Lobo: Dad kept me on my toes

From H-O-R-S-E in the driveway to an Olympic gold medal, Rebecca Lobo's father has been there. Bob Daemrrich/AFP/Getty Images

I used to be the Hat With the Kid Under It. That's what my dad called me. He had nicknames for everyone and everything — Dickensian names for pets and offspring. Our guinea pig, he named Pinnywigg. My brother was Pigglypear. And I, the youngest of his three children, was the Hat With the Kid Under It.

The hat that wore me everywhere as an eight-year-old was a green Oakland A's model. I wasn't an A's fan. We were all Red Sox fans in western Massachusetts. I just inherited my brother's old Little League cap. I was a tomboy through and through. I fished, shot hoops, and played catch. And I did those with my dad. Always with my dad. And not just because the nearest neighbor kids were a quarter of a mile away.

There was nothing better than a catch with Dad on a Saturday afternoon. I would beg him to throw the ball with me in the front yard after he was done mowing the lawn. I'd fetch our gloves and wait for him to finish his attempt at making our grass look like the outfield at Fenway Park. I wanted to be Carlton Fisk. I also wanted to be Larry Bird and Mark Bavaro. When my mom said, "You can be whatever you want when you grow up," I told her, "I want to play in the NFL." Mom said, "Anything but that."

Dad didn't say much of anything. After putting the push mower back in the garage, his brow covered in sweat, he would toss the ball with me. Every time I threw the ball in his direction, he said: "Step and follow through," one of a handful of instructional catchphrases I would hear a lot over the years. Literally a catch phrase, it occurs to me now. Whenever he declared our catch over, whether it was after five minutes or thirty-five, it was too soon. For me, not for him. I think now he just wanted a beer.

For most of my childhood, our driveway wasn't paved. It was covered in gravel and not ideal for basketball. You could have the best handle in the world and still lose control of the ball if it hit a rogue stone. But after the basketball hoop was cemented into the ground near the garage, that driveway was our heavenly playground. I spent countless hours shooting and dribbling and playing H-O-R-S-E. I would use the toe of my shoe to draw a perforated arc in the gravel for Around the World. And Dad would take that transcontinental driveway journey with me. Every time I shot the ball from straightaway, he called out, "On your toes!" Depending on who won, the arc would mirror my face: smiling or frowning.

In fifth grade, my teacher told me that I needed to dress more like a girl and act more like a girl. She didn't approve of my Giants jersey or my playing with the boys at recess. When I got home from school that day, I shot hoops until my parents returned from work. Both teachers themselves, they were appropriately angry when I told them what had happened. Mom had me removed from the classroom. Dad and I just continued to play catch, our therapy — or at least mine.

Perhaps he didn't know what to say to his six-foot, sixth-grade daughter. Six-four if you counted the hairdo. This was the Heyday of Hairspray, the eighties, the Golden Age of Metal Bands. My school photos looked a lot like Eddie Van Halen in drag. Then again, at the time Eddie Van Halen looked a lot like Eddie Van Halen in drag.

As I got older, Dad spent countless hours driving me to camps, practices, and AAU tournaments: West Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana. Every spring and summer when I was in high school, our Saturday afternoons were devoted to hour-long drives to and from AAU practice. The drive was usually silent — or would have been, if Dad didn't always have the radio in his Toyota pickup tuned to the classic rock station. At some point on every drive — no matter the song — he would say, "Listen to that bass line. That's a great bass line." As a teenager, I would roll my eyes.

Looking back, it makes me laugh to think how awkward it must have been for him, desperate for something to say to his teenage daughter, by then fully six-foot-four. Six-eight if you counted the hat I wore in marching band. If I wanted to be the world's tallest alto saxophonist, that was fine with Dad.

If he was happy that I chose to play basketball, he never explicitly said so. But I know he was happy. He never missed one of my high school games. He didn't miss any of my home games at the University of Connecticut. When I played in South Korea with the USA junior national team after my sophomore year in college, he was there. When our unbeaten UConn team won the national championship in Minneapolis in 1995, he was there. When my Olympic team won gold in Atlanta in 1996, he was in the stands. And every time I stepped to the free-throw line — during my high school, college, Olympic, and pro careers — he would wait for the hush that precedes a free throw and shout, "On your toes!"
In the last year of my WNBA career, I would stand at that line as a twenty-nine-year-old married woman and listen for my father's unmistakable voice, cutting across the distance at Madison Square Garden or the Mohegan Sun Arena. It had been twenty years since our games on the pebble driveway, but little had changed. I still got incredible joy from sharing sports with my dad. My happiness was still my father's first concern. And I still needed no more words from him than "On your toes!"

My toes. The toes of my high-tops no longer wore the dust of Around the World. But thanks to Dad's endless support, my high-tops had taken me there.

Speaking of toes: My middle name is Rose, and as I grew — and my feet grew to size 12s — he gave me another nickname, Rebecca Rose Monkeytoes.

In locker rooms, I came to realize that nicknames are a sign of affection. By that standard, no one was more loved than I. A year after retiring from professional basketball, I gave birth to a daughter. She is my father's first granddaughter, and he has been wrapped around her finger since day one. She is almost five now and has a special bond with "Dampa." When she rode her bike without training wheels for the first time or swam at the Y without a life vest, she couldn't wait to show him. She badgers him to go fishing and has a pink baseball glove for catch. Whenever she goes to visit him, my dad gets out his ancient and filthy New York Giants hat that he inherited when his own father, a Giants football fanatic, passed away.

Dad puts it on his granddaughter's head. The hat rests on her ears. When he tells my daughter, "You're the Hat With the Kid Under It," he has no idea how close I am to tears.

Rebecca Lobo won the 1995 Naismith National Player of the Year Award after leading the University of Connecticut women's basketball team to its first national championship. She was the youngest member of the 1996 gold-medal-winning Olympic team, and now, after seven seasons in the WNBA, she covers basketball for ESPN. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, Steve Rushin, and their three children.

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