Robin Roberts returning to roots for jersey retirement
On a spring day in 1979, a senior women’s basketball recruit was returning from a visit to LSU to her home in Pass Christian, Mississippi, and as she had done many times before, noticed a sign along Interstate 12 while driving through Hammond.
Southeastern Louisiana University. Next Exit.
That sign turned out to be a life-changing moment for Robin Roberts. The former ESPN and current Good Morning America anchor will have her jersey No. 21 retired by SLU Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. before the Lady Lions play host to Sam Houston State later in the evening at 6 p.m.
The 50-year-old Roberts has anchored Emmy Award-winning shows, been inducted into halls of fame and received multiple honors after her much-publicized battle with breast cancer four years ago, but Saturday will be different.
“This goes to the top of the list, and I mean that sincerely,” Roberts told me earlier this week.
And to think it was only by chance that Roberts even stopped in Hammond.
“My brother lives in Houston,” she said, “so for many years we had gone down (I-12) and I had seen the signs for Southeastern. I was driving with my coach and we were going back to the coast and saw the signs for Southeastern and as a fluke I said, ‘Let’s check it out.’ I went into Hammond and … it was love at first sight.”
Southeastern had won the Division II AIAW national title two years earlier. The Lady Lions’ coach, Linda Puckett, was from Mississippi and more than familiar with Roberts’ talents. There was one problem: she had no basketball scholarships available.
“They created a spot for me – actually, it was a tennis scholarship,” Roberts said. “She was also the coach for the tennis team, and I was an all-star tennis player too. I said, ‘Where do I sign?’
“It was truly a decision that changed the course of my life.”
Roberts had an outstanding four years at Southeastern, scoring more than 1,400 points and grabbing more than 1,000 rebounds. Nearly 30 years later, she still ranks among the Lady Lions’ career leaders in both categories.
While in Hammond, Roberts developed more than basketball skills and college coursework that led to her ultra-successful broadcasting career. She built a second family along the way.
“Let me tell you something about my family at Southeastern,” said an emotional Roberts. “When I was going through cancer a few years ago, they sent me the biggest stuffed lion. They sent me a video that had all the student-athletes spelling out my name on the basketball court … That’s family.”
Southeastern assistant athletic director Matt Sullivan recalled the night the video was filmed.
“It was a really good evening, just to show she was still one of us,” he said. “Everybody kind of did their own little thing. Just words of encouragement.”
During her 15 years at ESPN, Roberts witnessed first-hand – and probably even assisted in – the exponential growth of the very sport she played in college.
“It warms my heart to see where women’s basketball is now,” she said, “and the importance of what the Lady Lions under Linda Puckett (accomplished) and how those teams laid the foundations of what Connecticut, Baylor and Tennessee are now.”
Six years ago, Roberts got the chance to move from sports to morning news – coincidentally, where her older sister, Sally-Ann, has been a fixture at WWL-TV for many years.
“I never thought I would leave sports,” Roberts said. “I was living happily ever after at ESPN. It was the best training ground, not that I used it as such. When you go to a sporting event, you don’t know the outcome. You have to be quick on your feet. You report the action as it happens. It’s really helped me in my professional career.
“I used to think of news as a four-letter word. I couldn’t be happier doing what I’m doing now.”
Sally-Ann was already at Channel 4 when Robin was about to graduate from Southeastern.
“I was thinking about being a sports journalist,” recalled Robin, who was already doing radio work in Hammond at WFPR. “Anne Simon was a reporter at WWL and my sister arranged for me to come in and meet with her. Sally, she helped get the first job in Hattiesburg at WDAM.
“Now it’s commonplace to see a woman doing sports on television. It wasn’t when I graduated from Southeastern in 1983.”
There was one common theme that carried from her playing days to her professional career.
“You talk about assists,” Roberts said. “I had that at Southeastern, and I’ve had that in my career. By no means did I do any of this on my own.
“That’s why I encourage mothers and fathers to expose your children, especially your daughters, to sports. Just those great things that I learned through being on a team have helped me tremendously.”
No doubt, a theme that Roberts will bring up on Saturday, when she will become only the fifth former Southeastern player to have his or her jersey retired.
“I’m just so grateful that I made the decision to be a part of the Southeastern family,” she said. “If you’re an athlete, to have your number retired and hanging from the rafters … it doesn’t get any better than that.”
As it turns out, Saturday is also the 87th birthday of Roberts’ mother, Lucimarian. “It’s a double celebration,” she said.
With both of Robin Roberts’ families taking part.
Lenny was involved in college athletics starting in the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane;…