February 6, 1996 in Sports

Rizzotti Likes A Good Challenge But Uconn Star Sees A Need To Have Fun, Too

Malcolm Moran New York Times
 
Tags:profile

The blueprint was so much easier to follow when it was simpler.

Jennifer Rizzotti would identify a challenge, and soon it would take on the characteristics of a too-slow point guard scrambling back on defense while Rizzotti runs the break for the Connecticut Huskies. It would have no chance.

“I’ve never backed down from anything,” she said, her voice more explanatory than defiant.

She would somehow work her way through the traffic whether the goal was a rim with a net or a grade in a difficult class.

Rizzotti became an essential part of Connecticut’s 1995 national championship team, demonstrating, all the while, that there was much more to her college experience.

She was second-team Academic All-American last year; this time she could be first. She was part of an undefeated champion, but this year there was a new combination to direct, with new people to assist and more responsibility to assume. She would continue to attack each obstacle, right to the last days of this final semester.

But then came a more subtle challenge, one articulated by her coach, Geno Auriemma, as he and his point guard sat in his office recently.

“Since you have been in college, since your first semester freshman year,” he said to her, “tell me when you have been able to enjoy life in college.”

“She said, ‘What do you mean? I enjoy college,”’ Auriemma remembered.

“I said, ‘Fine. Explain to me how much fun you’ve had,”’ the coach said.

Their discussion entered an area that is complex even for a biology major who will graduate this spring, on time, with distinction. In a basketball season known more for its imperfection than its achievements, an inevitable outgrowth of a 35-0 record last year, Rizzotti was dealing for the first time with that cloudy area between the identifiable goal and the exhausting achievement.

“She very rarely, if ever, passes up an opportunity to prove a point,” Auriemma said.

“Not to me, or to anyone. It’s a personal thing. I had to ask questions she needed to ask herself.”

Motivation had never been an issue for Rizzotti because there had only been one way, all-out, and it had worked as well in the classroom as it had when she would dive for a loose ball.Just six credits short of a biology degree, there was a cause for one last push - an honors thesis.

Rizzotti had chosen the topic, the effects of hypohydration on an athlete. She had arranged a schedule that would have much of the work completed during the break between semesters, with some left for after the season.

She reserved the right to end the project if time management clearly became a problem. But the problem had never been too difficult to overcome in the past, not even in the first semester of her sophomore year, when an ambitious 17-credit schedule turned to torture. This commitment could not be as bad as that? Could it?

She studied everything about the project except her motivation, until Rizzotti said the three words that had never been applied to herself.

“Now I’m saying, ‘Wait a minute,”’ she remembered. “Am I doing it just because I want to show people I can do this? Or am I doing this because I really want to do it? Am I afraid of what people will say if I don’t do it? It’s not like I live my life according to what other people are going to say about me. But I do strive to do well academically because I don’t want people to think I can play basketball and that’s it.”

Rizzotti’s blueprint of total commitment had been responsible for everything she had achieved. Advisers reminded her how rare an achievement this would be, to compete at the highest level in such different worlds.

“Those are pretty key words for me,” Rizzotti said.

She brought the same enthusiasm to a laboratory that she showed on a basketball floor. Linda Strausbaugh, an associate professor of biology, remembered a time when Rizzotti was working DNA identification gel as part of a research project, and when the delicate process was complete, a voice shouting “All right!” was heard from outside the lab. When Rizzotti was working on campus at a basketball camp last summer, she would stop by the lab to work on her own, not for academic credit, but to help her understand the lab environment.

“All I had to do was listen to her carefully,” Strausbaugh said, “and it was clear she had reservations from the beginning of the fall semester. She would notice the thesis work others were doing, the commitments they made, and she was concerned.”

The professor sees her role as similar to that of a coach. She told Rizzotti she would be in her face for 15 minutes about the thesis, and that would be all. Strausbaugh reminded her of the depth of the commitment.

Rizzotti remembered the conversation: “She just said, ‘If you’re crazy, if you try to do this, if you want to do it and need help, I’ll help you. It’s going to produce a lot of stress for you. Unless you really want to do it, you should just enjoy your last semester.”’

One day recently, Rizzotti walked into Auriemma’s office and mentioned she was not doing the thesis.

“I decided this was my last semester of basketball,” she said, “and even if I continue to play, there will never be an experience like college basketball. This will be the best experience of my life, and I wanted to enjoy it.

“Maybe I’m being a little selfish,” Rizzotti said, and laughed. “I’ve never really done that before. I’ve never thought of saying let me have a little extra free time, a little less stress in my life so I can have fun with basketball and my teammates. And when people are doing stuff I can say, ‘Yeah, I don’t have any work to do,’ instead of ‘I can’t.”’

With the altered blueprint so fresh, there was still more than a little guilt in Rizzotti’s voice.

“The real challenge in life,” Strausbaugh said, “is not to take on everything, but to pick your battles carefully.”

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