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Lobo, Rebecca (1973—)

Lobo, Rebecca (1973—)

American basketball player whose popularity helped propel women's sports to the next level. Born in Southwick, Massachusetts, on October 6, 1973; daughter of Dennis Lobo and RuthAnn Lobo (both school officials in Granby, Connecticut); sister of Rachel Lobo , an assistant basketball coach at Salem State College; graduated University of Connecticut, B.A. in political science, 1995.

Named pre-season All-American by the AP (1994); voted Big East player of the year (1993, 1994, 1995); earned first-team academic All-America honors (1994, 1995); was University of Connecticut's all-time career leader in rebounds (1,286) and blocks (396) at end of senior year (1995); named player of the year by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, College Sports Magazine, and the Women's Basketball News Service; named to the 10-member Kodak Division I Women's Basketball All-America team (1995); won the Naismith award (1995); named national player of the year in women's basketball by the Associated Press (1995), the first time the AP awarded that honor to women; received the Wade Trophy (1995); was a member of the undefeated USA Basketball Women's National Team that played 52 games around the world (1996); won a gold medal with the U.S. Women's Olympic Team at the Atlanta Games (1996); signed by the New York Liberty of the WNBA (1997).

For anyone attempting to illustrate the success of Title IX, they need look no further than Rebecca Lobo. There is no doubt that the slow but steady movement in women's sports was brought about by the federal law passed in 1972 that forbade gender discrimination in educational programs or in activities that received federal funds. Sports bias had been so culturally entrenched, it could only be dislodged with a legislative wrecking ball. In 1972, there were no college athletic scholarships for women; women's programs received one-half of 1% of the college athletic budget; less than 300,000 girls in high school competed in competitive sports; 16,000 competed in colleges. In deference to their fragility, women played half-court basketball; they were able to pass the ball across the center line but not allowed to cross it. There was enormous resistance to Title IX. At the time the bill was ratified, the board of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) warned: "This will mean the end of intercollegiate athletics as we know it."

Born in 1973, one year after Title IX went into effect, Rebecca Lobo honed her basketball skills playing two-on-one games against her sister Rachel and brother Jason in the backyard of their home in Southwick, Massachusetts. By fourth grade, for lack of a girls' squad, she was playing on a local boys' team. One teacher told her "to dress more like a girl and act more like a girl," said her mother RuthAnn Lobo . "I was incensed. I told her she could do whatever she wanted to. She was a very happy kid. I didn't need somebody to browbeat her." In her first game at Southwick-Tolland Regional High School, Lobo scored 32 points. While in high school, she amassed 2,710 points to become the all-time leading scorer, male or female, in Massachusetts state history. She was also class salutatorian, played the saxophone, and spent five summers working in tobacco fields.

Though offers poured in from over 100 colleges, Lobo agreed to attend the University of Connecticut at Storrs, only 90 minutes from home. UConn Coach Geno Auriemma told his staff: "For the next four years, we're going to be all right." They were. By her senior year, the 6′4″ All-American center forward was averaging 17.1 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 3.6 blocked shots per game and was third in assists at 3.8. A political science major with a grade-point average of 3.63, Lobo had also made the dean's list every semester of her college career. If she had a flaw, it was being too unselfish, claimed Auriemma. Too often, she would pass the ball rather than shoot.

Throughout her four years at UConn, Lobo's parents had been hugely supportive, attending most of her games. In December 1993, Lobo

learned of her mother's diagnosis of breast cancer while sitting in the bleachers, post-game. When Rebecca began to tear up, her mother said, "You take care of your thing on the court, I'll take care of this." After a mastectomy and chemotherapy, RuthAnn Lobo remains cancer free.

In Rebecca's final year, the 1994–95 season, she led the Huskies to a perfect 29–0 record, and the team won the Big East championship. But, as they headed into the NCAA championships, all those wins were considered a fluke by a large delegation of scoffers: the team lacked depth, it was said; their lopsided victories proved they played in a weak conference. The clear favorite was Pat Summitt 's Tennessee Lady Volunteers, who had ended their season with a record of 33–2 (one of those losses was to UConn). It was widely known that the Lady Vols were not at full strength during their first meeting; they were also suffering jet-lag, while Connecticut had the home-court advantage. Still, it was widely assumed that Tennessee, which had not been defeated by the same team in one season since 1986–87, would be impossible to beat twice. Even after Connecticut trounced Stanford 87–60 in the NCAA semifinal with the help of a 31-point performance by UConn's Kara Wolters , Stanford's coach Tara VanDerveer predicted, "Tennessee is going to win tomorrow, but I think it will be a good game."

On Sunday, April 2, at the Target Center in Minneapolis, the final game of the women's NCAA Final Four was played before a television audience that rose throughout the game to a concluding 7.3 Nielsen rating for CBS. This was almost triple the rating for Fox's National Hockey League games, which aired opposite, and 14% better than the ratings of NBC's pro-basketball games. During the first half, Lobo, Wolters, and Jennifer Rizzotti , all key players for UConn, sat on the bench in foul trouble. Six-foot Jamelle Elliott was sent out with a group of what she called "non-All Americans" with instructions to hang on until half time. Elliott and her shorter crew managed to stay close to Tennessee, ending only six points under at the buzzer.

In the second half, "the Rebecca Lobo show was about to begin," wrote Austin Murphy. "In rapid succession Lobo scored a layup off a post-up move; posted up again, drove the lane and hit a reverse layup; pulled up and drained an 18-footer from the left wing; then nailed a 17-footer." In the flurry, she had scored eight of UConn's next ten points, bringing her team within three points of their opponents. "Lobo did what she had to do," said Summitt. "She made huge plays." Then, in the matchup between two of the nation's best point guards, Jennifer Rizzotti vs Michelle Marciniak , a Rizzotti steal and left-handed layup brought the Huskies within one, and Summitt called a quick timeout.

With 2:17 remaining, Jamelle Elliott's layup tied the score at 61. Then Rizzotti's mad dash down the length of the floor turned the game around. "Gathering in a long defensive rebound, she went coast to coast with Marciniak right with her," wrote Murphy. "An instant before she reached the basket, Rizzotti crossed over to her left and sank a sweet, left-handed layup with 1:51 remaining." It was the snapshot of that fast break that made the East coast cover of Sports Illustrated, which sold out within an hour after it hit newsstands. The Huskies led the rest of the game.

In that second half, the team had outrebounded the Lady Vols 25–10, with five by Lobo. "We didn't deny her the ball," said Summitt. "She made herself hard to guard and got herself jumpers. She beat us one-on-one. We should have been able to defend her, but we did not." The Huskies had staged a 70–64 comeback to beat Tennessee's Lady Vols and win the NCAA championship. At 35–0, they had a perfect season. They were also the first women's team to go undefeated since the Lady Longhorns of Texas in 1986 went 34–0, and the first Division I team—men's or women's—to go 35–0. Lobo was named most valuable player of the tournament and, for the first time in history, four of the Huskies team were named to the All-Final Four team: Lobo, Rizzotti, Wolters, and Elliott. Tennessee's Nicki McCray took the fifth spot.

Thousands, including Connecticut's governor and a squad of elbowing news media, turned out at Bradley Airport in Hartford to greet the returning team; weeks later, tens of thousands stood curbside for a triumphant parade down the streets of Connecticut's capital, while public-address systems blared what had become the team's battle cry: Aretha Franklin 's "R-E-S-P-EC-T." "I could never imagine this day would happen," said Lobo, "8,000 people singing Respect, even though most of them don't know the words." Lobo was on David Letterman; Lobo jogged with Bill Clinton; Lobo shot commercials for Reebok and Spalding.

The unassuming Lobo had given hundreds of interviews and had signed autographs for at least an hour after each game. Until it became over-whelming, she answered all her fan mail, most of which was from young girls. She had even retained her sense of humor when a male reporter asked UConn players at their NCAA championship press conference in Minneapolis: "It's a given that women love to shop. Have you been to the Mall of America yet?" Lobo never seemed to tire of answering the same questions. The most frequent one was, what did the future hold for her amazing talent? The answer: not a thing.

"Were she a man," wrote Newsweek, she "would be looking at a fat contract from the NBA." After college graduation, the woman then deemed by Newsweek as "the most-talked-about basketball player in America" would sign no seven-figure contract with the NBA. There were no professional women's leagues in the United States. There was nowhere to go with her talent unless she took it to Europe, where America's best women basketball players had been known to vanish from view, and possibly memory, while they took in six-figure incomes. "I don't know if it's necessarily unfair," said Lobo. "But it is a little frustrating." When she was offered $300,000 to play professionally in Italy, Lobo was resigned: "I'm thankful that I can get paid at all just to continue playing this game."

Years before the groundbreaking Tennessee-Connecticut game, the prevailing argument had been that there was not enough interest in women's sports. But from 1984 to 1995, total attendance for women's basketball had tripled, from 1.3 million to 3.6 million. Throughout UConn's 1994–95 season, the seats were sold out at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut; for the regular season game against Tennessee, $8 tickets were going for $100. Target Center in Minneapolis seats 18,000; tickets for the Final Four had been sold out months before.

Huskiemania was not an isolated incident. "I liken the game to a beautiful flower that is only now coming into bloom," wrote Mel Greenberg of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Heck, when I first started covering the girls in 1976, 50 was a big crowd at UConn." Marie Blais , who spent a year following the Lady Hurricanes of Amherst Regional High School, wrote in her book In These Girls, Hope Is Muscle: "The Hurricanes' determination and talent demonstrated how women could be taken seriously in a male-dominated arena. Their compelling struggle won them a legion of fans—early in the season the gym would be nearly empty; in the end, people had to be turned away from stuffed stadiums." When she was growing up, writes Blais, physical activity was discouraged. Girls were steered toward synchronized swimming or marching in the St. Patrick's Day parade. She saw a complete change in attitudes around Amherst. "It's not that people don't like to watch or like to follow women's sports," said Amherst's co-captain, Jen Pariseau , "it's just that they are not exposed to it. In Amherst we had to get a successful team going. People started knowing us and coming to the games. Plus, everybody likes to pick up on a winner." As in any sport, when the team is unbeatable, seats are unobtainable.

"For years, I took a lot of ridicule for covering the women," wrote Greenberg. "But now my friends talk about Rebecca Lobo the way they did last year about Grant Hill. We're finally getting some respect here." Sheryl Swoopes , who did commentary for CBS during the NCAA championship game, felt it "really opened the public's eyes. … I didn't think ours was the big breakthrough. Nobody had heard of us before. But after I scored 47, Charlotte Smith last year and now UConn going undefeated, that just builds it up for everybody." (In the 1994 NCAA finals, North Carolina's Charlotte Smith made a 3-pointer with seven-tenths of a second to go to beat Louisiana Tech. In 1993, Swoopes scored 47 points to lead the Red Raiders of Texas Tech to an 84–82 victory over Ohio State.)

Lobo's heady season at UConn gave many columnists a forum for their own reflections. "Little League baseball excluded girls," wrote columnist Maura Casey in the New London Day, of growing up before Title IX. "There were no soccer leagues in my town that involved girls. My brothers competed in crew through a local rowing club, which also banned females. So during gym class, while my fellow classmates practiced chanting 'Tony! Tony! He's our man! If he can't do it, nobody can!' I worked off my anger, and my envy, by practicing foul-shots on the gym's basketball court." Twenty years after Title IX, 2.12 million high school girls were partici pating in competitive sports, as were 158,000 college women, representing 35% of college athletes worldwide, and they played a rugged full court. If not for Title IX, Rebecca Lobo would have been waiting on the sidelines for the men's game to finish so she could get her 20 minutes of practice time on the court.

Despite these gains, there was still not much of a basketball future at home for Rebecca Lobo. If she wanted to play in the United States, the best she could hope for was a token slot on a men's professional team. In April 1995, in the 8th and final round of the men's U.S. Basketball League draft, Lobo was the 77th overall pick, selected by the Jersey Turnpikes. Only two other women—Cheryl Miller of Southern California in 1986 and Sheryl Swoopes of Texas Tech in 1993—were chosen in USBL drafts. In the NBA drafts, Lusia Harris of Delta State was selected by the then-New Orleans Jazz in the 7th round in 1977; Ann Meyers tried out for the Indiana Pacers in 1979. The first woman to play on a men's team in one of the four major pro sports was hockey's Manon Rheaume , who goaltended for the Tampa Bay Lightning in the National Hockey League (NHL) exhibition game in 1992. Rheaume went on to play for the Las Vegas Thunder in the International Hockey League (IHL).

"I'm just waiting for the timer to buzz and my 15 minutes [of fame] will be over," said Lobo. Maybe not. Because of Pat Summitt, C. Vivian Stringer, Cathy Rush, Carol Eckman, Carol Blazejowski, Margaret Wade, Lisa Leslie, Lynette Woodard, Nancy Lieberman-Cline , the Edmonton Grads , and all the others who went before, women's basketball exploded. In 1996, ABC went from airing one women's game to several and ESPN signed a seven-year, $19 million deal to televise 31 women's NCAA tournament games. That year, Lobo was selected for the U.S. Women's National Team and won a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics Games. In 1997, Rebecca Lobo signed with the New York Liberty in the newly formed Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA). She could earn a living, and she could stay in America.

sources:

Casey, Maura. "Shooting for the Best," in The [New London] Day. April 9, 1995.

"The Enforcer," in People Weekly. March 20, 1995, pp. 61–62.

Grant, Traci. "These Girls Played Hoops for Keeps," in The [New London] Day. April 11, 1995, p. B1.

Murphy, Austin. "Storybook Ending," in Sports Illustrated. April 10, 1995, pp. 39–43.

"She Shoots … She Scores," in Newsweek. April 17, 1995, p. 69.

Wulf, Steve. "Call It March Maidness," in Time. March 27, 1995, p. 68–69.

suggested reading:

Lobo, RuthAnn, and Rebecca Lobo. The Home Team: Of Mothers, Daughters, and American Champions. Kodansha, 1997.

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