NEW ORLEANS — It was at a Women’s Sports Foundation function sometime in the early 1990s when Basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman met Robin Roberts.
“I say, ‘How are you doing?’ — and Robin can hardly talk. It was so funny,” Lieberman said of her future ESPN colleague. “She was like ‘Oh my gosh, you’re my hero. You’re my role model.’ Well, she’s my hero and my role model. Robin Roberts is an amazing woman.”
Roberts first overcame breast cancer and now is recovering from myelodysplastic syndrome with the help of a bone marrow transplant from her sister, WWL-TV news anchor Sally-Ann Roberts. She recently returned to her co-anchor post at “Good Morning America” and in July will receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs.
Which is fitting. ESPN was where Roberts, who grew up in Pass Christian, Miss., and played basketball at Southeastern Louisiana, made her mark as, among other things, one of the first female anchors on “SportsCenter,” play-by-play announcer on sports such as tennis and figure skating and the anchor of ESPN’s coverage of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament from 1996-2005.
“Good times, good memories,” she said. “Having played college basketball, I always had a real love for the sport and still do.
“To me, there’s no better sporting event than the Final Four.”
Roberts won’t be able to attend the Women’s Final Four being played this weekend in the New Orleans Arena. Doctors have limited her travel because of her condition.
“I don’t like being on the sideline,” said Roberts, who did come to New Orleans for a Super Bowl party at her sister’s home. “But I am respecting my doctors, and I’m feeling stronger every day. It’s great to wake up and feel a little better than you did yesterday. I’m just very, very excited about the future.”
And her colleagues from her ESPN days are excited for her.
“Robin is such a dear friend to so many people,” said Ann Meyers Drysdale, who worked with Roberts doing game analysis and co-anchoring tournament coverage. “Whatever you did with her, she put you at ease.”
That, said Josh Krulewitz, ESPN’s vice president for communications, was because Roberts was the “anti-diva.”
“Robin is an absolute dream,” said Krulewitz, who was ESPN’s primary contact for women’s basketball during Roberts’ time there. “Not a publicist’s dream, but a dream for anyone who got the lucky opportunity to work with her. Obviously people working at her level are in a lot of high-pressure situations — particularly on live TV, where mistakes can happen at any moment. Robin is the ultimate person you want there in that situation. She was our point guard.”
ESPN gained the broadcast rights to the women’s tournament just in time to fuel a growth period in the sport.
In 1994, the tournament expanded from 48 to 64 teams. And in 1995, Connecticut, located about 50 miles from ESPN headquarters in Bristol, ignited great interest in the Northeast. In 1997, ESPN’s second year of coverage, the Final Four switched from a Saturday-Sunday format to Friday-Sunday. (It’s now Sunday-Tuesday.)
“They were playing the semifinals and final on back-to-back days, and nobody could figure out why the games weren’t good,” Roberts said. “I was so delighted that the women’s championship should be treated as it should be treated.”
That included raising the number of tournament games shown nationally from seven in 1995 to all 63 by 2003.
But Roberts, whose down-home catch phrases like “Get on with your bad self” and “Y’all come back now” helped boost the sport’s popularity as well as her own profile, said she always felt she had to tread the line between being a cheerleader and an objective-minded reporter.
“I was proud that the game was getting the attention it deserved and I was part of ESPN being able to put it in the spotlight,” she said. “But I always tried to look at it as a journalist, too, and not let gender be a factor in how we covered it. So I was covering events as a reporter, but maybe with a little extra something because it was women’s basketball.”
Roberts, a self-described “Title IX baby,” grew up playing all sports in Pass Christian. But she’s particularly fond of telling the story of how her junior high basketball team went from wearing “basically leotards with our numbers taped on our backs” to real uniforms because of the passage of Title IX in 1972.
At Southeastern, where she started on a tennis scholarship because there were none available for basketball, she wound up the school’s third-leading career scorer and rebounder. Graduating cum laude in 1983 with a degree in communications, Roberts worked her way up the sports broadcasting ladder — from stations in Hattiesburg to Biloxi to Nashville to Atlanta and finally to ESPN in 1990.
Women — much less a black woman who said of herself, “I’m no cutie pie” — were still rarities in the macho world of ESPN in those days. But Roberts persevered by being well-prepared, a trait her basketball broadcast partners point out.
“Robin obviously knew the game because she’d played it, and she had great style on the air,” said Drysdale, a Hall of Famer who is now vice president of the Phoenix Suns and general manager of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. “But she also knew that she had to always come in prepared and ready. It can be difficult for a woman in sports. Nobody cares what Howard Cosell or Dick Vitale looks like. But Robin is a beautiful woman inside and out.”
Lieberman, now a TV analyst for the Oklahoma City Thunder, said Roberts’ ability wasn’t limited to basketball.
“Robin could do play-by-play, color, anchor — anything you wanted,” she said. “And she never made it seem like it was just about her. She brought out the best in whoever she was working with.”
Well, not always.
Once, during a visit to Lieberman’s home near Dallas, Roberts found herself a spectator at a Hoop It Up tournament Lieberman was participating in. When one of Lieberman’s teammates in the three-on-three event had to leave, she prevailed on Roberts to play.
“It was about 100 degrees, and she’d been there on the sideline drinking beer,” Lieberman said. “I told her, ‘Robin, you’ve got to play.’ And she’s going, ‘What, what, what do you mean?’ Then it gets really physical, and somebody knocked her down. I think she was ready to get into a fight, and she’s wondering why we don’t have her back. I said, ‘Robin, not right now. We’re too tired.’ ”
But as much as Roberts enjoyed the familiarity of sports, other opportunities beckoned. She had begun doing special assignments for “Good Morning America” in the 1990s and, by 2005, a move to the show was complete.
“Early on in my career, I looked on news as a four-letter word. And when I was hired by ESPN, I felt like I’d hit the mother lode,” Roberts said. “It was Billy Jean King who finally told me to snap out of it and quit dragging my feet because ‘GMA’ was such a bigger platform. And now I’ve covered popes and presidents. But there’s no better training ground than sports because you’re working without a script.”
Roberts even joked that she has better news bones now that she has her sister’s DNA in her bloodstream.
Roberts also has been heavily involved in charitable work. Her “Swabbin’ 4 Robin” program has raised awareness of bone marrow donation, and she recently was added to the board of directors for the V Foundation.
“This latest chapter is just another example of how Robin has presented herself through the years,” said Krulewitz, who is on EPSN's interal V Foundation committee. “Robin is about helping people and making others’ lives better in whatever way she can.”
She hasn’t left her sports roots entirely behind, especially basketball. Roberts is the executive producer of “Nine for IX,” a series of short films by women on female athletes and women’s sports issues that will air this summer on ESPN. And when former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt released her memoir in February, Roberts got the invitation to do the exclusive interview, flying to Knoxville to do so.
That was her second recent trip there. Last year, Roberts was inducted to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
She also stays in touch with her old Women’s Final Four partners Drysdale, Lieberman and Mimi Griffin.
“Lady Magic — I can’t think of a mean thing to say about (Lieberman) except that it’s too bad she didn’t come along a little bit later,” Roberts said. “Annie — what a sweet, sweet person who also knew how to throw an elbow. And Mimi — a trailblazer and my right-hand woman who’d show up with ring binders so she’d know about the third-stringers. I was stealing money in those days, but I also was very grateful and very blessed.”
Her broadcast partners felt the same way.
“No matter what you’re doing, Robin Roberts just makes you look better,” Lieberman said. “She’s the teammate you always wanted to be with.”