Her legend lives on: former U-W star reflects on fame, dedication and life after basketball

Denise (Long) Rife (right), a Union-Whitten basketball legend who led the Cobras to their only state title in school history in 1968, is pictured with Golden State Warriors superstar Kevin Durant (left) during a visit to the Bay Area earlier this year. She was drafted by the Warriors in 1969 and remains the only woman ever to hold that distinction. (Photo courtesy of Denise (Long) Rife)

Ever since the final buzzer sounded in Des Moines during that fateful winter of 1968, Denise Long has been a benchmark for athletic excellence both in the tiny town she came from along the Grundy-Hardin County line and across Iowa. The 6-on-6 basketball star, who grew up in Whitten (pop. 150)—where the park she famously spent hours practicing at is now named in her honor—captured the imagination of the state and the nation as a whole: she appeared on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and remains the first and only woman ever drafted into the NBA when the San Francisco Warriors selected her in the 13th round in 1969.

           

And 50 years later, she remains as popular as ever: the 1968 Union-Whitten state championship team reunited at Black Dirt Days in Conrad and Tar Heel Days in Union, and earlier this month, Denise (who now goes by her married name Rife) was invited to speak as part of the Smithsonian Museum’s “Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America” program in Conrad. From her home near Wichita, Kansas, (Long) Rife, who went on to become a successful pharmacist, spoke to The Grundy Register last week about her incredible career, her encounters with Wilt Chamberlain, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, and the feeling of coming home. A transcript of the interview, edited for brevity, appears below.

 

On returning home and her 2018 trip back to the Bay Area…

           

Denise (Long) Rife: It’s really fun. I’ve been called back quite a few times. They had the 50-year reunion and the Hall of Fame museum (at the state basketball tournament last winter). That was really a lot of fun because I got to see all my teammates, and then they called me and flew me out to San Francisco. I got to meet Stephon Curry, Zaza (Pachulia) and Kevin Durant, and they were just wonderful to me. Kevin Durant gave me a hug and said ‘I didn’t know you were drafted!’

           

It was just very much fun, and I’m kind of thankful they remembered me. Of course, I haven’t been to San Francisco since ’69, but it was fun to go back there… To see the Warriors play, that was really spectacular.

           

But going back to Union-Whitten, it’s really a treat because I get to see my old teammates. I liked playing out in San Francisco with the Warriors, but it wasn’t quite as exciting as playing with my teammates there in Iowa. 

 

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