressive norms by thinking creatively and entrepreneurially. Although the move has been criticized as a mere publicity stunt, it went on to indirectly birth the first women’s basketball league, which led to women being a part of the local fan experience.

As someone who grew up here, I admire this spirit and value our collective sense of social awareness and community building. I think it’s dope that the Warriors attempted the first shot at something that hadn’t been done before and that was tried only twice after: Lusia Harris was selected by the New Orleans Jazz in 1977 but never played in a game, and Ann Meyers was the first woman to sign a contract with any NBA team—the Indiana Pacers in 1979 for $50,000—also sans appearance.

But for decades, this knowledge has remained archived in our ignorance as basketball people. Whether dismissed as silly gimmicks or condemned as rule-breakingly impractical, these women have been heavily underappreciated in the ways they’ve laced up against systemic barriers. Eventually, their accumulated effort would help lead to the creation of the WNBA in 1996 — nearly 30 years after Long’s arrival in San Francisco.

Photo: Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle

Still, why aren’t these glaring facts of gender segregation in the NBA better known, especially here in the Bay Area, where a WNBA team could thrive and where Long lived and embodied our region’s progressive-minded values? What would things look like if she had played alongside Rick Barry and Nate Thurmond in their championship runs — even if she wasn’t a starter? How might we adjust our expectations of what’s possible if we knew more about stories like hers and the other women who hooped? And what’s really stopping us from changing those rules now?

Bay Area writer, blogger, teacher. Books: Piñata Theory (2020); This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (2019). Twitter + IG: @alan_chazaro