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Lobo center of WNBA's attentionNew league banks on ex-Uconn star
By Joe Burris, Globe Staff, 06/19/97
NEW YORK -- Someone in the promotions department came up with the idea of peddling a tough image. Figured it would make a great commercial. The way it was envisioned, the Women's National Basketball Association's three marquee players -- Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo, and Lisa Leslie -- would saunter down a dimly lit Madison Square Garden corridor in long trench coats, presumably spreading attitude. Then the three would pierce through a patch of smoke as they stepped onto the arena floor -- stopping long enough to flash a fearless scowl for the cameras.
An entertaining gimmick, indeed, but for Lobo, it was a monumental task. Ask the former University of Connecticut national player of the year to lead a program to national prominence and she'll oblige. Ask her to then humble herself and accept a little-used reserve role on the US Olympic team and she'll tackle the task with grace and a soft smile. Ask her to be a female version of Keyser Soze and you've got a problem: Each time she emerged through the smoke, she burst into laughter, her warmth and charm seeping through the charade like liquid through a sieve.
Still, Lobo said, ``I was thrilled'' to help market the league ``and I was honored that they would want me. I feel so blessed that this has come at a time when I could benefit from it, so whatever I can do to help them, I wanted to do.''
Frankly, the WNBA is fortunate Lobo doesn't pack an attitude. It didn't take league officials long to recognize that the soft-spoken farm girl from Southwick, Mass., is an exceptional talent on the court and a promoter's dream off it: She was the best player on a college team -- situated between media market giants New York and Boston -- that captured the country's imagination with its 35-0 national championship season in 1995.
She's one of the three most popular players in the women's game, according to a national poll the league conducted. She's a former network analyst who is popular with fans and obliging to a promotions staff -- regardless of how many requests come her way.
``I think Rebecca has a remarkable package of attributes and strengths,'' said WNBA president Val Ackerman. ``Not only is she very talented and accomplished, she's poised, articulate, and very patient with fans. She has proven to be a versatile and diversified person.''
Moreover, Lobo has sponsorship deals with Fleet Bank, General Motors, Spalding, Reebok, and the Children's Miracle Network, which raises money for children's hospitals. She has even been asked to do an appearance on ``Regis and Kathie Lee.''
``I haven't even gotten around to asking her about that show yet,'' said her agent, Kenton Edelin, who also represents Lobo's former UConn teammate, Jennifer Rizzotti, and Olympian Dawn Staley. ``Rebecca has been a consummate professional to be so young. She shows up on time and she understands the game is larger than what's on the court. I think Rebecca is the complete package in terms of what a sponsor wants. She's an All-American woman, smart, articulate, and has nothing negative associated with her in any way. Plus, she's a talented player; people try to leave that out.''
Swoopes and Leslie, who plays for the Los Angeles Sparks, also had outstanding college careers (the former leading Texas Tech to the 1993 national championship), and both saw their popularity soar in leading Team USA to a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Lobo, practically a household name by the time she left UConn, was the youngest member of the team; she played sparingly, averaging just 3.9 points and 2.0 rebounds.
But Lobo remained in the spotlight, due in part to her color commentary of women's college games during the NCAA tournament. After a three-month hiatus following the Olympics, she underwent a grueling regimen. And it paid off: Slimmer and quicker than she was in college, Lobo lived up to her national billing in the WNBA exhibition season, leading the league in scoring with a 22.5-point average and leading the Liberty to a 2-0 mark.
After the Olympics, ``All I was worried about was finding myself in basketball again,'' said Lobo. ``I wasn't really excited about playing basketball after the Olympics. That's why I took time off. I didn't touch a ball for three months.
``I knew [my desire] was going to come back, and I also knew I had signed with the WNBA and I didn't have to force the issue. By the time this rolled around, I was ready.''
And the league was ready to make her its spokeswoman. Should Lobo's success continue in the New York market, it could reap the WNBA dividends similar to those of the UConn women's program. ``They're using her in a major way,'' said Peter Kaplan, co-CEO of National Media Group, a New York-based marketing agency.
Unlike other basketball leagues, the WNBA's season begins at the close of the NBA season. The league has marketed that, too, with its popular ``We Got Next'' campaign. ``We hear that all the time when we're walking along the subway on the way to get to practice,'' said Lobo. ``People all the time walk by, mostly guys, yelling, `We got next.' ''
But starting a league in the summertime is perhaps the biggest question mark regarding the WNBA, which hopes the general public doesn't respond, ``We got other plans.'' Currently, the league appears to have a following. Its inaugural game -- New York at Los Angeles Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Great Western Forum -- is sold out, although the league primarily uses the lower-level seating of NBA arenas and lists sellouts from 9,000 to 10,000.
New York's home opener against the Phoenix Mercury June 29 is a near sellout, and Phoenix is opening its top level for its home opener against the Charlotte Sting.
``It's hard to say what's going to happen in the summer; it's never been done before,'' said Lobo. ``But it's exciting to know our home opener's almost sold out. I think a summer league can be successful. People are coming out. We'd like to offer them an exciting game to keep them coming back.''
You've got to hand it to the WNBA. Its first exhibition game, between the Liberty and the Cleveland Rockers, was deep in American Basketball League territory -- Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn. The ABL's New England Blizzard play their home games in Hartford.
Lobo drew an emotional standing ovation from the partisan crowd of 2,829 when she was introduced during warmups. But one look around and it is evident how much the Lady Huskies have impacted the women's pro game. Kara Wolters, Rizzotti, and Carla Berube all play for the Blizzard, who began play last season. UConn coach Geno Auriemma was doing commentary for the practice WNBA broadcast.
``I think it opened up a lot of people's eyes to women's basketball,'' said Lobo. ``Whenever you hear about an undefeated team, it's a story. We captured a lot of people's hearts with the way we played, the passion we had. It raised awareness that women's basketball was out there, that there was an undefeated team and let's see if we can finish out that way.''
Capitalizing on UConn's success, the Blizzard led the league in attendance despite having one of its worst teams. Judging from Lobo's popularity at Gampel last week, it appears the area might support two leagues. ``I think it will,'' said Berube. ``I think this area really loves women's basketball.''
Rizzotti, on the other hand, was quite emphatic about New England being Blizzard Country. ``Of course it is,'' she said. ``This isn't New York. You see all those Blizzard T-shirts out there?'' Rizzotti made it clear she was on hand to see her former teammate and good friend, not the WNBA.
The ABL, which has nine teams in mid-size cities, pays its players year round and has a base salary range of $40,000-$150,000. It prohibits its players from participating in other leagues. The WNBA does not pay its players during the offseason but allows them to play in other leagues. Its base salary range -- modeled after international women's play, according to Ackerman -- is from $10,000 to $50,000. But those who market the league are said to be paid much more than their league counterparts -- and in excess of the top ABL players.
The WNBA has NBA backing, plays in NBA arenas, and, with three networks, has an inside track on the ABL. Still, both leagues are enticing, and both have done well to lure top players.
``One of the hardest things I had to do was to tell Jen I wasn't going to play'' in the ABL, said Lobo. ``She had already made the decision to play, and we are the best of friends. But if I had decided to play, I would have played awful. I was tired and I had no desire. There's no way I could have taken three weeks off and then started full-course training again. I don't know how my Olympic teammates did it.''
Helping to market the league was one thing. Talking to reporters before a game was another. Seated on the floor in her uniform at Gampel prior to the Liberty-Rockers exhibition, Lobo seemed distant, eager to end the session.
``That was the first time I was ever interviewed before a game,'' said Lobo afterward. ``It was a little weird for me. You're getting used to getting into a mind-set before going onto the court. If I seemed a little hurried there, I apologize. It's league policy, and I have to get used to it, so thanks for the practice.''
A player thanking reporters for a difficult interview -- what are the odds?
She's aware her free time will likely grow shorter when the season ends; the media and Madison Avenue requests won't cease. But Lobo takes it all in stride, grateful that such opportunities have come her way.
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