Women's basketball: Iconic UConn star Rebecca Lobo set to enter Naismith Hall of Fame
She went one-on-one with Big Bird for the "Sesame Street" audience, she bantered with Conan and Letterman before the late-night crowd, and she played herself on a few prime-time sitcoms.
Along the way, Rebecca Lobo helped bring the first women's basketball national championship to Storrs and secured an Olympic gold medal in Atlanta. When the WNBA was born, Lobo was among the faces of the new league.
For a generation of fans, Lobo personified women's college basketball.
Two decades later, not much has changed. She is perhaps the most prominent women's basketball analyst on ESPN, working college games throughout the winter and the WNBA slate in the summer.
As Lobo is enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Friday, she enters as a contributor. It's fitting — few have contributed more to the growth of their sport than Lobo has to women's basketball since arriving on the national scene as a highly touted recruit for UConn's burgeoning program.
"The great ones go above and beyond what they do on the court," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "For Rebecca, the impact that she had at the college level and what she did for the game, that never stopped."
The women's game experienced a growth spurt throughout the 1990s, fueled by UConn's rise — chronicled by an expansive sports media market in the Northeast and by ESPN, based in nearby Bristol — and the visibility of the 1996 Olympic team.
In 1997, the WNBA was born with the marketing support of the NBA. The league was a natural offshoot of the Olympic success, capitalizing on a new audience.
At the center of it all? Lobo.
She was UConn's most well-known player, an All-American and national player of the year as UConn went undefeated and won a title in 1995. From Storrs, she joined the national program and was the youngest player on the '96 Olympic team.
Surrounded by experienced players from multiple generations, Lobo was perhaps the most recognizable player on the team. When TV Guide magazine featured the women's team on its Olympic special issue ("The OTHER Dream Team," the headline screamed), Lobo stood between Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley in the cover photo.
Speaking of TV, Lobo was a guest on David Letterman's late-night show after winning the national title at UConn. After joining the WNBA's New York Liberty, she appeared as herself on the sitcom "Mad About You" and was a guest on "Sesame Street."
The WNBA was selling the league to a wide audience and the biggest name on the league's marquee franchise was Lobo. Playing basketball was just part of her job. She was selling the league and the sport.
"Rebecca, along with Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes and those people, were kind of the founding fathers, the founding mothers, of the WNBA," Auriemma said. "Again, the league wasn't very good. ... The level of basketball wasn't very good when you compare it to today. People only knew the personalities. They knew the people that were the representatives. That's what she was.
"Putting her in New York, think about the crowds and the excitement around the New York Liberty. It was the start of something that's become kind of a mainstay for the sport. And that generally didn't happen in women's teams sports."
In 1996, Lobo also did her first stint at ESPN as a college basketball analyst during the NCAA tournament. That relationship would grow after her playing career ended in 2003, as she joined ESPN as a full-time analyst.
"She's one of the major faces of the game," said Carol Stiff, ESPN vice president for women's sports programing. "She's an icon for women's basketball. She was in the right place at the right time, but handled it with such grace."
Stiff uses words such as grace and presence to describe Lobo. She has traveled with Lobo for assignments and watched her interact with fans at airports, signing autographs and engaging.
Carol Callan, USA Basketball women's national team director, oversaw the 1996 Olympic team and spent lots of time with Lobo during a time when growing the game was very much a priority. Callan saw a person naturally inclined to treat fans with respect, not because she was promoting her sport or representing her team.
Lobo was simply being herself.
"There were little girls wanting autographs," Callan said. "Everywhere we went, they wanted autographs. And not only did Rebecca stop and sign, but she stopped, she looked them in the eye, she asked them their name, she asked them if they played basketball. So for somebody who was in such demand, she gave of her time. ... Rebecca engaged with the kids she gave autographs to. For me, that's why Rebecca was so good for the game. She was the right person."
And the right personality — witty, articulate, intelligent and glib. Those traits were on display for the growing Connecticut media in the early 1990s and they're still evident as Lobo analyzes games for ESPN.
"She's the face of our coverage," Stiff said.
Stiff also cites Lobo's humor and insight on social media, along with her writing ability. She could do more for the network on any number of platforms, Stiff said.
But with ESPN covering women's college basketball and the WNBA, her value is immense. And Callan sees the same person on TV that she spent so much time with in mid-1990s.
"She was in many ways, the right person at the right time to carry that mantle," Callan said. "I do think because Rebecca grew up in and around ESPN and that Northeast media, she was comfortable with it. Rebecca embraced that and appreciated it. She still is."
Said Auriemma, "As an analyst, she's bringing the game to another audience. That's exactly what she did in college. So her impact ... some player's impact diminishes. Hers has grown. Hers has grown even more."
Auriemma was struck by Lobo's intelligence when he was recruiting her. He knew he was getting a smart and mature kid.
But as it turned out, Lobo was a transcendent personality for her sport.
"Nobody goes to college for any reason other than they want to play basketball and they want to enjoy their four years in college," Auriemma said. "I don't think anybody goes and says, 'I want to be the standard bearer for the women's game.' That was something that was just placed on her.
"And some people don't want it. Some people don't know how to handle it, and can't handle it. And in her case, whether she wanted it or not, she took it and ran with it, and dealt with it in a way that was incredible for a 20-, 21-year-old, to be put in that situation."
Lobo joins former Olympic teammates (Staley, Leslie, Swoopes, Teresa Edwards) and her ex-college coach in the Hall of Fame. Auriemma will introduce her at Friday night's ceremony.
She also joined a group of players that preceded her in growing the women's game. To some, Lobo's role in lifting the game cannot be underestimated.
"I'm excited for her," Hall of Famer Ann Meyers Drysdale said. "She's a big part for where the women's game is and it started back when she was at Connecticut. Winning a national championship her senior year, making the 1996 Olympics and being part of the WNBA when it started back in 1997, so a lot of big things for her that has helped lead her to the Hall of Fame."
And she's still contributing. Lobo is just 43, an analyst with a long career ahead of her.
"I'm looking forward to what she can contribute in the future," Callan said. "I don't think this is the end. Many times a Hall of Fame seems like that end, looking back fondly on a great life. But I look forward to what more is to come."
This article is written by Paul Doyle from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.