March 16 is the anniversary of the greatest shootout in basketball history.
No, it wasn’t Stephen Curry and James Harden. Or LeBron James and Russell Westbrook.
It was Denise Long and Jeanette Olson.
On March 16, 1968, Long and Olson faced off in the Iowa girls high school basketball state championship. Long, who lived in a town of fewer than 200 people, poured in 64 points to lead Union-Whitten to a heart-pounding win over Everly, 113-107 in overtime.
Olson was even better in defeat. She scored 76 points, including a sizzling
24 for 25 from the foul line.
Don’t think this was some forgotten game played in a half-empty gym in the middle of nowhere. The game was played before almost 14,000 fans in the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines, the capital of Iowa. Thousands more fans watched the live television broadcast across nine states.
I should explain the teams were playing a form of girls’ basketball called six-on-six. As the name suggests, the teams played with six girls on a side, not the usual five. However, three of the girls on each team played only offense while three played only defense.
No player could cross the court’s centerline. If a player reached the centerline, she had to pass it to a teammate on the other side. So the game was really two half-court three-on-three games.
Six-on-six was popular for decades, with some girls’ teams playing the game into the 1990s. The game gave smaller schools a chance against bigger schools. If a small town had a big scorer, a good ballhandler and some tough defenders, they were a match for any team.
With fewer players in the half court, there was more room for the players to move around. That made it easier for talented athletes such as Long and Olson to score.
And believe me, they scored. The 1968 championship game was no fluke. Long, who practiced three to four hours a day at an outside park even in the freezing cold, scored 111 points in a regular-season game that year. She also scored 93 points in a game earlier in the state tournament.
Both Long and Olson were terrific throughout the 1967-1968 season. Long averaged an unbelievable 61.6 points a game.
Olson was almost as good. She pumped in 58.7 points a game.
Long was even drafted by the then-San Francisco Warriors late in the 1969 National Basketball Association (NBA) player draft. The NBA draft had as many as 20 rounds back then instead of the current two rounds.
Long never played in the NBA. But for one game, she and Olson were as big as any stars in the history of basketball.
Correction: In an earlier version of this column, the photo caption incorrectly identified the section of the Des Moines as the front page. It is the front of the sports section. This story has been updated.