UConn Icon Rebecca Lobo Back On The Court As Coach Of Second-Graders
The Hartford Courant
Java: MaryEllen Fillo
February 3, 2012
Seventeen years after helping lead UConn to a national championship, and nine years after retiring from professional ball, Rebecca Lobo is back on the basketball court.
This time, Lobo, the mother of four, is not a Husky or a Sun, but a Blue Knight at St. Mary's School in Simsbury. The 6-foot-4 Hall of Famer is coaching a rambunctious team of second-graders, including daughter Siobhan, at the parochial school.
"I never would have imagined this 15 years ago," the former WNBA forward said as she took a break from practice. She has the task of orchestrating simple basketball drills, but also the larger challenge of keeping the gaggle of giggly 7-year-olds engaged on a Saturday afternoon.
"You hold the ball this way and pass like this," says Lobo, who kneels to get eye to eye with one of her tentative young players. "Yes, that's the way," she says as her young charge manages to correctly pass the ball. "Great, that was great," she says, playing the role of encouraging coach. "Really good," she adds, letting her maternal side show as she gives the youngster a tender pat on top of the head.
"Geno hasn't been down to watch; I don't have anyone he would want to scout yet," she says, referring to her former UConn coach, Geno Auriemma, during a break at a Saturday afternoon practice. "But you never know."
Lobo, now an ESPN women's basketball analyst and married to author and sports journalist Steve Rushin, kids that when it came to doing the parent thing and volunteering at the school, she had her choice of volunteering for the Jump Rope Club or the second-grade basketball team, the two activities that Siobhan was interested in.
"I received an email from Mary Liljedahl, the athletic director, asking for coaching volunteers," Lobo said. "I emailed back and said I would love to coach the basketball team but that with my travel schedule was not sure I could commit to it." Two other parents volunteered to help, providing coverage when Lobo had to be away.
The team has Saturday practices and Sunday games, with the regular season ending this weekend.
For a woman whose name is synonymous with commitment, fame and success on the court, her dedication to the game and playing it well is gently tempered by motherhood when it comes to her young players.
"I know everyone says it, but I really do just want them to have fun," said Lobo, 38, who spends the 90-minute practices putting her Knights through a series of simple drills — learning to dribble, pass, shoot and stay inbounds. The girls then have a 15-minute scrimmage against the second-grade boys, who practice on the other side of the gym.
"It's just about being a parent and being involved in your kid's life," she said. "For me it's a blast; there is no pressure. I just get to watch and enjoy and I don't even care if they score. I just want them to have fun and learn some simple things about the game."
Still, Lobo is not about to do anything half-heartedly, especially when it comes to basketball.
"Fight for it, it's OK to fight for the ball," she says intently as she teaches her girls how to master the art of grabbing a rebound.
"It's funny," she says as she assesses the drill. "The hardest thing to teach the girls is to be aggressive about getting the ball. For the boys, they have no problems fighting for a ball, but have trouble playing as a team. Playing as a team is natural for the girls."
Just Wants To Be Mom First
Lobo downplays her celebrity, saying that none of the children, other than maybe her own, have any idea about her basketball career and that, in some cases, even parents have no idea who she is.
"I don't think they Googled my name or anything," she said. "They just think I'm Mrs. Rushin."
Well, not really. Most of the players' parents do know who she is and admit that although they try to keep it all in perspective, they believe it is a bonus to have their child coached by a basketball legend.
"I moved to Connecticut in 1992 and you couldn't miss UConn women's basketball and who she was," said Frank Conde, who lived near the Lobo family in Granby and whose daughter Alexis plays on the St. Mary's team.
"I have to admit I do drop her name when I tell friends Alexis is playing ball, and they are impressed," he said.
But Conde, like many of the other parents, is most impressed by Lobo's approach to the game as a parent-coach.
"I didn't sign my daughter up to play ball because of her," said Conde. "But she is a great coach and a great role model. She sent a great email out to the parents after our first loss. It stressed keeping things in perspective, that it was about having fun and working on some better basketball skills."
Liljedahl also appreciates Lobo's attitude and approach.
"You can tell Rebecca researches just how to teach 7-year-olds to play the game," said Liljedahl, who is also the school's physical education teacher. "She works with each child as they are. She knows she is not trying to prepare them for high school or college ball, just teaching them to learn the game."
So where did Lobo learn to coach 7-year-olds?
"Geno Auriemma was the best coach, who never lost sight of the fact that the game should be fun," she said.
This time around, Lobo said, her reward will not be in winning.
""The biggest reward about this is that I get to do it with my daughter," Lobo said. "I think basketball is my area, and with three more kids coming up, I guess I will be doing it for a while if I can, and somewhere Steve will get involved, too." The couple's three other children are 5-year-old Maeve, 3-year-old Thomas and 1-year-old Rose.
Coaching at this level has been a learn-as-you-go experience.
"I used to be a yeller and noticed that when I would yell to get their attention, no one would listen to me," she said. "They were out of control the other day at practice, so I just sat under the basket and eventually they all came and sat around me and listened."
Lobo said that although she could perhaps teach more to a team of older children, her first foray into the coaching world is a nice fit.
"Their reactions are priceless," said Lobo, who has a new set of criteria when it comes to what makes a really good ballgame.
"During our first game, when one of our kids scored, everyone just stopped playing and jumped up and down," she said. "I go into each game hoping we make just one basket. And the awesome part is seeing them grow into themselves as they play more and more. I love it."