By Carl Adamec
Once a Husky, always a Husky may be a catch phrase.
For Rebecca Lobo, it’s her life.
No member of the 2017-18 UConn women’s basketball team was born the last time Lobo wore her No. 50 for the Huskies, leading them to the first of their record 11 national championships. Though 1995 is half her lifetime ago, she continues to make her mark on her alma mater, whether it’s as an analyst for women’s college basketball and the WNBA for ESPN or a member of the school’s Board of Trustees.
On Friday night, she will become the first former UConn women’s player enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. Her presenter will be coach Geno Auriemma, a member of the Hall’s Class of 2006.
“It was such a big part of my life,” Lobo said. “Those years are such formative years of who you are as a person. My best friends in my life are still teammates that I had. I was in Washington Wednesday for the Mystics playoff game and I met Jen Rizzotti for lunch. We go right back to that.
“There’s still and there always will be an incredible connection as long as Coach and CD (associate head coach Chris Dailey) are there. Once you play for those two, there’s a connection, the connection to them. the connection to the basketball program, and therefore the connection to the university. My nephew is a freshman at UConn now. It’s always going to be like that.”
Lobo will be inducted into the Naismith Hall as a contributor.
It was on the basketball court, though, where she made her first impression. A 6-foot-4 forward from Southwick, Massachusetts, she was considered to be one of the top high school recruits in the country in the Class of 1991 and with her combination of strong skills and strong academics could go to any school she pleased. And UConn then wasn’t UConn today. At the time she took her official recruiting visit in October 1990, while the Huskies had their first Big East championships to their credit, they were 0-2 in NCAA Tournament play.
So Auriemma and Dailey had their work cut out for them.
“I loved being recruited by Coach Auriemma and Coach Dailey,” Lobo said. “I had a connection with them that I didn’t have with any other school. The decision was only hard, because my parents did not want me going there, especially my mom. My mom was the voice in the house who guided us in our decisions. Being schoolteachers in Connecticut, UConn was a safety school in their eyes.
“My brother had just graduated from Dartmouth. I had a chance to go play for Stanford, Notre Dame and Northwestern. Every time I mentioned UConn, they kind of pushed it to the side. They didn’t see it as a real option for me, but it is where my heart kept telling me that I wanted to go. It was only a hard decision, because it was the first big decision I ever made that went against the wishes of my parents. But it was just the right fit for me.”
Auriemma knew she could be a game changer. Whether she’d be a program changer remained to be seen.
It took time. Five months before Lobo arrived on campus, the Huskies made a surprising run to their first NCAA Final Four. In her first two seasons, UConn lost 22 games. The Huskies were 30-3 her junior year but lost to North Carolina in the East Regional final. By the time she led them back to the national semifinals again in 1995, nothing was the same and nothing would be the same again.
“When you’re recruiting somebody at that stage of the program, you’re just looking for somebody that’s going to make us better,” Auriemma said. “You’re not thinking beyond that. You’re thinking, ‘We need to get a lot better and this kid makes us a lot better.’ How much better? I don’t know. But I know that we’re going to be a better than we were before she got her.
“And she’s got a chance to be a really good player. How good? I have no idea. You never know how good a kid is going to be until they actually step on campus. Then you get to spend a little bit of time with them and you go, ‘Wow this kid is going to be amazing.’ I just knew that Rebecca was going to make us a lot better.
“Over the next four years, there were a lot of challenges that we faced trying to get her from where she was to where she wanted to ultimately be. It wasn’t easy. In the beginning, we didn’t get better. We got worse. That was hard. That was really hard. But in the end, it played out perfectly.”
The Huskies and Lobo caught the imagination of the nation in 1995. Their Martin Luther King Jr. Day win over Tennessee vaulted them to the No. 1 ranking for the first time in school history. Their bid to become the second unbeaten national champion brought in media not only from the Northeast but also from around the country.
In the middle of it all was Lobo, handling it all with a maturity and grace beyond her years.
“I always thought we could be a good basketball school,” Lobo said. “I thought we could have a lot of people come to games. They were already doing that. I remember being at that Toledo game Kerry Bascom’s senior year, and my dad and I were sitting way up in the bleachers across from the benches. I could envision that, but not the stuff outside. I couldn’t imagine especially the things that happened my senior year and the things that happened after we won the championship. Helicopters, everything on the live networks, Gampel Pavilion being packed. None of that stuff, because it had never happened so it wasn’t something you could envision happening. No, none of us could have comprehended all that.
“I was here for the South Carolina game last February that was the 100th straight win. That’s what the atmosphere was like every game back in those days. Games were sold out. Fans were rabid. You couldn’t walk through the mall anymore without people stopping and talking to you. Yeah, it was a frenzy. Unless you were there for it, I don’t think people can appreciate it or understand what it was like.”
March Madness was particularly crazy. On a day off, she traveled to the J.C. Penney at Buckland Hills Mall in Manchester to get her hair cut. As she was leaving, a fan noticed it was her and went into the shop and scooped up hair into a plastic bag and left.
The fan has not been heard from again.
“I just hope it wasn’t fashioned into a wig, but I don’t know,” Lobo said with a smile. “I went to J.C. Penney because that is what I could afford. Who even knew J.C. Penney had a salon? But that is where it was.”
When her senior season was over, she was UConn’s first national Player of the Year and the Huskies were 35-0 national champions. Lobo was the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player as she helped UConn rally from a nine-point second-half deficit to defeat Tennessee 70-64 in the final game at the Target Center in Minneapolis.
A crowd estimated at 100,000 would attend a victory parade in downtown Hartford.
“It wasn’t until 1995 when we really became somewhat of a household name for our program and Rebecca became the face of, not just our program, but almost of our sport throughout the country,” Auriemma said. “Whenever you’re associated with something so significant, it kind of transcends whatever the numbers are. So you can say somebody scored more points, got more rebounds, blocked more shots, whatever the case may be. You can come up with any number of statistics you want. But at the end of the day, the impact that Rebecca had was so big that numbers don’t matter.
“The perfect storm was there and she kind of took that mantle and everybody came to associate our program with Rebecca Lobo. So if you said women’s basketball, no matter what else was going on — maybe there were better players out there, maybe there were better players before her. But it wasn’t until then that people around the country that never, ever gave a thought to women’s basketball, knew who Rebecca Lobo was and knew what Connecticut was.”
Lobo finished her UConn career with 2,133 points, 1,268 rebounds, and 396 blocked shots in 126 games. Along with her Player of the Year awards, she was a two-time All-American and Big East Player of the Year. She was part of the inaugural Huskies of Honor class in 2006 and her No. 50 has not been worn since her graduation.
After earning GTE/CoSIDA Academic All-America first team and graduating from UConn, Lobo was named to the United States national team and won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. She began her professional career with the New York Liberty when the WNBA formed in 1997 and was an All-Star that year. She retired in 2003 as a member of the Connecticut Sun and joined ESPN.
She has watched the Huskies add on 10 national championships with six — Rizzotti (1996), Sue Bird (2002), Diana Taurasi (2003-04), Maya Moore (2009-11), Tina Charles (2010), and Breanna Stewart (2014-16) — earning national Player of the Year honors.
Who could have known this would happen 25 years ago?
“I’m sure there would have been whomever was going to be the next,” Lobo said. “Maybe it would have been Jen Rizzotti if it wasn’t me, just a year later. I don’t know. I just know that it was kind of like the perfect storm, divine intervention or whatever it was. I was meant to go there at that time and play for Coach and CD.”
Lobo and her husband, Steve, have four children — three daughters and a son. They will be at Springfield Symphony Hall Friday night. Her UConn family will also be well represented.
She will be the first from UConn to be enshrined, but not the last.
“The first of many,” Lobo said. “Who is eligible next? It’s just going to be rolling. It’s just a matter of when people start retiring. I would imagine Nykesha Sales has to have consideration. And then when that 2002 class comes I have a feeling it’s going to be just one right after another.”
Lobo joined UConn’s Board of Trustees 13 years ago. She admits that when she was a student that she didn’t even know the school had a Board of Trustees.
“I love seeing the university from a different side,” Lobo said. “It’s a way of giving back, at least my time, to a place that has given so much to me.”
On Thursday, Lobo and the other 10 members of the Class of 2017 received their official Hall of Fame jackets.
They are orange, like a basketball.
“I think it was last year during the college season I was in studio wearing an orange dress that was more a brighter orange,” Lobo said. “I get a text from CD and it said, ‘I can’t believe you’re wearing an orange dress.’ I said, ‘Orange looks good on TV.’ She doesn’t own anything orange.
“This is more of a Texas orange so I don’t have as much of a problem with it.” Lobo added with a laugh.
Once a Husky, always a Husky.
Carl Adamec has been the UConn women’s basketball beat writer for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester since 1989 and a blogger for SNY since 2012. He has covered all 131 of the Huskies’ NCAA Tournament games.