The most important lesson ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson learned on the job was when Pat Summitt handed her a homemade jar of strawberry jam.
It was the 2010-11 women's college basketball season, Summitt's final season as the acting head coach for the Tennessee Lady Vols. Robinson was standing on the sidelines of the Thompson-Boling Arena after the Lady Vols finished a shoot-around before their game that evening.
"It was just she and I in the gym, and I was so nervous. I was like, What do I do? Then all of a sudden, she came up to me, and she said, 'I have something for you,'" Robinson said.
It was the strawberry jam, one of Summitt's specialties. Robinson was floored.
"If Pat Summitt could come to this little old nobody analyst to hand me a jar of strawberry jam, in such a humble, and caring, and generous way—if she's not bigger than the game, no one will ever be bigger than the game," Robinson said. "Pat had this attitude, this 'I'm going to treat women's basketball like it's a big deal, because it is a big deal' mindset. More than anything, I learned that [women's basketball] is as important as you make it. And Pat always made it important."
Robinson had just got her start as a women's college basketball analyst at ESPN the year before, in 2009. With a sharp eye for the game as a former Division 1 athlete (she played for Wake Forest from 1998-2002) and an engaging on-air personality fans were drawn to, she easily could have taken the "mainstream" route to the NBA, or college football.
But at a time when women's sports remained under-covered and underappreciated, Robinson chose the broadcaster road less traveled.
She chose women's basketball.
It's a choice that Robinson pulled from the book of Summitt, who was once offered a coaching job for Tennessee's men's team and declined, famously quipping, "Why is that considered a step up?"
"I had several offers to work on the NBA side. I was offered a position as an NBA sideline reporter with a team, and I ended up turning it down," Robinson told VICE Sports in an interview last month. "I think much like Pat Summitt when it comes to women in men's sports: Who said that that's the better opportunity? To me, women's basketball is great, just as great as football, and just as great as men's basketball."
Since then, Robinson has established herself as one of the most prominent voices in women's basketball as a color commentator for the WNBA's Atlanta Dream, an ESPN analyst, and host of the popular "Around the Rim" podcast.
She still has that Summitt-made jar of jam.
And women's basketball is still an under-covered sport.
There's no shortage of reasons for this. Large media conglomerates like ESPN, which thrive on business models designed to generate revenue based on viewership, cater first to the demands of viewers. Women's basketball, so the story goes, is not one of the highest demands on that list.
That conclusion, however accurate, remains painfully shortsighted. It doesn't account for the ripple effect that comes with the media's undeniable responsibility in establishing visibility. Fans watch what's watchable; they can only hear the stories that are being told. When women's sports make up only 3.2 percent of the programming that's available, how can we expect fans to form a connection to the athletes playing them? Silence in media coverage can translate to silence from fans for the women's game.
Part of the problem is the shortage of opportunities for women, and particularly women of color, to cover female athletes. In its biannual survey of more than 100 newspapers and websites belonging to Associated Press Sports Editors, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports found that women held just 13.3 percent of staff positions in 2014. The numbers for minorities are even worse: in the same survey, African-American women made up just 1.6 percent of staffers. By contrast, around 70 percent of WNBA players are African American.
Which all makes Robinson one the few African-American women to share the stories of female basketball players on a daily basis.
"One thing has been very clear to me from day one getting into broadcasting, and that's the fact that there are not many faces like mine on the television screen," Robinson said. "There were challenges, from nothing else than the standpoint that I cover women's sports. Not everyone that I work with, whether it's production or talent, they're not all as passionate about women's basketball as I am. Most of that is that they're looking at the amount of money generated, and comparing it to other major sports. That's what is what is most important to them—and that's fine. But to me, equality is what is important. Women deserve equal coverage. They deserve equal media opportunities. They work just as hard."
The lack of equal coverage has not gone unnoticed by the players themselves. This past summer, the Seattle Storm's Breanna Stewart delivered a moving speech at the ESPY's, calling on media outlets to provide the WNBA with the same coverage that followed Stewart's every move on her quest to a fourth national championship at UConn. In 2015, the Minnesota Lynx's Maya Moore, one of the most prominent names in women's college basketball from her time at UConn, published an article in the Player's Tribune detailing the invisibility that female professional players face on a daily basis.
"Somewhere up the chain of command—in companies that, in many ways, dictate what is 'cool'—people are making choices not to celebrate the WNBA and its players," she wrote.
Amidst the ongoing calls for equal coverage, Robinson teamed up with the Connecticut Sun's Chiney Ogwumike to create what most other professional sports already enjoy: a platform dedicated to talking about the women's game.
"It started with Chiney and I. We were both working at NBAtv as studio analysts. We were like, we need a place where we can just talk," Robinson explained. "More voices need to be heard. We need to hear from more players, more coaches, more coverage of the WNBA. We just wanted a different forum."
Robinson shopped the idea for a women's basketball podcast around for a couple of months. The project eventually landed in the hands of Laura Gentile, senior vice president of espnW, and Carol Stiff, ESPN's vice president of women's sports programing, who were willing to give it a shot. Robinson and Ogwumike didn't know what to expect. Other podcasts covering women's hoops, like Beth Mowins and Debbie Antonelli's "Shootaround," had enjoyed success on ESPN in past years, but eventually disappeared. Robinson and Ogwumike picked up where Mowins and Antonelli left off, launching the first segments of ESPN's "Around the Rim" podcast, with a focus on the women's college basketball season, earlier this year.
"When we were starting out in the beginning of February, we thought that we'd do it for a few weeks and do it until the end of the NCAA season to see if fans were interested in it," Robinson explained. "It took off in comparison to what [ESPN] thought it would do. When our ratings were actually pretty good, everyone got excited because suddenly it was clear—there is a need for this forum for women's basketball."
In her first year on the air, Robinson has sounded off on every major event surrounding the women's game, including the NCAA tournament, the WNBA draft, Team USA's quest for a sixth straight gold this summer at the Rio Olympics, and the WNBA's historic 20th season, which comes to a close this week.
"I want my name to be synonymous with women's basketball. I want to be the person where they will look to me and say, 'If it's women's basketball, LaChina will know,'" Robinson said.
In July, during USA Basketball's exhibition tour in New York, I watched as Robinson worked the sidelines with notebook in hand and pen at the ready, quietly chatting with Tamika Catchings, hugging Breanna Stewart and warmly wishing her luck in Rio, and pausing to snap a picture with Sue Bird. At the game the next day, Robinson answered every question I threw her way, all the way down to Candace Parker's assist percentage. It's her job to know the numbers, but Robinson knows that women's basketball needs more than that. She separates herself by going beyond what the stats tell about the players to knowing and appreciating who they are as people.
It's a connection forged all the way back during Robinson's playing days at Wake Forest, just as the WNBA was establishing itself. Robinson competed against many of the league's future stars, including UConn's 2002 all-star starting lineup of Bird, Diana Taurasi, Swin Cash, Tamika Williams and Asjha Jones.
"Having an opportunity to play against those players grew my overall respect for the game," Robinson said.
Years later, she's working hard to inspire that kind of respect in others, building relationships with a new generation of players and sharing their stories when others will not. It's what Moore pleaded for, and what Summitt demonstrated in her final year of coaching at Tennessee: treat women's basketball with the respect it deserves. Celebrate it, and the fans will come.
Robinson is doing just that.
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