At age 17, Rebecca Lobo faced the biggest decision of a young adult’s life: which college she was going to attend. Unlike most 17-year-olds, however, she was one of the top basketball prospects in the nation and had numerous schools vying for her enrollment. There was just one school that her parents were dead set against: The University of Connecticut.
“My parents did not want me to go to UConn,” she said. “It was very clear to me that the one school they didn’t want to go to was UConn because they were teachers in Connecticut and it was seen as a safety school academically.”
Their logic made sense. Getting a quality education is important, especially for a female athlete at that time. There wasn’t much in the way of professional opportunity for women in basketball after college. The idea of a women’s basketball league in the United States was merely a dream at the time. Her parents wanted her to be well-prepared for life after basketball.
But for the first time in her life, Lobo rebelled against her parents and committed to UConn to play for Geno Auriemma.
“I was meant to play at UConn. I was meant to play for Coach Auriemma,” she said. “I just followed my heart and knew that’s where I needed to be and my parents quickly came to believe that was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
As impactful as Lobo’s decision was on herself, little did she know that her decision would change the landscape of women’s college basketball forever.
In the early 90s, UConn was nothing like it is today. Storrs was far from being the Basketball Capital of the world. The women’s basketball program was an afterthought; it had been to a Final Four the year in 1991, but the Huskies weren’t serious title contenders. The event struggled to draw much attention, as it was held in a building with a capacity of just 8,933.
The 1995 UConn Huskies changed that.
Coming into the season, the Huskies returned all their key players from an Elite Eight run the year prior, headlined by Lobo. For the first time ever, there was a buzz around the team.
While the Huskies were expected to be good, there were still questions about the potential of the program. Were the Huskies really national championship contenders? Would the fans support them?
Both those questions were answered in a mid-January showdown with the Tennessee Lady Volunteers. In front of a sold-out crowd at Gampel Pavilion, UConn took down the titans of the sport, 77-67, and earned its first-ever No. 1 ranking.
On top of that, CPTV decided to broadcast all games that weren’t on national TV. The team drew massive ratings equivalent to NFL playoff games. The people cared and with each win, the team garnered more support and interest.
UConn was the perfect team to lead the charge thanks to its location. Nestled between Boston and New York with ESPN down the road, major news outlets such as Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and ESPN all began following the team.
For the first time ever, women’s basketball was getting national coverage, and fans were eating it up. All the attention was for good reason, though.
Lobo and her teammates loved playing with each other and they were damn good at what they did. It was a style of play that was fun to watch, something many never thought possible in women’s sports.
UConn was a team of destiny. The Huskies defeated Tennessee 70-64 to cap off a perfect 35-0 season and bring home the school’s first national championship. It would be the first of 11 championships and six perfect seasons.
Simply put, the championship validated everything that Geno Auriemma and Chris Dailey worked to build from the time they were hired in 1985.
“The culture was the same, there just wasn’t a history of the culture,” Lobo said. “The only difference is that we didn’t have 11 championships and 20 seasons of success to emulate and look at.”
The members of that ‘95 squad will never be forgotten in the minds of UConn fans: Kara Wolters. Jen Rizzoti. Jamelle Elliot. Nykesha Sales. But the snapshot of Lobo celebrating with her hands raised in triumph, will forever be etched in women’s basketball history.
When clock struck zero in Minneapolis, it very well could’ve been the last time Rebecca Lobo played basketball at a high level. At the time, there was no professional league for women’s basketball. That wasn’t a deviation from when Lobo was a child, though, so she already had a plan in place.
“When I was in sixth grade, I wrote a letter to Red Auerbach and I said ‘I am going to be the first girl to play for the Boston Celtics,’” she said. “I wasn’t.”
That didn’t quite work out. But something else came up. In 1997, a new women’s basketball league was formed: The WNBA.
“I remember thinking ‘This would be a dream come true for me,’” Lobo said. “I just wanted to keep playing. I loved being a part of this thing that I understood was going to represent so much for us as players but also the future generation.”
When the league officially formed, teams were created by allocation instead of a draft. Lobo went to the New York Liberty and nearly brought home a title in their first season, but fell just short in the finals.
But at that time, wins and losses only meant so much. They needed to build the support up to make sure the league could survive.
“I was at Madison Square Garden and there was this young boy standing next to a young girl and he too had my jersey on,” she said.
Now, 20 years later those kids have grown into the heart of the WNBA fanbase. This past season, the All Star game drew 15,221 people to Key Arena in Seattle. That interest is in large part due to how well the game is played, something that surprised even Lobo.
“I don’t think when the league first started I thought that the level of play would be where it is now,” Lobo said. “It is elite basketball every night. There are great games, there aren’t very many blowouts, it’s competitive and players are playing at the highest level. It’s fun to watch. That would’ve surprised me.”
Lobo’s WNBA career would last just six years in large part due to a knee injury suffered in 1999. But that wouldn’t be the end of Lobo’s influence in women’s basketball. Not even close.
After retiring, she was hired by ESPN as a women’s basketball analyst, a job created because of her own contributions as a player.
“I’m lucky that I absolutely love a job that you couldn’t make a living at 21 years ago,” she said. “I only cover women’s basketball. There weren’t enough women’s basketball games on TV 21 years ago to be able to do that as your only job.”
The game is certainly miles above where it was in Lobo’s heyday, but that doesn’t mean it can’t keep growing. She believes growth lies not in trying to convert the dissenters, but reaching a new, untapped audience.
“I don’t think we should spend a second or a dollar trying to convert those people, it’s not going to happen,” Lobo said. “I think the better thing is to give some tickets to kids who will bring their parents to a game because those kids haven’t been corrupted by whatever. Some kids aren’t going to like it and that’s fine too.”
Lobo certainly paved her own way through her career on and off the court, but she didn’t do it alone. Her mother, RuthAnn Lobo, raised her to never accept being a second-class athlete.
In third grade, Lobo signed up to play basketball for the first time in her hometown of Southwick, MA’s rec league. However, only two girls signed up so they could not field a team. Most would accept the fact they couldn’t play basketball and would move on to something else.
Lobo’s mom saw it differently.
“That just means you have to let her play on the boys team,” said her mother. “I want you to treat Rebecca the exact same way I want you to treat all the boys. If they run sprints, she runs sprints. If you yell at them, you yell at her. The only exception is if you play shirts vs skins, I want her on the shirts team.”
It was never about boys vs girls. Lobo’s mother simply wanted what was best for her children and she never stopped fighting to make sure they got it.
“When I was eight years old and I asked for a football uniform for Christmas, I got a football uniform for Christmas,” Lobo said. “In an era when people would say, ‘You let your daughter be a Tomboy? You let your daughter play sports?’ My mother was all about that.”
Sadly, her mother passed away in 2011 after a long battle with breast cancer. Her spirit is carried on by her family.
“I hope that I can teach my daughters the same lessons she taught me: Fighting for what’s right for my kids,” Lobo said about her mom. “There’s a lot more opportunities for my kids now, especially in sports, and you don’t have to fight as hard. But make sure not to forget about those who did fight so that things might be a little bit better for girls.”
Each generation does something more to help. Lobo’s mother fought for Rebecca to even be able to play basketball at all. Lobo herself fought to bring the sport to prominence as both a player and broadcaster.
On Friday, Lobo entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor, as opposed to solely a player. And for good reason: For as good as she was on the court, her impact off of it is arguably larger. Without Rebecca Lobo, women’s basketball would not be anywhere near where it is now.