Rebecca Lobo there from the start
Not too many athletes can say they were there, in action, on the day that something dramatically changed in their sport. But Rebecca Lobo can.
On Jan. 16, 1995, during her senior year, the UConn women's basketball team played powerhouse Tennessee for the first time. It was a nationally televised game of such import that The Associated Press opted to push back its poll voting a day in order to take the game's result into consideration.
The Huskies' 77-66 victory, and the sold-out scene at Gampel Pavilion, made it clear that UConn had crossed into a different plane of existence in the athletic landscape. The program had been to a Final Four previously, in 1991, but it wasn't until '95 that UConn women's basketball became a full-fledged phenomenon after going undefeated and winning the first national title in program history.
"I think the greatest thing I'll take away from her career here is that Rebecca came to Connecticut and made us a national program from being a regional program," Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said.
Lobo, voted the fourth-most influential Hispanic female athlete of all time by a panel of blue-ribbon voters assembled by espnW and ESPN Deportes, was born in Hartford, Conn., and grew up in Southwick, Mass. Initially, she wanted to experience someplace very different and go far from the Northeast for college.
"But I knew that Coach Auriemma was the person I wanted to play for above all others," Lobo said. "I also wanted to help take a program where it hadn't been before. But I never could have imagined what happened at UConn my last two years.
"In hindsight, our 1995 UConn team was instrumental in bringing national attention to the University of Connecticut and the sport of women's basketball. Having ESPN in our backyard translated into more interest from those at the network. I don't think it was a coincidence that ESPN started their expanded coverage of the tournament a year after our [championship] run."
Lobo, whose father is of Cuban descent, was the face of the Huskies and adored by the UConn faithful. But she also had a Hispanic fan base that continued to build during her time in the WNBA.
"Especially in college basketball, there were not a lot of Hispanic athletes during my career," Lobo said. "I was surprised by how the Latino community embraced me, especially in my WNBA career.
"I remember being with the Houston Comets and playing a game in Los Angeles. There was a whole section in the Staples Center filled with Hispanic boys and girls who came to cheer me on. Pretty amazing." Lobo, who won a gold medal with the U.S. Olympic team in 1996, played in the WNBA from its inception in 1997 to 2003. Then she was well prepared to make the switch into her second career.
"I fell in love with broadcasting when I was in college," said Lobo, who was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010. "And I knew that was the career path for me."
Lobo knows basketball so well and has such natural charisma, you have to wonder if she at least considered coaching. She says she did not.
"I think it takes a certain personality to be a really successful coach, and I wasn't born with that personality," she said. "Of course, I find coaching my elementary school-age daughters' teams supremely gratifying and wouldn't give that up for anything!"
Lobo has four children with her husband, journalist and novelist Steve Rushin. Lobo works in both the collegiate game and the WNBA, a league she helped establish.
"The WNBA is full of supremely gifted athletes," she said. "There were a lot of great players in the early years of the league, but there are a lot more of those players now. I think the quality of play in the WNBA is outstanding and gets better every year."
Because of her broadcasting work for ESPN, Lobo's face and name remain prominent in the world of women's basketball, so she is still a visible role model for Hispanic athletes.
"I think it is always important to tell the stories of those who may feel underrepresented in certain areas," Lobo said. "There were not a lot of prominent Hispanic female athletes when I was growing up. There weren't a lot of female sports competitions on TV, period. It is nice to see that now young girls can easily find someone to admire, including athletes like Diana Taurasi, Lisa Fernandez, etc."
Auriemma thinks just as Lobo helped popularize women's basketball while on court, what she does now also has tremendous and lasting impact.
"Rebecca made people enjoy the game as a player, and as a broadcaster, she does the same thing," Auriemma said. "And each year she gets better and better at helping the fans enjoy watching the game.
"When you were that good a player, and are as bright and articulate as she is, you do bring the game to the fans in a way that allows them to appreciate it more."