Blizzard Hoop Star Brings Her Fans in From the Cold

Jennifer Rizzotti plows out a path of achievement

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Following one of the last New England Blizzard practices of the inaugural American Basketball League season, Jennifer Rizzotti accommodates lingering autograph-seekers, all the while conducting a media interview in the bleachers of Western New England College.

She dutifully signs "Jennifer Rizzotti No. 21" on a ball, T-shirt, and program.

"I've been doing this for years now," she says of granting autographs. "I sort of look at it as part of my job, especially now that my job kind of depends on how many people come to the games."

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For the new league to succeed it will probably need more players like Rizzotti, whom Steve Raczynski, the Blizzard's media and community relations director, calls the team's most popular player.

She is not New England's most famous female player (that is Olympian and former college teammate Rebecca Lobo), but Rizzotti does have tremendous appeal.

Raczynski says Rizzotti is a major reason why the Blizzard led the eight-team ABL in regular-season attendance with 5,000 spectators per game, despite having a losing record.

The New England franchise missed making the four-team playoffs that began Sunday, but its box office success, Rizzotti believes, underlined an important lesson for both the ABL and the rival Women's National Basketball Association, which commences play in June.

In examining New England's success versus the attendance-poor Columbus (Ohio) Quest, the league's best team, Rizzotti says, "It shows that women's basketball fans are not fair-weather fans. They follow teams and players because they feel like a part of that family. It doesn't matter that we are losing, they're still going to come because we are accessible."

Overall, Rizzotti says the ABL has done better than expected, averaging 3,500, more than the projected 3,000 fans per game.

And she is encouraged by the fan support. A territorial draft choice of the Blizzard, Rizzotti had led the University of Connecticut women's team to an undefeated season and national championship in 1995.

So it was not surprising that she had to make lots of public appearances. "I was the player who people were most familiar with," Rizzotti says, "but as the season went on everyone started to have their favorites, and now the whole team is pretty well known."

The Blizzard played a split schedule, with more games in Springfield, Mass. (home of the Basketball Hall of Fame) than in Hartford, Connecticut's state capital.

Raczynski says that Saturday-night games in Hartford proved the winning combination, yielding an average crowd of 9,748 for three dates.

Although pleased that her parents have been able to attend Blizzard home games, Rizzotti misses playing for UConn. She helped make the much-followed Huskies a national power in women's basketball. "I felt like we had something special going on there," she says. "I came into this [the ABL] not really knowing what to expect. It's like being a freshman again."

Rizzotti believes she had a good year, but far from a great one. Her main improvement, she says, came in gaining a better grasp of the pro game. "It's like you're playing in the national championship game every night.

Every player on the floor was a great player in college and the game is a lot more physical and fast-paced."

At UConn, Rizzotti was the quintessential playmaker - small (5 ft., 5 in.) smart, tough, and determined. She recently took home the 1996 Honda Broderick Cup, an award that takes classroom excellence into account in naming the nation's top female college athlete.

Rizzotti played a disciplined, team style in college that fit her to a T. Pro basketball, she's discovered, is more individualistic. "There's not as much passing the ball around until you find the best shot. You look for a good shot, not a great shot. I have to work on getting myself out of the [college] mind-set and work on one-on-one moves that help in creating my own shots."

Rizzotti's suggestions for improving the league include adding more teams ("it's tough to play the same teams so many times") and expanding the 10-player rosters. She'd also like to see increased publicity for the league, not just in franchise cities, but "around the country."

The WNBA, which has signed Olympians Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, and former UConn star Rebecca Lobo, has the money of the NBA behind it and represents a serious rival to the ABL. Rizzotti has mixed feelings about the WNBA, but adds, "I don't think any of us [ in the ABL] feels threatened that their league is going to overshadow ours. Our league came out first and we had a successful year and no one's going to dismiss that."

Now that her first pro season has ended, Rizzotti's priority is to relax. She'll sit back and enjoy March Madness, the college championship tournaments that are still "the biggest thing around" in her basketball purview.

She says she'll start working out again, playing as much basketball as possible, and appearing at numerous basketball camps. "I won't have a problem keeping busy," she says confidently.

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