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First woman drafted in NBA avoids coronavirus, but not its frustrations

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the class of 1969 from tiny Union-Whitten High School in Iowa still met once a month. Its homecoming queen, Denise Rife, then known as Denise Long, once scored 111 points in a basketball game, and was the first woman drafted by an NBA team.

Rife, a retired pharmacist, turned 69 last week. She planned to drive from Rose Hill, Kansas, where she lives outside Wichita, to celebrate her birthday with friends from her farmland roots in Iowa. The park now bears her name in Whitten, population 147, where she shoveled snow and then shot baskets for hours at a time.

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The pandemic meant the monthly reunion was canceled. Rife could not see her former coach, who once joked that he would marry her if she could get him to the state tournament. The coach is in a nursing home, and because of the pandemic, no one, not even his wife, is allowed to visit.

Rife’s alma mater is on lockdown, too. At a nearby pharmacy, said Pam Paglia Norman, 69, one of Rife’s high school teammates, customers must wait outside until they are called inside to have prescriptions filled. Only credit cards are being accepted, so the cashier will not be exposed to germs carried on cash.

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“It’s freaky,” Paglia Norman said.

Rife thought she might rent a car for a careful seven-hour drive home. But it may be just as well that she did not leave Kansas. Social distancing and staying home are parts of the new normal throughout the United States.

Rife had replacement surgery for her left hip scheduled for April 8 in Wichita. The pounding and repetitive movements of basketball and years of standing for long pharmacy shifts had taken a toll. She already had her right hip and left knee replaced. A number of hospitals canceled elective surgery during the outbreak, but hers was still on as her birthday approached.

“I’m going through so much pain, I don’t want to put it off,” she said in a series of telephone interviews.

The orthopedic clinic said it would call if anything changed.

Rife is a seminal basketball figure whose stardom came before the 1972 passage of Title IX, the gender-equity law that paved the way for girls and women to play more sports in greater numbers. Yet in the late 1960s, girls’ basketball in Iowa did not need a federal mandate to be more popular than boys’ basketball.

Girls’ basketball was played six-on-six in those days. Three guards played defense on one side of the court, and three forwards played offense on the other side. Players were permitted two dribbles before shooting at baskets attached to half-moon backboards, which prompted a style of uncluttered movement, crisp passing and ravenous scoring.

Even without a 3-point line, the 5-foot-11 1/2 Rife scored 100 or more points three times with hook shots, set shots, turnaround jumpers and an underhand bank shot. The 1968 Iowa state championship game, available on YouTube, was a classic of the form. Rife scored 64 points (about her average), and her sharpshooting rival, Jeanette Olson, scored 76, as the Union-Whitten Cobras outlasted the undefeated Everly Cattlefeeders, 113-107, in overtime, before 15,000 fans at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines.

An article in Sports Illustrated in 1969 described Rife as looking “like a Grant Wood portrait — until she moves. Then she is all swiftness and grace.”

A New York Times article from that era told of one player wearing a wig out of the locker room at the state tournament, trying to avoid reporters and frenzied fans. When small towns like Whitten emptied to follow their teams to Des Moines, the highway patrol kept watch. The television audience for the girls’ championship game drew as many as 3.5 million viewers in nine Midwestern states.

“The greatest thing about six-on-six was that it didn’t get compared to the boys,” said Jean Berger, 61, the executive director of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union. “It wasn’t about what girls couldn’t do. It was its own game."

Basketball gave Rife confidence. She said her greatest thrill was the instant gratification of a ball going through a hoop and the crowd roaring its approval. On Saturdays in junior high, she sometimes dressed in her uniform seven hours before games and dribbled around the house, dreaming of becoming “the best girls’ basketball player that there ever was.”

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So devoted was she that she once soaked an injured ankle in a bucket of Epsom salt while at the movies. One summer, Rife and a cousin dragged a mattress to the park in Whitten, shooting and taking breaks until dawn approached, once calling their coach at 2 a.m. to let him know they were practicing. Another time, during the winter, Rife shot by herself when it was 11 degrees below zero and the ball felt like glass that might shatter.

But she also became aware of pressure and expectations in high school and grew nervous on game days. Her neck broke out in red blotches in study hall and she listened to Dean Martin and Beatles records to calm herself. Her cousin and teammate, Cyndy Long, could break the tension, too, with funny poems she wrote and recited on the team bus or in the locker room.

“She drank Pepto-Bismol before every game,” Long, 66, said. “So I tried to make her laugh.”

In May 1969, Rife was in the principal’s office at Union-Whitten when a fellow student told her that she had been drafted.

“Like the Army?” Rife said.

No, the San Francisco Warriors of the NBA.

“Do I have to go?” she asked.

Franklin Mieuli, the Warriors’ owner at the time, drafted Rife in the 13th round. It was a publicity stunt, and the pick was nullified. But Mieuli formed a four-team women’s league in the Bay Area. For a season, the teams played a full game before Warriors games and an exhibition at halftime. Mieuli paid for Rife to attend the University of San Francisco, gave her $5,000 in expense money and leased a purple Jaguar for her to drive.

Johnny Carson, a fellow Iowan, invited Rife to be on the “The Tonight Show.” And she met Wilt Chamberlain who, seven years earlier, had scored 100 points in a game for the then-Philadelphia Warriors.

As she recalled, Chamberlain asked, “Aren’t you the young lady who broke my record?”

“Yes,” Rife replied, “but I didn’t mean to.”

She became a born-again Christian and, in the early 1970s, toured Asia with an American basketball team, singing gospel songs at halftime. By then, however, her fame had grown complicated. While attending Northern Iowa, where she did not play basketball, she said she received a series of obscene phone calls. And in Marshalltown, Iowa, 20 miles from Whitten, an exotic dancer began using her name. When Rife approached her, she said the woman told her, “It’s increasing my business.”

Eventually, Rife said, she paid little attention to basketball. It no longer held the same life-or-death urgency as it had while she played. Then, in 2018, the Warriors honored her at a game. Video of a pregame practice showed Rife being hugged by Kevin Durant and tossing an assist to Stephen Curry.

Durant, now with the Brooklyn Nets, tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Rife said she was “saddened” by that and hoped he was OK.

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She has felt no symptoms herself, but has not escaped the pandemic. Last week, she got a call. Her hip replacement surgery had to be postponed for at least eight weeks. There was a shortage of protective equipment, she was told, for surgical staff members who were shuttling from hospital to hospital to help treat the pandemic.

She understood, she said. This is an international crisis. But she is experiencing necrosis of her left hip. The blood supply has diminished. “When a person is in a lot of pain,” she said, “surgery doesn’t feel elective.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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