Last March, a few days before Connecticut was bounced out of the NCAA women's basketball tournament by North Carolina, UConn center Rebecca Lobo attended Mass at St. Bridget Church in Manchester, Conn. At one point during the service the congregation rose to give Lobo a standing ovation. Later a nun came up to her and said, "You caused more commotion than if Jesus Christ had walked in here himself."
There is plenty of commotion on the Storrs campus this winter. The Husky men's team has soared to No. 2 (page 58), and on Monday afternoon Lobo and her teammates defeated top-ranked Tennessee 77-66 before an SRO crowd of 8,241 in UConn's Gampel Pavilion to become No. 1 for the first time. "I know I've never had an experience anything like this game," said Lobo, who scored 13 points despite playing with a fractured right pinkie and being hampered by foul trouble for much of the game.
Lobo, one of the top five players in the nation, was averaging 15.6 points and 10.9 rebounds after Monday's game. She says she plans to head to Europe next year, where she hopes to play professional basketball, but first she would like to help the Huskies achieve a few more milestones. After defeating the Lady Volunteers, UConn had won 43 of its last 46 games and gained credibility as a national power. Some had questioned the Huskies' strength of schedule after they won their first 12 games this season by an average margin of 42.4 points, but by handing the Vols (16-1) their first loss, UConn (13-0) established itself as a strong contender for the NCAA title.
Fifteen minutes after their big win the Husky women were still on the court enjoying a curtain call. The sound of Aretha Franklin's signature song blasted over the P.A. system, and the crowd began serenading its team. "I could never imagine this day would happen," Lobo said. "Eight thousand people singing Respect, even though most of them don't know the words."
Unless your name is Emmitt Smith, last week was a lousy time to look for sympathy around the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. When TCU coach Billy Tubbs spotted his star center, Kurt Thomas, hooked up to a muscle stimulator just like the one strapped to Smith's hamstring, his reaction was, "What's wrong with you, Thomas? How come you don't have reporters following you to the shower to see if you're limping? Aren't you a star, too?"
Forgive the journalistic bloodhounds if they are uninterested in Thomas's injuries. That's old news around Dallas. He has suffered four fractures to various parts of his anatomy in his five years with the Horned Frogs. But he's still racking up imposing numbers, despite tissue damage in his foot and the enduring effects of a broken left thumb he suffered last season. At week's end he was averaging 28.4 points and 13.9 boards a game, putting him second in the nation in scoring and first in rebounding. With any luck he could join Wichita State's Xavier McDaniel (1984-85) and the late Hank Gathers of Loyola Marymount ('88-89) as the only players ever to lead both categories in a season.
But then luck hasn't been Thomas's middle name. After redshirting for the entire 1992-93 season because of a fractured tibia, he broke his thumb against Oklahoma State in TCU's fourth game last year. It happened in the first half, yet he still played 19 minutes in the second half and finished with 30 points and 13 rebounds against Cowboy 7-footer Bryant Reeves. Three games later, with the thumb in a cast, he scored 38 points against Indiana. So far this season Thomas has two games with more than 40 points and seven with more than 30.
Despite his success, Thomas, a 6'9", 225-pound center, is constantly reminded that he is not even the country's most famous athlete named Kurt Thomas. "People often ask me, 'You're not that gymnast Kurt Thomas, are you?' " he says, grinning. "I tell them, 'Look at me. What do you think?' "
When the Frogs pulled off a 102-98 upset of Texas last week, there were at least 11 NBA scouts in attendance who could see that this Kurt Thomas is no gymnast, though he could use his basketball floor exercise as a springboard to the pros. He had 23 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots against the Longhorns.
Thomas had solid stats a year ago, but he has really flourished under Tubbs, who took over at TCU this season after 14 seasons at Oklahoma. In the Frogs' 106-92 win over Houston last Saturday, Thomas got off 26 shots while scoring 33 points and only once passed the ball at TCU's offensive end in 31 minutes of play. He isn't exactly shy about shooting. "I've always said if my teammates get me the ball more, I could score 100," he says.
That kind of hubris hasn't endeared him to the rest of the Southwest Conference. "I've always thought that the only thing that stops Kurt is his mental approach," says Houston coach Alvin Brooks. "His first three years he made a lot of enemies because he had an awful attitude, and he did a lot of trash-talking. So far this year he's playing more and talking less."
Says Tubbs, whose Frogs were off to a surprising 10-4 start through Sunday, "Kurt is a lot like Harvey Grant, who I coached at Oklahoma, except for all the injuries, of course."
In fact Thomas was asked recently how much better could he be with the full use of his two hands? "Hard to say," he answered. "I'm not too bad with one."
When Tubbs left Oklahoma, many people assumed that it was, in part, because the cupboard was bare of top-notch players, and that a rebuilding job awaited his successor, Kelvin Sampson. Then, three Sooners quit the team during the first few days of practice this fall because they didn't like the intense manner in which Sampson conducted his workouts. But Oklahoma had a 12-2 record at week's end, with the only losses coming against Arkansas and Georgia Tech at the Rainbow Classic in late December.
Sampson, who spent the last seven seasons at Washington State, likes to run his team as if it's an extended family, inviting players to his house to watch film together on nights before a game. And he is always teaching. "There are two kinds of people in the world," Sampson says, "the ones who do the work and the ones who want to take credit for doing the work. You're better off in the first group; there's a lot less competition."
Sampson has been a leader of men ever since he was 16 years old and took a job as a foreman in a sweltering North Carolina tobacco market managed by his father. "I ran a crew of about 25 men, all cither blacks or Indians, most of them married with a half-dozen kids and most of them alcoholics," Sampson, himself a full-blooded Lumbee Indian, once told a reporter. "It was the toughest job I'll ever have. The worst part was that some of my men would go out at lunch and drink bottles of Aqua Velva and Coke because it was cheaper than Ripple. The good news was, when those guys started to sweat, at least they smelled good."
For those Sooners who survived Sampson's rigid training camp, the change in direction at Oklahoma has been a plus. "I got more coaching from Kelvin Sampson in two months than I did from Billy Tubbs in two years," says Sooner forward Ryan Minor. "It's not that one is better than the other, it's just different, that's all. The two have such different styles that this season there's a totally different attitude. Coach Sampson is very positive, and, of course, winning helps a lot."
Minor, who was also a first baseman and pitcher on Oklahoma's NCAA champion baseball team, has thrived in Sampson's more regimented system. He led the Big Eight in both scoring (24.3) and rebounding (8.9) after getting 34 points and a career-high six three-pointers in a 98-83 win over Colorado last Saturday.
Earlier this season Minor had 28 points and 18 rebounds against Alabama State at a holiday tournament in Oklahoma City, playing before one particularly interested spectator named Tubbs. The Horned Frogs played later that day, so Tubbs sneaked into the stands and quietly rooted for the Sooners.
"Sure, I follow them and I pull for them because Ryan Minor and the other guys are still part of my family," says Tubbs. "Kelvin's done a fine job with that team, so I guess you could say my leaving has been a big boost for both programs."
Momma Plays Jazz
On most Saturday nights Barry Bowman and a gaggle of his Southwestern Louisiana teammates gather around a television set to watch American Gladiators. Bowman says he has long been fascinated by the bizarre competition in Powerball, Joust and the Eliminator, but nowadays he and the other Ragin' Cajuns tune in to root for Victoria Gay, a.k.a. Jazz, a 33-year-old Gladiator who also happens to be Bowman's mother. "It's so strange to see her on TV," Bowman says, "but it's even stranger to think that I sit there all the time, screaming, 'Get her, Mom! Get her.' Fortunately, Jazz usually comes out on top."
Bowman, who has been christened Baby Jazz by his teammates, was cofreshman of the year in the Sun Belt Conference last season after averaging 8.2 points per game. Through last weekend he had improved that to a team-high 14.3 points a game this season.
Bowman, 19, admits to an athletic rivalry with his mother, who attends many Ragin' Cajun games between tapings. Gay, a bodybuilder for the last 10 years, tried out to become a Gladiator contestant in 1993, but she so impressed the show's producers with her imposing physique that she was asked to join as a regular instead. Bowman wasn't immediately thrilled by that notion. "At first I don't think that Barry really wanted a Gladiator for a parent," Gay says, "but now I think he's proud of me. We're all the family we've got, so we've got to be each other's biggest fans."
"My teammates are always teasing me about how tough she is, how young she is, how pretty she is," Bowman says. "Then it suddenly hits you, 'Hey, guys, be cool, you're talking about my mother.' "
Lobo and her Husky mates played so tall against the Vols that they hit the heights in the rankings.
According to Bowman's Ragin' Cajun teammates, his mother is one jazzy Gladiator.