Karen Noll talks with Jennifer Rizzotti ’92 about her long career playing and coaching women's basketball and her role on Team USA at next year's Tokyo Olympics
On a winter night in a broom-closet-of-a-gym, Jennifer Rizzotti ‘92 showed up in black and gold to play hoops. She was a fourteen-yearold Mustang in ninth grade. Her teammate, senior Carol Williams ’89, was a fellow point guard. Together they scored 30 points in the first quarter. With three fouls each in the first eight minutes, they were playing at the outer edge of their competitive fire. Dave Ornauer’s eyes sparkle when he remembers how these two athletes elevated the level of play of everyone on the court. ASIJ emerged with a 96-25 victory over CAJ.
As a journalist for the Department of Defense newspaper Stars and Stripes, Ornauer has watched hundreds of high school athletes every year for the past 38 years. He makes it clear that Jennifer Rizzotti was a rare star.
Sitting at well-worn wooden table in the Mustang’s book locker room, Ornauer begins with the date and the weather—March 18, 1989. Tokyo was in the midst of a cold snap, and a bad flu was going around. Varsity girls’ basketball coach Dennis Staples was tucked in bed at home with a high fever. JV Coach Sherry Herssig took the team up the long hill past the Chuo Line to Higashi-Kurume for the first league game of the season. The girls would be playing in Christian Academy Japan’s notorious old barn gym that, according to some basketball fans, was like a dark broom closet. You couldn’t run a full-court press; you couldn’t run a fast break; you couldn’t throw a full-court pass. Ornauer claims that “if you drove for a layup, you drove right through the gym doors and into the great outdoors.”
He continues rattling off numbers from that first time he got to watch Rizzotti play—she had 18 points, 5 rebounds, 5 steals, 7 assists. But he knows that Rizzotti’s career stats as a player and a coach will make their own statements about her talent. He wants to say something about her character, her influence on others, her spirit.
“Jennifer was a gentle soul off the court, but a tiger—a fierce beast!—on the court. It was intimidating how fierce, how beastly she could be,” he recalls. In a post game interview that night, Rizzotti was completely unaware how amazing she was. He asked questions about her commanding performance; she talked about the ten turnovers that could have been avoided. “If better was possible, good was not enough,” Ornauer declares about Rizzotti’s attitude toward everything.
Ornauer followed Rizzotti’s career when she returned to Connecticut and played high school then college ball. He has the storyteller’s gift of making a game between the CAJ Knights and the ASIJ Mustangs sound as critically important as the epic 1995 NCAA Championship matchup at The Final Four between the UConn Huskies and the Tennessee Volunteers. He is right to see them both as pivotal. Jennifer Rizzotti herself credits the intensely competitive sports experiences she had at ASIJ with the beginnings of her identity as an exceptional athlete. The big game needs the little game, which needs an even littler game.
The arena that staged the birth of UConn’s magic was quite a bit bigger than the CAJ barn gym. It had a seating capacity of about 20,000 and TV viewership of about three million. In the Minneapolis Target Center you could run a full-court press, and you could drive for a layup, which is exactly what Rizzotti did, famously. Her timely steal and fast break layup is considered by some to be a history-making moment for women’s college basketball.
The Huskies were down by nine points against the Volunteers late in the fourth quarter and plagued by fouls. Rizzotti wasn’t going to let this game slip. She wasn’t going to let people say they couldn’t beat mighty Tennessee without a home court advantage. Rizzotti saw an opening, stole the ball and drove for a layup. The game’s momentum changed. Rizzotti’s tiger spirit elevated the play of everybody on the court. Rebecca Lobo matched it. Jamelle Elliot matched it. The big game needed all of the little games. And in a gigantic way, this
ASIJ Mustang carried her black and gold heart to an epic ESPN moment. The Huskies won 70-64. Rizzotti had helped lead the University of Connecticut to an undefeated season and its first of what has become eleven NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament Titles, more than any other women’s Divison I basketball program in NCAA history.
Amidst a barrage of media attention after that win, Ornauer called Rizzotti’s dad to see if she might give him an interview for the Stars and Stripes. “By this point, she was a national sports star whose face was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I felt grateful for the chance to ask a few questions. But when I got her on the phone, she asked me more questions than I asked her! She wanted to know about the Mustangs and their Far East victory in 1992. She wanted to hear about Kathy Greig ’94 who won tournament MVP that year. You know I don’t think I have ever seen Jennifer smile on a court, but it is crystal clear that she values friends, teammates, unity.”
Rizzotti came to Tokyo with her family in 1985. She made the trip to school every day with her brother Thomas ’91, her brother Gregory ’95 and her sister Candace ’99. Sixthgrade counselor and coach Jeremy Durfee (FF ’85–’93) helped connect her to the sports teams she was interested in: soccer, basketball, baseball, and volleyball. At that time, both soccer and baseball were not offered for girls, so she played with the boys, and that was when Rizzotti, began to notice for the first time that middle school boys did not like girls being on their teams, especially a girl who was really good. She had always played sports with her brothers when she was little and thought no one cared she was a girl. But when she played baseball with the boys, she got hit by a lot of pitches. And when she played soccer, the boys stopped passing to her after she had scored too many goals. Coach Durfee tells a story about a co-ed basketball game at the Tokyo American Club when Rizzotti was in sixth grade. At tip-off a boy said to her, “I’m going to kick your ass today” so she scored 50 points and held the boy she was guarding to 2 points. “A good lesson for the boy,” says Durfee.
By ninth grade, it seems the boys had figured out that she was a key asset. Her high school JV soccer coach Dan Gogerty remembers, “Jennifer played well all season, and she was usually the only girl on the field—but she earned the respect of all, her teammates and our opponents. I still think of her as the most competitive player—male or female—I ever coached.”
Like Ornauer, Gogerty also has crisp memories from the first time he saw Rizzotti in a game. It was a busy day on the Chofu campus because of the winter fund-raising festival. A big crowd was watching on the main field. “She was aggressive and focused, and by halftime, she had scored two goals," he recalls. "I subbed her out late in the game to let everyone get some action, and she just about kicked me in the shins because she wanted to stay in.”
Coach Staples says of Rizzotti, “Her quickness was her most obvious asset in basketball, but just as importantly she had the tenacity and drive to improve that elite athletes almost always have.” And in what seems like a paradox for superstars, he adds, “In all the time I coached Jennifer she never exhibited an ounce of ego. She was as good a person as she was an athlete.”
Back at New Fairfield High School in Connecticut, Rizzotti spent three years focused on basketball, leading her team to two state titles. She was recruited by the legendary coach Gene Auriemma and played at the University of Connecticut. After college, she played eight years of professional basketball at a time when the league was fighting for legitimacy. Tennis and golf were career options for women, but no team sport had made it work. Soccer was still a decade away. Ice hockey would need nearly two decades. But Rizzotti helped establish the roots of the WNBA. Other UConn Huskies teammates did the same: Rebecca Lobo, Nykesha Sales, Sue Bird, Maya Moore.
Now Coach Rizzotti is nurturing the next generation of great players. After seventeen years as head coach of the Hawks at the University of Hartford, she moved to Washington D.C. to take on the head coach job for the George Washington Colonials. She has also coached various age groups of the USA national teams, and next summer will be an assistant to head coach Dawn Staley for the 2020 Olympic team.
“Personally it is pretty awesome for me to think that I can go back to Tokyo—this place where I grew up and have so many wonderful, personal memories, and where my athletic career really got going. I am honored and proud to be a part of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.” Rizzotti tries to explain the magic attraction of the Olympic games. “There’s nothing better than an Olympic gold medal. We have a couple of players who might be coming back for their fifth Olympics. That demonstrates how important it is to be a part of this experience.”
It may look to some like Team USA basketball just shows up and wins every game, but Coach Rizzotti argues that “it is really, really hard to look that good and keep winning.” She speaks with a healthy competitive anxiety about strong teams from Belgium, France and Spain. “Believe me, we coaches lose sleep over Australia.”
In 2016 Rizzotti was inducted into the CoSIDA (College Sports Information Directors of America) Hall of Fame. CoSIDA is best known for the NCAA honor called Academic All-American given to athletes who are strong students. The organization also recognizes lifetime achievement. In receiving the distinction, she was quoted, “I credit my experiences as a college athlete for helping me understand the qualities necessary to succeed in life.” When asked what those qualities are, there was no hesitation in her answer. These qualities are her daily oxygen.
“Strong work ethic—Nobody is good at sports unless they work at it. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, there has to be a level of grit and determination that goes into being good. Handling adversity—That is probably one of the biggest lessons I teach my players. Nothing in life always goes your way. Life isn’t fair. Sports isn’t fair. And that’s okay. A true test of your character happens when things don’t go your way and you have to show the world how you have chosen to handle it. Working with others—Relationships teach essential lessons of give and take. Team players must learn how to lead others and how to rely on others. Communication—I care a lot about how teammates talk to each other, listen to each other, respect each other. I help them negotiate their differences, their backgrounds, their likes and dislikes.”
After her solid list, she reflected with a bit more sprawl on the way kids develop these qualities over time. “I don’t think you know all this when you are going through it in middle and high school. It takes a while. You play sports when you’re young because you love it, or because your parents signed you up, or because your siblings and friends are doing it. I didn't think what I was learning in sports would take me further in life than anything else I could have learned in the classroom. The coaches and the teachers in your life that are best equipped to help you with what goes on outside the classroom—they are doing you a bigger service than teaching you a mathematical equation or how to write an essay. You could be a really, really good student, but if you are oblivious to all those other things that go into being a successful person, you have a much smaller chance of leaving school ready for the real world.”
Given recent criminal scandals in college sports which include the Larry Nassar sexual assault crimes and the Operation Varsity Blues admissions bribery crimes, Rizzotti’s job includes building trust with athletes and families who might be deeply skeptical of the adults leading college sports programs. Sometimes she wishes athletes and parents would be more skeptical when they are choosing where to go. While she puts a tremendous amount of pressure on herself to live up to the expectations of somebody else’s parents, she also knows there are coaches in all sports that
prioritize winning over relationships. “Actually you can win and do things the right way,” she laughs as if this basic formula has evaded too many. Rizzotti coaches the way she was coached. Be ethical. Have integrity. Tell the truth. Her statements about these simple principles do not ring like platitudes. She understands the gravity of recruiting kids when they are still fourteen years old. She wants families to know, “I’m real. I’m honest. I will build relationships before I offer scholarships. What I tell you now is the truth you will live when you play with me. I don’t promise playing time. I promise that my players will be well taken care of.” She sighs when she emphasizes, “Feeling safe and cared-for is so much more important than playing well.”
She is excited to bring her husband, Bill Sullivan, and her two sons, Holden and Connor, to the old neighborhood haunts near Shinjuku and to share a ride with them on the Chuo Line out to ASIJ’s Chofu campus for a visit. From her high school debut in a cold Tokyo gym the size of a broom closet to the impressive Olympic Stadium which features wood collected from all of Japan’s 47 prefectures, Rizzotti will bring her exceptional career in basketball full circle.