Excerpted from RISE AND FIRE: The Origins, Science, and Evolution of the Jump Shot—And How It Transformed Basketball Forever. Copyright © 2016 by Shawn Fury. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The 1969 NBA draft produced one of the great sports trivia questions: Who was the first woman ever selected in the NBA draft? The answer is Denise Long, a five-foot-eleven scoring sensation from Whitten, Iowa, population 185, give or take one or two people. Denise's exploits caught the attention of Franklin Mieuli, the charismatic, bearded, motorcycle-loving owner of the San Francisco Warriors who dreamed of starting a women's professional basketball league and thought her talent and fame could anchor it. During the 1969 draft in New York City, Mieuli selected Denise in the thirteenth round. The publicity blitz altered Denise's life—appearances with Johnny Carson and on the Today show followed, along with opportunities to travel the country, showing off her basketball shooting skills at a time when many states didn't even allow girls to play high school sports.
For NBA fans today, Denise is a footnote. But in Iowa, her legend lives. At one time she was the all-time leading scorer in girls basketball in the country. Folks in Iowa still remember her 111-point regular season explosion and her 93-point state tournament game. They remember her hook shots, her layups, and her jump shot, a little fadeaway that always seemed to find the net. Mostly people remember the game Denise played on March 16, 1968, when she led Union-Whitten to the state title with a 113–107 victory over Everly. Denise scored 64 points in the overtime victory—and wasn't the leading scorer in the game. Jeanette Olson, another scoring legend from a small town in Iowa, led Everly with 76 points. For Denise and Jeanette, the jump shot was their primary weapon. Most players in the game took nice, polite set shots. Jeanette looked futuristic—highlights of her rising off the floor would fit in perfectly with clips from any college game today. By the time the two met in the state finals, the jump shot had only been widely accepted for about a decade. But Jeanette Olson and Denise Long were decades ahead of their time.
On that Saturday, their teams played in front of nearly 14,000 people in Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines and in front of tens of thousands watching on television—the game was broadcast to nine states. Fans in Iowa still call it the Game of the Century, a common enough title in sports, but in Iowa if you say those words no one thinks about a football game between Nebraska and Oklahoma or a basketball game between UCLA and Houston. They think about Union-Whitten against Everly, which is another way of saying Long vs. Olson. That's how newspapers touted the showdown. On game day, The Des Moines Register, in an all-caps headline stretching across the top of the sports page, wrote, "OLSON DUELS LONG IN TITLE GAME." The day after Denise's 64 points helped Union-Whitten outlast Jeanette's 76, the Register again ran an all-caps headline, this one touting the team result: "UNION WHITTEN WINS IT: 113–107!"
Iowa girls played six-on-six basketball at the time, three forwards on one end scoring, three guards on the other who took their position's title literally and only played defense. The setup made it possible for great scorers to put up absurd numbers—Denise broke the national scoring record with 6,250 points, which lasted until 1987, when an Iowa girl broke it. Six-on-six basketball became a phenomenon in Iowa, mostly in the small towns. The state tournament, first played in 1920, transformed into a must-see event, either in person or on television. Small-town farm girls became celebrities in Des Moines; some wore wigs when leaving their hotel to avoid overbearing fans. National media flocked to Iowa—look at these farmers and their daughters and how they love that game of basketball! Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, and TV networks filed reports from the tournament.
But even Iowa hadn't seen a game like the 1968 finals. On YouTube, a user posted numerous old championship games from the six-on-six tourney. For the 1968 game, presented in black-and-white, the user simply described it as "THE Game! Denise Long. Jeanette Olson. What more can you say?"
Growing up in Whitten, in an old house that was once home to a hat shop and meat market, Denise seemed destined for stardom. Union-Whitten coach Paul Eckerman spotted potential in Denise, placing—and raising—expectations on a kid who was ready for basketball greatness, if not the attention that came with it. Denise says, "I remember in seventh grade the coach was teaching his civics class, and he had me come up in front, and he had me stand there and he said to the rest of the class, 'This girl is going to break all the records in the state of Iowa and set all kinds of records, and they won't be broken for a long time.'" The external pressures on Denise were exceeded only by her internal drive. For three to four hours a day, she practiced at the town park. One night, she says, she bundled up and ventured out when it was 11 degrees below zero. She used a frozen ball. She couldn't dribble. But she could still shoot. An editor from a small newspaper drove by and witnessed Denise in the cold. He wrote an article about the dedication it took for someone to go out in the elements and work on their game. In 1970, the town renamed the park after Denise.
From her first game as a freshman, Denise says, "The night before games, I was never relaxed. Anytime we went on bus rides to the game, all the other girls would be laughing, talking, and just chattering. I would have red blotches up on my cheek. I couldn't talk. I wouldn't talk. I wouldn't say a word to anybody. To me it was life-and-death." Instead of hurting her game or making her nervous, "The more I felt apprehensive about it, the more I felt foreboding, the better I did."
To open the 1968 state tourney, Denise's rival Jeanette broke the tournament record for most points in a game with 74 (breaking the old record of 69). The mark lasted twenty-four hours. In Union-Whitten's debut, Denise made 32 of 46 from the floor and 29 of 31 free throws to score 93 points. Vince Coyle wrote in the Ames newspaper, "As the first quarter wore on you were not so much aware of the fact that you were at a state tournament game as you were of the fact that you were watching a great artist at work."
At the outset of the final, Jeanette—battling strep throat—hit shots from the baseline, the wing, and the lane, oblivious to the defenders and pressure of the moment. Following a made basket in six-on-six, one official fired the ball to half-court and a fellow referee, who then quickly passed it to the other team. When Union-Whitten drilled a basket and Everly took possession, Jeanette started with the ball at midcourt. She'd pass and cut or work to get the ball back. Players were only allowed two dribbles—this was offensive efficiency in its purest form, although creatively stifling. With two bounces Jeanette covered large swaths of the court, getting wherever she needed. Denise started slow but finally took over and became fully engaged in the great duel.
Everly trailed 101–95 with less than 45 seconds left in the game before Jeanette hit two jumpers to narrow the deficit to two. Then, after a Union-Whitten turnover, Jeanette caught a pass near midcourt and got fouled on the play, giving her a one-and-one at the free throw line. There were three seconds on the clock. Following a timeout, as Jeanette stood at the line, announcer Jim Zabel called her a "pressure ballplayer," with "the weight of the world on her shoulders." Jeanette first tells me she wasn't scared—"Well, a little nervous," she says with a laugh—but instead thought, "We're going to get this and win it."
Neither shot touched any part of the rim—two perfect swishes. Now tied at 101, an Everly defender intercepted a Union-Whitten pass. In the longest three seconds in Iowa girls basketball history, Everly made two passes and got the ball again to Jeanette, just above the free throw line, 16 feet from the basket. She rose one more time. A Union-Whitten defender put a hand up, but it was a useless gesture. It wouldn't affect the shot. Jeanette released the ball—and watched it go in and out.
Although shocked at the late-game collapse, Union-Whitten still took control early in the overtime—and Denise finally felt comfortable. "That's when I finally had the most confidence," she says. She scored at her normal pace throughout the game, but early in the showdown Denise didn't feel right. For the first time in her career all that tension she felt in the moments leading up to a game—that sense of foreboding—didn't fully disappear when she stepped on the court. The moment almost proved overwhelming, until she overwhelmed one more defense. Before the overtime, with her team having just blown a six-point lead in the final seconds, and with her teammate who fouled Jeanette nearly "suicidal" in the huddle, Denise told the girl the foul "doesn't matter because we're going to win anyway." Denise won the jump ball from Jeanette, and on the first Union-Whitten possession banked in a short shot. On the next possession, Denise dished off to a teammate for a layup. Union-Whitten took a four-point lead it wouldn't lose.
Jeanette's and Denise's final numbers: 76 points on 26 of 41 from the field and 24 of 25 from the free throw line for Jeanette; 64 points on 27 of 38 from the floor and 10 of 12 free throws for Denise. For the tournament, Denise scored 282 points in four games, Jeanette 258, both marks shattering the old record of 200.
Newspapers from around the country—from Spokane to San Antonio—picked up the wire reports of the game. That exposure created fans for Denise and Jeanette far beyond Iowa. Denise got letters from the Naval Academy, Jeanette from writers at the Chatsworth, Georgia, newspaper seeking a local paper with a game recap.
Denise returned for one more season of unparalleled scoring. She averaged nearly 69 points per game as a senior, but Union-Whitten failed to repeat as champions, getting upset in the state semifinals. The pressure built for Denise. Even after the 1968 championship, when she fulfilled her dream, she says she remembers "a dead-end feeling, like what can you do now?" That ambivalence stayed with Denise for the next several decades, as she alternated between wanting basketball to be the only thing in her life to wanting it expelled from her life.
Then, in 1969, in the spring, the San Francisco Warriors called her high school.
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