First Woman Drafted in N.B.A. Avoids Coronavirus, but Not Its Frustrations
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 N.B.A.
“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.”