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Robin Roberts was honored with the 2008 WNBA Inspiration Award for her success amid a battle against breast cancer.
Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images
Rarely one to be left searching for words, Orender was overwhelmed by the turnout. Overwhelmed by the show of love and support for the recipient of the 2008 WNBA Inspiration Award, Robin Roberts. And overwhelmed by the mission that the WNBA has embraced over the course of its 12 years: "to lead, inspire and create change."
And with women like Nancy Lieberman, Ann Meyers, Dawn Staley and the entire 2008 USA Basketball Women's Olympic team in attendance, the trailblazing nature of the WNBA was readily apparent.
The growth of the league from a business standpoint -- plus the exponential growth in quality of play since 1997 -- is "broadening the definition of what it means to be a pro athlete," said Orender. "The WNBA has allowed young girls to dream big. It's truly impacting future generations."
And who better to "represent all we're trying to promote today," as Orender said, than the day's honoree?
Roberts, who joined ABC News' Good Morning America as a full-time co-anchor after an Emmy Award-winning, 15-year stint at ESPN, was already a respected and beloved broadcaster before she announced a year ago that she was battling breast cancer. But her recent fight has proven to be more inspirational than even she could have expected.
"It's humbling to be receiving an award for inspiration sitting in a room full of people who have inspired so many," said the affable Roberts, who was noticeably moved by the standing ovation and praise she received.
And after Orender's introduction, which mentioned Roberts' basketball-playing days at Southeastern Louisiana University, the self-deprecating honoree made light of how her hoops resume must have looked in comparison to the 12 women of the 2008 Olympic team, earning a laugh from the spellbound crowd.
Roberts echoed Orender's sentiment of the importance of dreaming big, but also noted the significance of "focusing small, something I learned by playing sports."
She commended the WNBA for dreaming big by working tirelessly to further women's sports and to help females find success both on and off the court. But the league's ability to focus small, "being so willing to give of yourselves to help others achieve the dreams you've already obtained," was just as meaningful in her estimation.
But despite her envy of the players' on-court skills, the Olympians and WNBA stars at the luncheon were unanimous in their praise of the trailblazing journalist.
"To come out here to help honor Robin Roberts and to be recognized like we were was very special," said Indiana Fever star Tamika Catchings, an inspiration herself as the inaugural winner of the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award.
"I've known her for a long time and just like it's been neat to watch her career evolve, it's been tough watching her battle breast cancer."
"Me and Robin go back like babies and pacifiers," said a nattily clad Diana Taurasi, quoting a Mariah Carey song lyric. "She's always been a huge inspiration to me. She's a great person, a great character and for her to go through what she has and to still be able to come out and enjoy life says a lot about what kind of person she is."
"She's such a great person more than anything," Catchings went on to say. "And you know I'm a spiritual person, but it's hard to see bad things happen to such a good person. She's handled it so amazingly and continues to do so. And to sit around and talk to her man, I got the butterflies and the chills at the same time.
"It's just the way she carries herself as a woman," the Fever star continued. "She's so inspirational to so many people in so many different walks of life."
Honoree Robin Roberts is flanked by (L to R) U.S. Olympic team co-captain Lisa Leslie, Nancy Weber of Meredith Corporation and WNBA President Donna Orender.
|Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images|
"Robin Roberts is one of the most dynamic, warm, loving, caring, incredible women that I've ever known," she said. "And the tragedy of her getting sick has highlighted to more people out there who she is. And I bet Robin never ever thought that this was how she would inspire people.
"When you're younger," Lieberman continued, "you always think you'll (become successful) with a highlight or making a basket or saying something clever on TV. But all she has to do is walk the walk and people recognize the battles and challenges she's faced and overcome."
But inspiration was the focus of the event. And with the myriad of truly inspiring people in attendance, the stories came fast and furious.
"I try to be inspiring as a person," said Lieberman, a Basketball Hall of Famer who made news last week at the age of 50 by briefly coming out of retirement to play in one game for the Detroit Shock.
"But not just on the court. With my son, TJ. Anytime I'm around young people. Anytime I'm around my peers. You want to do something that awakens another piece of somebody, part of their spirit and what they can be and you want to help them get to that point to try to make people better than they ever knew they could be."
One of the inspired -- and inspiring in her own right -- was 21-year-old Minnesota Lynx rookie Candice Wiggins, one of the shining examples of the WNBA's increased reach.
"This is incredible," said the recent Stanford grad. "It's amazing to be a part of the WNBA and to be able to be around these kinds of women every day. They inspire me even though they're my peers. I really look up to them."
But it wasn't simply about the athletes. There were inspiring women among the civilians as well. Jackie Parsons of San Antonio, Texas, is close to finishing her PhD in counseling despite battling ovarian cancer and helping to raise seven children with her husband Larry. Kirsten Brunson of Fayetteville, N.C., is the first African-American female Judge in the United States Army.
"To achieve something... to get over an obstacle," said Lieberman, "and there will always be obstacles in life, you have to have faith and you have to have belief inner confidence that you can overcome whatever is put in front of you."
"Robin is a perfect example of that. She believes that she can overcome anything, and she lives it. It's what she does every day. And a lot of that, I think, is because she was an athlete."
Roberts made the connection of life to sports as well, recalling the days when her basketball teams were constantly struggling just to stay in games against tougher opponents.
"In sports, it's all about putting yourself in position to win giving yourself a chance to win," she said. "I applied the same principle when I was fighting cancer. You have to put yourself in a position to beat it. You have to focus on the solution, not the problem. And you have to be willing to venture outside of your comfort zone."
In sports as in life, when faced with a wall or challenge, you can't see a wall, Roberts said. "You have to see each challenge as a chance to scale to new heights."
"Robin used to joke with me that she's the best average athlete I'll ever meet," said Lieberman. "But there's nothing average about Robin."