A little-known fact about Columbia River High School boys basketball coach David Long makes for a good sports trivia question.
Well before becoming Clark County’s winningest coach in boys basketball and 30th all-time in Washington, Long coached this sport at River. In fact, he purposefully missed his first practice to rush to a library and cram as much information in about a game he had zero experience in.
The answer: What is soccer?
“I checked out two books,” said Long, reflecting on coaching the school’s first junior-varsity girls soccer team in 1987. Today, he still shares his expertise and wisdom to anybody who will listen.
“I tell our soccer coaches, ‘You think you’re hot stuff, bringing in state titles? OK, but I got this thing rolling. I started this domination, this dynasty. I’m your guy.’”
He didn’t coach soccer again after that 16-2 season. Back then, Long was a first-year, part-time marketing teacher at Columbia River looking for an opportunity to break into coaching high school basketball.
He never anticipated staying at River for long. Yet it turned into 35 years and 484 victories on the hardwood.
After 32 years coaching basketball at Columbia River, including the past 30 as its boys head coach, Long is calling it a career. This week marks the final two regular-season home games, including today’s 7:30 p.m. tipoff against Hudson’s Bay.
A career Long never imagined would be this rewarding came at a place he never envisioned staying beyond a quick pit stop.
Instead, he put the Long in longevity.
Perhaps it’s fitting that longevity runs deep with Columbia River boys basketball.
Since the school opened in 1962, the program has had three head coaches — school Hall of Famers Earl Enos and Gene Dettorre, and a guy whose successes were sown in his early youth in the 1960s.
As a boy, Long spent countless hours in the gymnasium where his father, Sonny Long, was in the beginning stages of building a basketball coaching legacy at Lake Oswego (Ore.) High School. Sonny Long retired in 1995 as one of Oregon’s all-time winningest coaches, and years later, joined his son on River’s bench as an assistant. Health complications have kept him away from the bench most of this season. Long’s youngest son, Spencer, coaches the C-team.
David Long, 62, said his coaching style, techniques and philosophies reflect his father’s, and those methods have proven successful. Over 30 seasons, River won 11 league championships, made 11 state tournament appearances and captured four district titles.
One of the five state trophies came in 2009 when an unranked River team made a surprise run to the Class 3A state championship game. Behind 6-foot-10 center Steven Bjornstad, River reached the title game against eventual-champion Franklin by utilizing its dawdling style — a staple under Long — in victories over up-tempo squads Rainier Beach and Bellevue.
Long didn’t let his team leave the Tacoma Dome after its overtime semifinal victory over Bellevue without reflection. The life-size state bracket on display served as a reminder about the journey, and window of opportunity.
“It was incredible,” the coach said. “That was so special. We took a team photo around (the bracket), and it was cool. (Playing for a championship) doesn’t happen very often.”
Three years earlier, Long broke Enos’ record for career wins at River. In 2018-19, he became Clark County’s winningest boys coach, surpassing ex-Battle Ground coach Butch Blue (401). Of his 484 career wins (to date), 452 are with the River boys.
All the victories wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t get the big break he initially didn’t want: coaching the River girls basketball team in 1991 and 1992. A job he turned down multiple times turned out to be the best thing for him.
Long didn’t know it then, but he inherited arguably the best class of female athletes to come through River; his starting lineup on the 1992 team that went 22-4, won the league and district titles and placed seventh at state. All went onto play Division I sports.
“I just got lucky,” he said. “They wanted to be coached. They didn’t want to be coddled.”
What Long gained those two seasons goes beyond the wins and losses, he said. He gained more respect for female athletes and a greater appreciation for women’s basketball.
A lot of this season’s River boys team reminds Long of his first when he became head coach of the program in 1992-93: a young and inexperienced team, but loads of talent. The Rapids (6-11 overall) are on the cusp of clinching a playoff berth; 26 teams under Long have reached the postseason.
That, in part, is what makes the pending retirement hard. But Long knows it’s the right time.
The secret to a long high school coaching career begins at home, he said. He and his wife, Holly, have been married 42 years. Plans are in the works to relocate to Arizona after the school year.
Senior point guard Alden Fay calls it an honor to play for Long, and cherishes the player-coach relationship built through basketball and golf (Long also coaches River’s golf teams). And the culture of discipline and structure Long instills is what’s driven the program’s success, said longtime assistant coach Jim Sevall.
Sevall has been Long’s right-hand man for 31 years, but their friendship goes back longer to when Long played college tennis for Sevall at the University of Idaho; Sevall was Idaho’s men’s and women’s tennis coach from 1979-’85.
He might not be blood, but Sevall is family, Long said. The duo make for the perfect coaching pair, and their strengths and weaknesses complement one another. Sevall is organized, detailed-oriented, and with a more outside-the-box thinking on ideas.
“He’ll reject most of them,” Sevall said, “but he’ll say to his assistants, ‘If I don’t take your suggestions, don’t think I didn’t hear you.’”
Long doesn’t undersell Sevall’s value, and views their roles as equal. Sevall’s role at varsity games might not be as noticeable as Long’s, but his impact as a junior-varsity coach can’t be overlooked. Sevall is closing in on 450 career wins while cultivating a pipeline of varsity talent.
“It’s made for such a great team,” Long said. “He has as much to do with the success. It would’ve been a hell of a lot harder to do what we did without him.”
What the emotions will be in his final game coaching, Long isn’t sure. But all season, he’s taken time to reflect.
After his team’s win over Hudson’s Bay on Jan. 7, Long took a walk inside a separate locker room inside Bay’s large gymnasium, the site of many district tournament games years ago. Nostalgia hit, and so did the memories of defeating Evergreen at districts for a state berth in 1997. Parents shoved a lit cigar into Long’s mouth in the postgame celebration.
He calls the 1990s the best era of Clark County basketball, and also labeled the AAA Greater St. Helens League best in the state at that time.
“It was unbelievable how good it was,” he said. “It was a bloodbath.”
Longtime Mark Morris coach Bill Bakamus knows about bloodbaths, too. He recognized the coach he’s had epic battles with over the years when River traveled to Longview on Jan. 21. Both men started coaching their programs in 1992 and Bakamus holds a 19-17 edge all-time against Long.
“There’s never been a time we’ve played Columbia River that there hasn’t been a heightened sense of competitiveness,” Bakamus said. “It puts you at unease because he puts a lot of time in preparation and scouting. … He’s very innovative.”
The coach didn’t need to think hard to recall a game that’s rooted in his memory: a 23-21 overtime victory by MM over River in 2002 when the Monarchs escaped on a buzzer-beater. It wasn’t a stall-ball effort; it was Columbia River at its finest — a spread offense meant to dictate tempo on every offensive possession and to wait for the right shot.
“He ran that until the cows came home,” Bakamus said, “and all I remember telling my kids was, ‘You’re going to play more defense tonight than you will the whole season.’
“There’s a few (games) I would’ve liked to kick his shins if I could have.”
Long’s old-school ways have mostly gone unchanged. He still advocates why high school basketball should be played without a shot clock, saying “It’s the last pure form of basketball there is.” River holds two state tournament records from the pre-shot clock times: fewest points allowed in a game (21 vs. Selah in 2004) and highest field goal percentage in a game (72.3 percent vs. Mercer Island in 2008).
But Long also recognizes the changes he’s made. Last spring’s condensed COVID-19 season changed his views on the meaning of success. Most notably, his treatment toward high school basketball officials over the years is his biggest regret. He once viewed them as the enemy.
“And that was so wrong,” Long said. “They do a very difficult job. I’ve never seen a player play a perfect game, I’ve never coached a perfect game and I’ve never seen a game be officiated perfectly, either. They’re not officiating against me or for me; they’re just doing their job and they’re good guys.”
Long has come a long way in 35 years — from when got asked to coach a sport he had zero experience in to becoming a permanent fixture as an educator and coach at Columbia River.
Because after all, you can’t spell longevity without Long.
“I’m a believer of fate, and things happen for a reason,” he said. “I’ve had it good for a long time.”