2017 Hall of Fame

2017 Hall of Hame: Rebecca Lobo's impressive career was much more than good timing

Success followed versatile forward who made impact on and off court

Rebecca Lobo was practically trying to explain it all away, downplaying a Hall of Fame career as mostly lucky timing, dismissing an immeasurable impact as the calendar fluke of stars aligning, framing a great’s legacy as largely the product of good fortune.

“I think it’s that I came along at the right time and I played for teams at the right time,” she said.

Lobo is partly right. Yes, she finished her University of Connecticut career in 1995, almost exactly one year before NBA owners voted to form the WNBA, eventually leading to her being assigned to the largest market as a member of the New York Liberty. And, yes, the Olympics also came in 1996, in Atlanta at that as an increased spotlight for the American audience. She so arrived at the right time that Title IX had gone into effect 16 months before her birth.

It’s everything else Lobo is wrong about.

She is entering the Hall of Fame on Sept. 8 with long strides, not hiding behind an outstretched calendar. If fate put her in those times, it was Lobo who made them her own to such a magnitude that she helped push the entire women’s game to new heights, giving her the unique role in history of an impact that cannot be charted by statistics or trophies.

It wasn’t just her, of course. The UConn team that went 35-0 her senior season had Jennifer Rizzotti and Kara Wolters and a Hall of Fame coach, Geno Auriemma, and the 1996 Olympic team that won gold in Atlanta was obviously filled with stars. That first WNBA campaign, backed by the NBA and ESPN, included three prominent players in Houston alone: Cynthia Cooper as the best player, Sheryl Swopes and Tina Thompson. Even Lobo’s own Liberty had another big name, Teresa Weatherspoon.

Lobo, though, was at the center of a crucial time for women’s basketball – UConn building into a title machine, Olympics, the start of the WNBA. She was a foundation for the greatness of a program in college and an important part of the bridge in helping foster a pro game as one of the faces of the new league. The NBA and the cable network pushed it, but Lobo was among the players whose talent gave it early credibility.

“Everything that kind of happened in 1995 with the UConn women’s team was a lot a product of timing,” she said. “People were ready to root for something like us. There was a hockey strike in the NHL, ESPN was looking for highlights to show. A lot of that was timing. And then the Olympics the next year – timing. The WNBA starting the next year – timing. I understand how fortunate I am to be a product of Title IX and to have kind of rode the wave of being born at the right time. Hopefully as a result of that my influence will be that I shepherded those things along and didn’t do anything to thwart the advances were being made.”

College Player of the Year as a senior by many voting bodies. Final Four Most Outstanding Player. Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year. Olympic gold. Six WNBA seasons.

No thwarting.

“Her versatility at her size,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, also a member of the Hall Class of 2017 that includes Tracy McGrady, George McGinnis, Bill Self and Jerry Krause, among others. “We didn’t have players like that before her. You had a post player and you had a guard, and then suddenly you had this big kid that could shoot threes. Who’s going to guard that? In her own way, I think she helped change the game.”

On the court and off, in that case.

“I think the influence is interesting,” Lobo said. “That was the thing that struck me more than anything. My first year with the New York Liberty, when the WNBA started in 1997, we came in thinking, ‘This is going to be great. Girls are finally going to have jerseys of players to look up to,’ because that didn’t exist when I was a kid. And we would be at games and there would be a girl with a jersey and there would also be a boy with a jersey. With a Liberty jersey.

“He would be wearing a Rebecca Lobo Liberty jersey and he would be 8 years old, for example. I remember even at that time, as young as I was, it hit me like, ‘This is big. Now at recess, when they’re playing pickup, might he think differently about the girl that’s there? Might he choose her for his team?’ At that time, there was that thought of, ‘This is changing the dynamics what boys and girls deal with in sports.’ ”

Sept. 8 in Springfield, Mass., will change it a little more, when one of the well-known players and one of the most-successful coaches are enshrined. There is no way to downplay that.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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