From UConn legend to leading analyst, Rebecca Lobo gets call to Naismith Hall of Fame
Lobo's credentials carry her to Hall of Fame
Rebecca Lobo was nervous going into the locker room at halftime of the last home game of her UConn career, in 1995.
Huskymania had fully blossomed by then in Connecticut. And even on a team with many well-liked players, Lobo stood out: The All-American center from nearby Southwick, Massachusetts, seemed to personify the burgeoning dynasty's combination of greatness and relatability.
The 1994-95 season had been epic for the undefeated Huskies. Now here they were in a regional final on their home floor at Gampel Pavilion, a step away from the Final Four. Yet Virginia led by seven; UConn had not trailed at halftime since Lobo's junior year. It couldn't end like this, could it?
"I remember feeling a lot of pressure," Lobo said. "But Jen Rizzotti and Jamelle Elliott -- these are two of the toughest people I've ever played with -- said, 'We're not going to lose this game.' I needed to hear that. I knew then we were going to find a way."
Indeed, the Huskies won by four points, their closest game all season, then beat Stanford and Tennessee for UConn's first NCAA title. The whirlwind continued for Lobo, who got a spot on the U.S. national team and became one of the faces of the new WNBA.
And as she is enshrined this weekend in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, a kaleidoscope of these memories will play in her head. But there's something extra special: The Hall is in Springfield, Massachusetts, just 13 miles from where Lobo grew up.
She became a basketball legend in Storrs, Connecticut, 48 miles from the Hall. And when she married sportswriter/author Steve Rushin in 2003, they had their wedding reception at the Hall. They hadn't set out to do that; after they'd looked around, a caterer just happened to mention the Hall as a possibility.
No one captured the national spotlight quite like she did in 1995. That team and her personality truly put a face on the game that carried over into the WNBA.
- UConn coach Geno Auriemma on Rebecca Lobo
When you talk to Lobo, she gives you the sense that this is the story: That things mostly always work out for her. That she's someone who has often been in the right place at the right time.
"There are so many factors that allowed my career not just to be what it was but for people to be aware of it," Lobo said, referencing things like the increased media exposure the Huskies got in the mid-1990s. "Timing played such a big part in this. The biggest part in many ways."
But that shortchanges the woman herself, someone who has meant so much to the sport not just as a player but as an icon and a broadcaster. Yes, the timing was great. But if Lobo had not been the person and player she was, the timing wouldn't have mattered.
"There were a lot of great players before Rebecca and have been since," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "But no one captured the national spotlight quite like she did in 1995. That team and her personality truly put a face on the game that carried over into the WNBA."
Perfect fit for stardom
Lobo was a New Englander born and bred, with the work ethic and self-deprecating wry humor that made her so easy to root for. A widely recruited high school player who remained shy and humble, she started at UConn in the fall of 1991. She hoped to play well, get a degree and then maybe go to law school.
UConn had reached its first Final Four the season before she arrived, and that was a big spark for the program. But the full-on ignition of what UConn would become happened during Lobo's career.
She knew something had changed dramatically when she and her teammates started getting swamped by admirers at the local mall. That came soon after Connecticut Public Television had begun showing some of the Huskies' games, and their faces became familiar.
The adulation seemed goofy to Lobo then. She thought of herself as a typical college kid, someone who had her hair cut by teammate Pam Webber to save money. Lobo was the daughter of two teachers who saw sports as a part of what you did, not the definition of who you were.
But Lobo turned out to be exceptional at UConn, averaging 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds for her career. She was the most valuable player of the 1995 Final Four, and the shot of her running up court, hands in the air after the buzzer, was the defining photograph of that landmark 1994-95 season.
A challenging next level
But then Lobo went from being a star collegian who was celebrated statewide to a less congenial atmosphere with the U.S. national team. The American women won bronze medals at the 1992 Olympics and 1994 world championship. There was enormous pressure on the players and coach Tara VanDerveer to get back to gold status.
Lobo, then 22, was the youngest player on the U.S. squad that traveled together and played an exhibition schedule through the winter and spring of 1995-96 to prepare for the Atlanta Olympics. She was the least experienced but had the highest profile because of UConn's recent championship. No matter how hard she tried to avoid the spotlight, media and fans everywhere knew who she was and sought her out.
That caused resentment with some of the older players. And Lobo's lack of playing time at the international level concerned VanDerveer, who was publicly harsh in her assessment. Even then, Lobo understood what was going on and why, but she didn't confront anyone. She accepted it, and in retrospect is glad that she did.
"There was very little about that national team experience that I enjoyed," she said. "The person I am now would have handled it a lot differently. I would have stood up for myself more. But how I handled it at the time is exactly how I needed to handle it then. We didn't need it to be a distraction for that team.
"And the Olympics themselves were an amazing experience. But after that, there was no way I was going to be picking up a basketball for a little while."
Once she was back on the court, it was with the New York Liberty, as the WNBA launched in 1997. That rejuvenated Lobo. A group of veterans who'd played overseas and now were helping the WNBA get off the ground fully embraced her with the Liberty.
Lobo recalls preparing for the inaugural WNBA game -- New York at Los Angeles -- and feeling some trepidation about the challenge of guarding Sparks' center Lisa Leslie, who'd been one of the Olympic team's stars.
"Kym Hampton said, 'I'll do the banging inside against Lisa,'" Lobo said. "That's a teammate having your back. Teresa Weatherspoon, she has such an outgoing personality and was always willing to be out front promoting the team. And Sue Wicks is one of funniest, smartest people I've known. Having them as teammates was a great, great experience. It was like what I was used to at UConn."
Lobo was a starter her first two years in New York, but knee injuries greatly impacted her career after that. She played just one game in 1999, none in 2000 and 16 in 2001. She spent the 2002 season with Houston, and 2003 with Connecticut in that franchise's first year there after relocating from Orlando, Florida.
And that was the end of her basketball playing career. Again, she thinks the timing was right.
"I tore my ACL twice, and I didn't get to be the WNBA player I probably could have been," said Lobo, undoubtedly the first of many UConn players to reach the Naismith Hall. "But I'm completely OK with that. Could my career have been longer? Maybe, but then I wouldn't have had my oldest daughter when I did. I'm not a person who has a lot of regrets."
Life after playing
Lobo said she never seriously considered coaching because "you need this fire and passion and all-consuming desire to coach, and I didn't have that."
But she did have a great love for the sport and a keen eye for dissecting it. Broadcasting became the perfect second career, along with being a parent, with Rushin, to four children.
The two had met in New York while she was still playing; she had confronted him about a throwaway line he'd written in a column about the WNBA as sleep-inducing. Rushin had not intended it as any serious critique of the league, and when Lobo asked him how many WNBA games he'd actually seen, he was contrite. The answer was none.
But they hit it off, drawn by a mutual wealth of wit and a humorous take on life in general. Yet there were deeper connections, including a desire to have fulfilling careers while raising a family. Although Lobo now jokes that they didn't plan it all out in detail: "Hey, let's have four children while we both work!"
"I always thought, 'If this becomes too much, I'll stop. My family is going to come first,'" Lobo said. "But we've been able to do it. I started out doing sideline reporting, and it's evolved. I just love this job so much and have worked with people who understand balancing it with family.
"I don't have to be on the road so much that it would make it impossible. I'm home a lot to take my kids to school and put them to bed at night. I can coach their teams, and that is the kind of coaching I really do enjoy."
Auriemma said Lobo's work as an analyst has helped bring the game to a new generation of fans.
"The impact as a player was one thing, but now her impact as an advocate and an educator in the game has been immense," he said. "The mark that Rebecca has left on the game is immeasurable."
A moment to share with her children
Rushin is a noted sports historian who understands the scope of what Lobo has accomplished. Even if that's a topic that virtually never comes up when they're making sure that Siobhan (12), Maeve (11), Thomas (8) and Rose (6) are getting where they need to go.
"I think for her, it's hard to fathom she's walking into her childhood dreams for real and joining these people," Rushin said of Lobo going into the Hall of Fame. "Now, 99.9 percent of my experience with her is the daily chores of just running a house with four kids and working.
"But when the call from the Hall of Fame came and as [the induction] approaches, it's kind of a reminder to our kids that their mom is one of the great figures in basketball history and so important in women's sports."
It's kind of a reminder to our kids that their mom is one of the great figures in basketball history and so important in women's sports.
- Steve Rushin, on what wife Rebecca Lobo's Naismith induction means to their four children
Eventually, they'll truly get it. Rushin said his youngest daughter asked if LeBron James was in the Hall of Fame, and when told he wasn't, she said, "Wow. Does that mean Mom is better than LeBron James?"
"Rather than explain the whole thing about LeBron not being eligible until his career is over," Rushin said, "I just told her, 'Yes. Yes she is.' Hopefully, Mom will not need to play LeBron one-on-one to prove that."
One person who won't be at the induction is Lobo's biggest fan, her mother RuthAnn, who died in 2011 after a battle with cancer. However, she did get to see Lobo inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2010. Lobo previously was nominated for the Naismith in 2011 but didn't get in then, and her mother died later that year.
But again, in a bittersweet way, Lobo sees that this worked out, too.
"If this had happened in 2011, my oldest child was about 6 then, and my youngest was an infant," Lobo said. "None of them would have had a memory of the experience. This year, they'll all be there. And as they get older, they'll understand the significance of it.
"No one would have delighted in this more than my mom. But it's really cool that my kids are at an age where they can appreciate it. So the full-circle aspect and the timing of it is right."