The Home Team
RuthAnn and Rebecca Lobo collaborate to share their story
During her junior year at the University of Connecticut, Rebecca Lobo learned that her mother, RuthAnn Lobo, had developed a malignant tumor in one of her breasts. Mother and daughter, the teacher and the basketball player, were confronted with a life-changing challenge, one they met with the same strength they bring to the court and the classroom, respectively. In 1996, they collaborated to share the story of their journey through life and breast cancer with a book called The Home Team, excerpted for you now on RebeccaLobo.com.
I imagine enjoying the basketball court alone started when I was younger. I often misplaced my house key and had to wait for my mother to get home. The time flew by if I shot hoops in the driveway, like the day in fifth grade when I got into trouble at school for sending a note around the room about the substitute teacher. The note said," Mrs. M. has a mustache." I had never done anything like that before. I might have said something under my breath, but I had never before passed a note around (I was a little smartass, but I don't think I was cruel). Unfortunately, the teacher found the note and recognized my handwriting. She sent me to the principal's office. I didn't feel too bad about that -- I felt bad because of the look on the teacher's face when she confronted me with the little slip of paper. I could tell I had hurt her feelings, and I felt terrible. I left school with a note from the principal explaining what I had done -- a note that needed to be signed by my "legal guardian" and returned the next day.
I knew that I was going to get into trouble and thoughts of various punishments floated around in my head on the way home from school. I wished that I was good at forging my father's name like my sister Rachel was. She had perfected it. (Then again, she needed to. She got into a lot more trouble than I did.) Even if I could have, I'm sure I would have been too afraid of getting caught to try it. As I waited for my mom to get home, I shot baskets. I must have been shooting around for an hour or so before she pulled up, went into the house, and unloaded the groceries. I followed her in with the note. I remember standing in the kitchen watching her read it. My punishment never came. Instead, my mom just looked at me and told me that what I had written was very cruel. She signed the letter and gave it back to me. Perhaps that incident is still so vivid because I learned that day that sometimes you can learn a lesson better when you are not punished than when you are.
It was also the first time I remember using basketball as a way of coping. When I was shooting in my driveway that afternoon, I managed to forget about what I had done and that I would be punished. I forgot about the look on the substitute teacher's face. I forgot about the principal's office and about the note that needed to be signed. Looking back, the note was not that big a deal; the ability to work through difficulties was. Many people, particularly young kids, need some way to handle the pain or anxiety, however small or profound, in their lives. Basketball became my way.
I doubt the reporter, or anyone else for that matter could ever know what basketball meant to me my junior year. It relieved me of my worries except those that arose on the court. I prayed for my mom, I cared for my mom, but I didn't focus on what she must have been feeling. I didn't want to add to her worries. Instead, I concentrated on the next game or the next practice and not on how she would feel after the next chemotherapy treatment. I made my biggest problem or concern our last loss or our next victory.
Later, when I was a senior, I felt guilty. I told myself that I hadn't thought about what she was going through as much as I should have. I had let myself get wrapped up in my own world of basketball. But basketball, unlike real life, allowed me to have problems and goals I had control over. Nothing that I did back then, short of praying, could affect my mother's battle with her cancer. I couldn't make the disease win or lose. I couldn't make her blood cells do this or that. But I could make the ball go into the basket. I could have an effect on our team's efforts to win and not lose. I could do something. As a result, I put most of my energy into an arena where I could make a difference.
And, for however brief a time, my mother also left her worries at the gate when she watched us play that spring. When I was out there on the court with my mom in the stands, we both thought about nothing but the game. Just like those precious summer days when I was all alone on the court at Gampel Pavilion, I let my mind go free. Free of the problems I had. Free of the problems my mom had. Free of everything that was out of my control. I felt like a kid again.
A kid in her driveway shooting baskets without a care in the world.
A kid whose biggest problem was giving her mom a note from the principal.
A kid whose dream was to grow up and play ball with the Boston Celtics.
Sometimes I wish I was back in that driveway, just a girl with a ball and a dream. Sometimes, when I pick up a ball, that wish comes true.
On Dec. 11, the UConn Huskies faced the Virginia Cavaliers. Entering the game with an exhilarating string of victories, the Huskies played their hearts out to stave off a Cavalier run in the second half and defeat their opponents. Rebecca led her team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. She lifted her arms in victory at the end of the game. It should have been a night for celebration.
We waited for Rebecca to complete the postgame session with the team and the interviews with the media. We waited for the signing of autographs requested by patient fans who lingered in Gampel until the players appeared after their showers. We waited until we saw her flushed, happy face as she bounced up the bleachers toward us. I hugged and praised her. I spoke matter-of-factly, "I have something I need to tell you."
Our decision to keep my surgery and treatment private was in deference to all of us, but especially Rebecca, who might be bombarded with queries about my health. Neither Den nor I wanted anything to detract from the hard work and success that was being achieved by Rebecca and her teammates. But at the end of the season it came out. When Rebecca accepted her awards for the Big East Player of the Year at a banquet in a Hartford hotel ballroom, her cheerful gratitude suddenly collapsed. After thanking God, her teammates and coaches, her voice began to falter. She said, "This is for my mother. She has been the real competitor this year, and this is for her." Within minutes, the telephone at home began to ring.
I had somehow expected the interest in my health to subside during the long break between the 1994 and 1995 seasons. It didn't happen. No sooner had the 1995 season begun, when the request for television, newspaper, and magazine interviews overwhelmed us. The initial questions varied but ultimately turned toward my battle with breast cancer. The lump in my throat would rise, my voice would become hoarse and I would begin to blubber. Of course, it was always those moments that made it to the TV screen. I told Dennis, "People watching these TV programs must thing, 'What's the matter with that woman; she's always crying.'" We were eager to put the whole episode behind us and move ahead.
I discovered, however, that people in a variety of circumstances, and especially those dealing with cancer, were, for whatever reason, identifying with us. I was taken aback by the number of people who either wrote or stopped by in person to share a tiny morsel of their lives. It always started in the same way. A person, usually a woman, would engage me in conversation about Rebecca, the team, or the game of the moment. Then, dropping her voice, she would draw closer. "We have something in common," she'd whisper, at which point I would hear of a trial and/or triumph with breast cancer. It was shocking how many people had suffered. At first I was troubled because I had nothing to offer in return. It was humbling to be the recipient of so much personal and heart-rending disclosure. After a time, I stopped asking why. If someone found solace in talking to me, I made myself available to listen. It was an honor.
You can purchase The Home Team at a local bookstore or by calling 1-800-451-7556.