Year in Review: 1997


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Tiger Woods takes
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Pedro Martinez signs
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Latrell Sprewell
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Rick Pitino becomes
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Martina Hingis
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Florida Marlins win World Series

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Check out the top news stories of 1997

Lobo center of WNBA's attention

New league banks on ex-Uconn star

By Joe Burris, Globe Staff, 06/19/97

Women's basketball star Rebecca Lobo appears at a news conference in Cleveland Wednesday, Feb. 12, 1997, announcing the name of the WNBA franchise in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan) Women's basketball star Rebecca Lobo appears at a news conference in Cleveland Wednesday, Feb. 12, 1997, announcing the name of the WNBA franchise in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)


In year 2, ABL offers real alternative

Comets shine brightest in first WNBA title game

Link to WNBA's Web site

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.

WNBA at a glance

(By Joe Burris, Globe Staff, 06/19/97 )


- Eight teams, two conferences, 10-player active rosters, up to four developmental (practice) players. Sixty-four signed players -- 12 of whom have Olympic gold medals, 15 of whom have won national championships, 24 of whom were Kodak first-team All-Americans.


- Training camp began May 28. Season opens Saturday. Each team plays a 28-game regular-season schedule (14 home, 14 away).


- NBC, ESPN, Lifetime. Each will televise one live game per week, ESPN and Lifetime in prime time weeknights and NBC on Saturday afternoons.


- Four teams will advance to the single-elimination WNBA playoffs. Top seed in each semifinal will have home-court advantage. Semifinals are Aug. 28 (simulcast on ESPN and Lifetime). Championship game is Aug. 30 on NBC.


- Ball size is 28.5-feet circumference (high school and NCAA women's). Three-point line is 19 feet 9 inches. Two 20-minute halves, 30-second shot clock.


Eastern Conference

Charlotte Sting
Home arena: Charlotte Coliseum
Head coach: Marynell Meadows
Key player: Vicky Bullett
Trivia: More than 250 women tried out for the team.

Cleveland Rockers
Home arena: Gund Arena
Head coach: Linda Hill-McDonald
Key players: Michelle Edwards, Lynette Woodard
Trivia: Hill-McDonald is former two-time Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year at Temple.

Houston Comets
Home arena: The Summit
Head coach: Van Chancellor
Key players: Sheryl Swoopes, Racquel Spurlock
Trivia: Swoopes, who is eight months pregnant, is not expected to play this year.

New York Liberty
Home arena: Madison Square Garden
Head coach: Nancy Darsch
Key players: Rebecca Lobo, Sue Wicks
Trivia: Lobo is one of three woman players with a shoe named after her, along with Swoopes and Saudia Roundtree of the American Basketball League.

Western Conference

Los Angeles Sparks
Home arena: Great Western Forum
Head coach: Linda Sharp
Key players: Lisa Leslie, Jamila Wideman
Trivia: Leslie was the star of the US women's team that took the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Phoenix Mercury
Home arena: America West Arena
Head coach: Cheryl Miller
Key players: Nancy Lieberman-Cline, Monique Ambers
Trivia: Developmental player roster includes former University of Massachusetts star Melissa Gurile.

Sacramento Monarchs
Home arena: Arco Arena
Head coach: Mary Murphy
Key players: Pamela McGee, Ruthie Bolton-Hollifield
Trivia: Roster includes Mikiko Hagiwara, the league's only player from Japan.

Utah Starzz
Home arena: Delta Center
Head coach: Denise Taylor
Key players: Dena Head, Elena Baranova
Trivia: Team trainer Leanne Stockton is the younger sister of Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton.

``I'm not the type of person who can just look tough,'' said Lobo, now a star forward with the New York Liberty and one of the players contracted to market the eight-team league, which begins its inaugural 10-week season Saturday. After a few attempts, she finally got the tough look down pat for the commercial. ``Sometimes they just ask you to do crazy things, you know?''

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.''

The league wasted no time making Lobo one of the cornerstones of its advertising ventures, which reached a crescendo last Friday, when Lobo's 60-second Reebok television commercial aired during Game 6 of the NBA Finals. She has her own Reebok shoe, becoming only the second woman basketball player -- along with Swoopes of the Houston Comets -- to sign a shoe deal.

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.

The WNBA aims to reach three primary audiences: sports fans who will watch practically any televised game, active women ages 18-34, and families with children ages 7-17. Televising its games on three networks should help improve its aim. WNBA games will be shown on Lifetime (whose primary audience is women age 18-34), ESPN (sports fans), and NBC (families with children). It also will run pullout special sections in Self and Glamour magazines and in USA Today.

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.

There was a time when women college basketball players in the United States had to go overseas if they wanted to play at the pro level. The two women's leagues changed that overnight.

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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