Linda Roberts finally gets her due

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Seven banners of former Gopher basketball student-athletes hang in the Williams Arena rafters. Three of the student-athletes are Black: Lou Hudson (1963-66), Jim Brewer (1970-73) and Mychal Thompson (1974-78). The four others who have had their jerseys retired are Kevin McHale (1976-80), Laura Coenen (1981-85), Carol Ann Shudlick (1990-94) and Lindsay Whalen (2000-04).

Linda Roberts (1978-81) came to the Minnesota campus after playing on St. Paul Central’s 1976 state high school championship team. She later became the first Minnesota athlete to be a two-time finalist (1980 and 1981) for the Wade Trophy, which goes to the nation’s top woman basketball player. A three-time team MVP, she finished her career as the school’s all-time leading scorer (1,856 points) and rebounder (1,413).

On Sunday January 15, Roberts, U-M’s fourth all-time scorer, becomes the first Black female basketball player to have her jersey hoisted to the Williams Arena rafters. Only Hudson (28 years) waited longer than Roberts (25 years) after his college years concluded to be so honored. Brewer, Thompson and Coenen had their jerseys retired at the end of their final collegiate season; Whalen got hers after only 10 months. Shudlick and McHale got their due in nine and 13 years respectively.

Roberts is the first St. Paul native to have a Gopher jersey retired. “I just wish that my parents [now deceased] could be here to see it,” she says.

An estimated 200 family and friends will escort Roberts onto the raised Williams Arena court in a pre-game ceremony prior to Sunday’s Minnesota-Michigan State contest. Her escorts will include eight former teammates: Lisa Lissimore Blue, Brenda Savage, Diane Scovill, Kathy Eiland-Madison, Cindy Beier, Mary Manderfeld, Laura Stromgren and Marty McKelvey.

“I asked them all if they would escort me out on the floor,” explains Roberts. “I truly say that if it wasn’t for them passing me the ball, or me getting the rebound and passing it to them, I wouldn’t be having my jersey retired. I didn’t do it all by myself.”

Also expected to attend are her college coach, Ellen Mosher-Hanson, and her high school coaches, Steve Studer and Lou Kanavati. A post-game reception in Roberts’ honor will be held in the Sports Pavilion Club Room.

Despite being one of the best female student-athletes ever to play in St. Paul, Roberts wasn’t highly recruited. She looked at two Iowa colleges and St. Cloud State before deciding on Minnesota. “I came to the university with a $500 scholarship my first year [1977],” she says. “By the end I received a full scholarship, but I had to work to get to that point.”

Thoughts of being a superstar never crossed her mind. Then considered an undersized center but rarely overmatched, “I was competitive and I knew what my goals were. I knew what I had to do in order to be successful.”

She also played in the long-defunct American Basketball League. “Right before they were getting ready to fold,” says Roberts, “the [Gopher] seniors went and played to finish out the season. I played five games with the Minnesota Fillies. I remember the coach saying that I was too short [at six feet tall] to play in that league. I saw it as an opportunity to see if I could participate, compete, and hold my own with the other ABL players who have been playing for years.

“I didn’t keep up with how many points I scored or how many rebounds I got, but I played well,” Roberts notes.

This determination comes naturally in her family, claims Roberts. “We all have that trait to be positive and go for what you want. It was instilled by my mother and my father.”

After earning her English degree in 1982, Roberts began her post-basketball career as a recreation specialist at the Hubert Humphrey Job Corps Center in St. Paul, where she worked for 10 years. “It was an opportunity to work with the youth, ages 16-21, who came in from all other the different states,” she says.

Then, U of M Associate Athletic Director Donna Olson called her in 1992 about an employment possibility. “They ended up creating another position for me: assistant to the senior associate athletic director,” says Roberts.

Roberts has been on campus ever since, one of the few visible Blacks working in Minnesota athletics administration. She didn’t hole up in her office, but instead served as a role model for student-athletes, especially Black students, helping them and others adjust to life on campus. “You get to know student-athletes during their four years by going to their practices, watching them play, going to games, and coming in and out of Bierman,” says Roberts.

Finally, her employer and alma mater is retiring the jersey of a player who still is the school’s all-time leading rebounder, joining Coenen, Shudlick and Whalen, who later passed her on the school’s all-time scoring list. Roberts still holds a prominent spot in nine career statistical categories: scoring (4th), scoring average (5th), field goals (6th), field goal percentage (9th), made free throws (2nd), free throw attempts (1st) and rebounds per game (1st).

“It is the pinnacle of my career,” Roberts says humbly of this recognition. Maybe now her nephew finally will believe that she indeed was a player.

“I remember when he was young, about seven or eight, and I tried to teach him how to play basketball. He told me, ‘You can’t show me how to play basketball — only guys know how to play basketball.’ Then I went into the Minnesota Hall of Fame and they showed a little film of what I had accomplished. He looked at me and said, ‘I guess you was all right.’ As he got older, he understood.”

Now, her nephew and all will see his aunt recognized for posterity, her old jersey hanging overhead in the Barn.

“I don’t want to say it is long overdue,” says Roberts, “but I know if it wasn’t for [MSR columnists] Kwame McDonald and Charles Hallman, it probably wouldn’t be happening right now. I am truly blessed and honored to receive all the recognition over the years. I am a person who is grateful to have such a tremendous family and an abundance of lifetime friends that range back to seventh grade.”

More importantly, Roberts says she never wanted to let her community down. “I want to continue to grow professionally, spiritually and personally. I did what I wanted to do, and did what I felt I had to do in order to be successful here at the university. Otherwise, I could’ve been a failure in the St. Paul community.”

It took a long time, but the day that would have been Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 77th birthday is the right time for Linda Roberts to finally get her due.

“It should be very exciting, and I am happy to be having it done,” she concludes.

© Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

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