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In 1969, Years Before the WNBA, the Warriors Drafted Denise Long

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A woman in blue with long brown hair and glasses talks with a man in blue athletic gear
Denise Long, who was drafted by the Warriors over 50 years ago in an unprecedented NBA pick, talks with Steph Curry while visiting the team's facility in Oakland in 2018.  (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Editors Note: A version of this story originally appeared on The Bold Italic.

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nless you live under a Chase Center-sized rock, you’ve probably heard the news: the Bay Area is getting a WNBA expansion team.

As initially reported by Marcus Thompson, the franchise will be the WNBA’s first expansion effort since 2008, and California’s only professional women’s basketball squad since the Sacramento Monarchs folded in 2009.

Acquired by Golden State Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob, the as-yet-unnamed Bay Area team will play in San Francisco and practice in Oakland. According to ESPN’s extensive reporting, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert believes the Bay Area’s unique social, economic and technological intersections make it an ideal location for the league’s growth.

But for all the hoopla, this isn’t the first time women’s basketball has made waves in this region. In fact, the Bay has long been at the forefront — Lacob himself was involved with the San Jose Lasers of the ABA, a short-lived women’s league that launched in the same year as the WNBA but quickly fizzled out.

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But if you want to go way back, you have to talk about Denise Long. In 1969, the Warriors —then known as the San Francisco Warriors — attempted to draft Long, a high school phenom from Iowa, to play alongside the men.

It may have been more of a sociological experiment than anything else. And perhaps it failed. But it indirectly led to one of the country’s first opportunities for women’s basketball in 1970, and paved the path for a women’s team to finally play here in 2023.

Denise Long appears in a public campaign for Muni shortly after arriving in San Francisco. (SFMTA/Internet Archive)

Denise Long: The Longest Shot

In the summer of ’69, the Milwaukee Bucks chose Lew Alcindor with the number one NBA draft pick. You may know Alcindor today as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a Hall of Famer with six championships who’s widely considered to be on basketball’s Mount Rushmore.

That same year, with the 175th pick in the 13th round, the Warriors chose a teenage player they felt could rewrite the rules of the game: Denise Long.

And just like that, Long became the first-ever woman to be picked up by an NBA team. Standing just 5’11”, the supercharged player from Union-Whitten High School became a regional legend after singlehandedly eclipsing the 100-point mark three times in her young career. Locally televised games attracted as many as 3.5 million viewers. She packed small-town arenas whenever she played. In her senior year she averaged a total of 69 points per game — more than Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan combined in any season they’ve played at any level.

Watch highlights from Long’s 56-point performance in the 1968 Girls State Tournament Finals, in which the Union-Whitten Cobras overcame the Everly Lady Cattle Feeders with a 113–107 overtime victory:

 

That’s when the Warriors eccentric owner, Franklin Mieuli, decided to break every convention known to basketball by recruiting Long to play for his team in the City by Bay. No one, Long included, expected it. In fact, the pick was so out of pocket that when Long was contacted about being drafted, she mistakenly thought she was being drafted by the military to serve in the Vietnam War.

Almost no opportunities for women in basketball

When she suddenly found herself interviewed about potentially playing in the NBA by Johnny Carson, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, she had to admit: She had never even heard of the Warriors.

“The only two NBA [teams] I really ever remember hearing was the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers,” Long said in an interview, decades later, on the Moonlight Graham Show.

That could be because, despite her eye-popping stats, virtually no opportunities existed for women players back then. A Los Angeles Times story from 1985 noted a sad reality regarding Long’s career: “Without so much as a college scholarship to show for her achievements, without Title IX’s equal rights legislation as a springboard, with no Olympic gold available and no place to play, the most prolific high school scorer this country has known put away her basketball and resolved to get on with her life.”

Still, she achieved the unthinkable by technically crossing over into the NBA, defined in those days by Abdul-Jabbar’s towering emergence, Walt Frazier’s silky smoothness and Wilt Chamberlain’s flagrant womanizing.

Promotional poster for the San Jose Lasers, a short-lived women’s team that had the involvement of current Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob. (Internet Archive)

The Warriors’ bold move to create genderless basketball was far ahead of its time — and still is. Walter Kennedy, the NBA commissioner at the time, immediately nullified the Warriors’ pick before Long could even put on a game jersey. Long’s name fell out of conversation, and the NBA world kept spinning as usual.

A women’s league at the Cow Palace

To the credit of Long and Warriors owner Mieuli, they went ahead with a new game plan. Long migrated to the Bay Area, and Mieuli, an ever-flamboyant man of his word, paid for Long’s expenses while promoting her as the marquee talent of his new, soon-to-be-launched regional women’s league. (Mieuli even bought his unlikely basketball prodigy a purple Jaguar as part of her star-treatment package).

The “Warrior Girls Basketball League” was among the first organized adult leagues for women’s basketball to have been played in the United States. Mieuli didn’t pay the players, so technically it was not a professional league. But he did offer a rare chance for women to showcase their skills for NBA fans who were already used to attending Warriors games at the Cow Palace. The four women’s teams would play in a junior varsity–style double header before the men’s teams came on later in the evenings.

Denise Long makes some shots at the Warriors’ practice facility in Oakland during a 2018 visit. (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Though highly imperfect, and by today’s standards demeaning, it proved an innovative attempt to expose Bay Area sports fans to something that, in 1971, the rest of the nation had basically no access to: post-college women’s basketball. Sadly, very little information exists about this amateur league. Online, there’s no video footage of it. But it was an important precursor to the WNBA, which wouldn’t arrive until 25 years later.

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So as we all tune in to the arrival of a new WNBA team in the Bay Area in 2025, when that first swish causes Chase Center to erupt with long-awaited excitement, just remember everything it took to get there. Remember the Warriors and their unprecedented draft pick, and remember Denise Long.

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