This was never part of the plan for Jennifer Rizzotti. Prior to her career taking form at UConn, Rizzotti never even imagined playing professionally during the early 1990s. Being inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame certainly was not high on her list of goals.
Like her UConn teammates, Rizzotti prided herself on the placing utmost importance on the success of the team rather than collecting personal accolades. This is why, nearly a year after the official announcement was made public, it has been increasingly difficult for her to fully grasp that she will be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and be immortalized for her contribution to the game.
Rizzotti’s legacy will be officially cemented during a two-hour induction ceremony Saturday night at the Bijou Theater in Knoxville, Tenn. (7). She will have a party of approximately 30 people on hand to witness her ascension to greatness.
“I don’t know that I really have comprehended it,’’ Rizzotti said. “I think it’s sunk in and I’m honored and humbled by it, but I don’t know that I understand it all. We never played the game for any kind of recognition. So I think all of us are going to have the same feeling. I know Rebecca (Lobo’s) in. Hopefully Kara (Wolters) will be next in line. We never did it for the awards. We did it for the team and we did to win together. So it’s pretty neat to get an individual accolade when all we cared about was competing and staying together as a family and finding a way to win every day.’’
Rizzotti, who starred at New Fairfield High School before becoming a national icon at UConn, will be joined in the six-member in class by Texas A&M head coach Gary Blair, Tennessee-Chattanooga head coach Jim Foster, former Mississippi State All-American Peggie Gillom-Granderson, former Texas All-American Annette Smith-Knight and former Rutgers All-American Sue Wicks.
Rizzotti, who recently completed her 14th season as the head coach at Hartford (276-162), is being inducted as a player. A player must be retired from the highest level of play for at least five years in order to be inducted. A coach must have coached in the women’s game for at least 20 years.
“I’m thrilled for her,’’ Lobo said. “She was such a huge part of what we did in 1995 and what they did in 1996. And she’s lived basketball ever since then. A successful WNBA career and now what she’s done at Hartford. So I’m just thrilled for her. She deserves it, without question. She’s impacting people’s lives too. Like her players love playing for her and they come out better than they were as people when they went in.’’
Rizzotti becomes the third member of the UConn women’s basketball program to be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, joining Lobo (2010) and head coach Geno Auriemma (2006).
Bill Sullivan, Rizzotti’s husband of 14 years and Hartford assistant coach, will escort her during the induction ceremony. Auriemma and Lobo will serve as co-video presenters.
Rizzotti’s parents, Tom and Carol, will also be in attendance at the ceremony. So will her children, 8-year-old Holden and 4-year-old Conor.
“I wasn’t even in love with basketball probably until about the end of my middle school career,’’ Rizzotti said. “I was really big in soccer back when I was younger. I knew I loved (basketball) and I knew it could earn me a scholarship. My mom always tells the story about how I came in one day and just told her I’m going to get a scholarship playing college basketball. So I think I knew the short term possibilities of what being good at it meant. But I never envisioned a career playing professionally and then getting into coaching and now, obviously, getting inducted into the highest level on the women’s basketball side of things. So it’s pretty amazing from where I’ve come from.’’
Rizzotti is currently ranked 16th all-time in UConn history in scoring (1,540), second in assists (637) and steals (349) and tied for seventh in made 3-pointers (207). She helped lead the Huskies to their first national championship/unbeaten season (35-0) as a junior in 1994-95.
In the NCAA tournament final against Tennessee at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn., Rizzotti converted a long defensive rebound into an end-to-end lay-up to give UConn a 63-61 lead with 1:51 remaining in the game. The play helped secure a 70-64 win and earn her a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Rizzotti, a two-time Kodak All-American who also helped the Huskies reach the Final Four in 1995-96, was a combined 117-18 (.867) during her career. She was named a first team All-American and the national Player of the Year by The Associated Press in 1995-96. She also received the Wade Trophy, the Francis Pomeroy Naismith Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top player 5-foot-8 or shorter, and the Honda Award as a senior.
“There was a four-year period, or at least three, where the average person around Connecticut, yeah they got to know Rebecca Lobo, but our program was kind of defined by that little kid in the ponytail that was all over the place,’’ Auriemma said. “It’s hard for a 6-5 player to inspire a lot of people because you can say, `Well, I’ll never get to be 6-5.’
“But when you see Jennifer running around out there and she’s 5-5 and she’s the National Player of the Year as a senior and she averages 11 points per game, I think every little girl in Connecticut and other places around the country said, `Yeah, I can do that.’ So just for that alone she should be in the Hall of Fame much less what her accomplishments were.’’
Rizzotti ultimately played three seasons with the New England Blizzard (1996-98) of the defunct American Basketball League and five seasons in the WNBA with the Houston Comets (1999, 2000) and the Cleveland Rockers (2001-03). She won two WNBA championships with the Comets.
“It was one of those things that kind of just fell into place for me, to be honest with you,’’ Rizzotti said. “I’ve always felt like I’ve been really lucky with my timing from playing in the state of Connecticut at the right time, and having Geno see me play, and starting UConn at the right time, and then obviously graduating and having there be a professional league to play in. I just have been really kind of blessed with timing and I think it’s all just kind of happened in phases for me. I never really planned it out. It ended up just working out and I feel lucky for that.’’