03/20/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
EVERYONE WHO PLAYS HER AGREES, college basketball sensation Rebecca Lobo never backs down or backs off. So how come? Munching on jelly beans in the player's lounge of Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn., the all-American center forward of the nation's top-ranked University of Connecticut Huskies recalls a formative moment. "In third grade, I was taking tap-dance lessons, and about six weeks before the recital I wanted to quit," she says. "My mom said, 'No, you're going to stay with it.' Well, I did it, and I was bad, too! But my parents never let their kids walk away from something because it was too hard."
Determination was one thing Lobo's parents gave the youngest of their three children. The other was height. Mother RuthAnn, at 5'11", and father Dennis, at 6'5", combined to produce a 6'4" athlete who averages 17 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots a game and has made UConn women's basketball a tough ticket to find. Lobo-Cop, as she is known to her fans, has led UConn to a perfect 29-0 record this season and a Big East championship, making it the only Division I basketball team, men's or women's, so far undefeated. As the UConn women enter the NCAA tournament beginning this week, they will rely not only on Lobo's deft passes and intimidating presence but her subtle leadership qualities. "She keeps the rest of the team loose and doesn't let any of the pressure get to her," says coach Geno Auriemma.
Not all of that pressure has to do with basketball. In December 1993, Lobo learned that her mother had breast cancer. The family is close, and the shock was immense, but both mother and daughter got through it. "We all kept a stiff upper lip for each other, but we share more of our fears now," says RuthAnn. "We just loved each other a whole lot." Adds Rebecca: "I was scared, but it made me think my family means more to me than anything."
Lobo learned her game in the backyard of her family's home in Southwick, Mass., just north of Granby, Conn., where her parents are school officials. Rebecca and her 5'10" sister Rachel, now 24 and a basketball coach at Salem State College in Massachusetts, scrapped for rebounds in two-on-one games with brother Jason, 27—now a lawyer in Manchester, Conn.—who is 6'11" and played hoops at Dartmouth. "She's always been a gutsy player," says Jason. By fourth grade, Rebecca was playing on a local boys' team because there was no girls' squad. "Once I showed them I could play, they were great about it," she says.
At Southwick-Tolland Regional High, Lobo scored 32 points in her first game and went on to become the all-time leading scorer, male or female, in Massachusetts state history, with 2,710 points. She stayed in shape in the summer by cultivating and tying up plants in the shade-grown tobacco fields of the Connecticut River Valley. "I would come home, my hamstrings all tight, and just soak in the tub," she says.
She doesn't let up academically either. She was class salutatorian at Southwick High and had offers from over 100 colleges, including the University of Virginia and Notre Dame, before choosing UConn, partly because it was only 90 minutes from home. Her choice proved fortuitous, particularly when RuthAnn was diagnosed with the malignant lump in her right breast. "I had just played the best week of basketball of my life," Rebecca remembers, "and I met my mom in the bleachers after a game. She told me, and I started to cry. But Mom didn't. She said, 'You take care of your thing on the court, I'll take care of this.' " After RuthAnn had a lumpectomy in mid-December, Rebecca went with her mother to the oncologist's office, where RuthAnn disovered the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. "That was a very difficult evening for the family," says RuthAnn, choking back tears at the memory. "Rachel started asking questions, and I just started to cry."
RuthAnn had a mastectomy a few days later and underwent three months of chemotherapy but still managed to attend most of Rebecca's games—sometimes straight from exhausting treatments. She is cancer-free now and gets checkups every three months.
With the end of her college career in sight, Lobo is savoring each moment. She autographs balls for at least an hour after a game for kids who gaze up at her as if she were their own Michael Jordan. Lobo also hangs out with friends, including co-captain Pam Webber, who indulges her roomie's fanatical devotion to Bruce Springsteen. Lobo says she would love to find time for a boyfriend but only after the season is over.
After graduation, Lobo will have to start looking beyond basketball—unless she packs her bags for Europe, which she is seriously considering and where women basketball players have been known to make six-figure incomes. Sports broadcasting is another career option, and as a political science major with a 3.65 GPA, she has thought about law school. Since she is already a hero in Connecticut, might she consider running for state office someday? "Sorry," says Lobo, "half of the people hate you, and I don't want that. Besides, I don't lie well enough to be a politician."