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When Blizzard basketball took Connecticut by storm

Twenty-five years ago, the New England Blizzard rode the wave of the UConn women’s team to build the most popular franchise in the American Basketball League. Though the league lasted only 2½ seasons, the Blizzard plowed the road for even bigger things for women’s basketball in Connecticut.

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The news was bad enough on its own, but to learn of it with his entire staff gathered in the next room for a Christmas party was a twist fit for Hollywood. It was December 1998, and Chris Sienko listened as league representatives told him the American Basketball League was folding, his mind simultaneously processing the shocking information while formulating the address he would have to deliver to his coworkers. For two and half years they had worked tirelessly to turn the New England Blizzard into the professional women’s basketball league’s most popular franchise, and this is how it would end, with Santa hats on and “Jingle Bells” playing in the background.

He composed himself and opened the door to the conference room. The room smelled of bar food, the catering provided by Jim Calhoun’s restaurant, Coach’s, located on the ground floor of their building at the corner of Allyn and Ann streets in Hartford. The room was quiet and everyone was gathered around the television. ESPN had broken the news, and they already knew. That left only one thing to do.

“I think after the news broke we got a lot more liquor upstairs than we had originally planned,” Sienko, a Wethersfield native, laughs over two decades later. “That’s for sure.”

The New England Blizzard rode the rise of women’s basketball in Connecticut to build the hottest franchise in the short-lived ABL. The league began play during the traditional winter basketball season of 1996–97. A few months later, the WNBA played its inaugural summer season. Two new leagues provided women with an opportunity lacking in the years prior: to play professional basketball in America. UConn women’s basketball had just arrived on the national scene after its first NCAA championship in 1995, and Sienko and his team tapped into both the Husky fan base and roster to bolster the Hartford-based franchise.

With familiar Husky Jennifer Rizzotti on board from the beginning and collegiate teammates Carla Berube and Kara Wolters joining her a year later, the Blizzard led the ABL in attendance in each of its two full seasons. After missing the playoffs in year one, the team made it to the postseason the following season. The on-court product was improving, the fans were coming out, women’s basketball in Connecticut was blossoming, and then it was over. For two and a half seasons, the Blizzard accentuated the visibility UConn brought to women’s basketball in the state. The team’s success proved that a professional women’s team could exist in Connecticut and paved the way for the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun years later. The Sun would become the first profitable franchise in league history under its ABL-crossover general manager, Chris Sienko.

stars

Though the Blizzard didn’t land Rebecca Lobo, stars like (from left) Kara Wolters, Carolyn Jones and Jennifer Rizzotti buoyed attendance. 

When Hartford Courant reporter Bruce Berlet began covering UConn women’s basketball for the newspaper in the early 1990s, he would always take an extra jacket with him into Gampel Pavilion. He would set up his work station at the press table, walk four or five rows up into the stands, and put his coat down to save seats for his wife and daughter.

“There were no season tickets; they were lucky to get a couple of thousand people for the games,” says Berlet, now retired. “Everybody sat in the bowl, they all had great seats, and then as the team got better and better they started selling out and you had to get season tickets.”

Before UConn was the national brand it is today, before the championships and the television specials, head coach Geno Auriemma recruited mostly New England kids. The 1995 team was composed of almost all “local” players. With Massachusetts natives Rebecca Lobo, Carla Berube and Kara Wolters, Connecticut locals Nykesha Sales and Jenifer Rizzotti, and Washington, D.C., product Jamelle Elliott leading the way, the 1994–95 Huskies posted a 35-0 record and claimed UConn’s first women’s basketball title. The run vaulted Lobo, a graduating senior, directly into the spotlight ahead of the 1996 Olympic games and the launch of the two domestic women’s professional leagues. Lobo was selected to the Olympic team. The ABL wanted her. The WNBA wanted her. Sienko, who started off as the Blizzard’s vice president of marketing the first season before taking over as general manager in year two, even created a special telephone hotline for fans to call when ordering tickets.

“We set up a phone number when we were starting the franchise. The last four letters were Lobo, L-O-B-O, but we only used the digits,” says Sienko, a UConn graduate himself. “That way, if Rebecca by chance did sign with us, we were going to launch that 800 number so the line for Blizzard tickets would be 1-800-blank-blank-blank-LOBO. So, that was our big get at the time. We were like ‘Well, let’s be forward thinking here and if we get her, we can launch this.’ Then of course she never came, so nobody knew what our little secret was.”

Lobo signed with the WNBA, one of the three cornerstones of the league’s marketing initiative, along with Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes, and joined the New York Liberty. The Blizzard built around Auburn University product Carolyn Jones, 6-foot-3 Maryland police officer Shanda Berry, and Rizzotti, fresh off another Final Four run with UConn in the spring of 1996.

“I always say that I feel very fortunate about my timing. The fact that the year I graduated college and really had no idea what I wanted to do, that three months later they started a professional league, I always felt very fortunate,” Rizzotti says. “To be able to play in my hometown, in front of hometown fans that love me, to be able to give out my shoes after the game and be part of the community, it just made me feel really special and I will never forget those memories.”

court overview

The New England Blizzard played the Richmond Rage in the American Basketball League's first game, in Hartford in 1996.

The Hartford Whalers were still in town during the 1996–97 season, and sharing the Hartford Civic Center with both an NHL franchise and a popular collegiate brand in UConn forced the Blizzard to play many of its games in Springfield, Massachusetts. They embraced the dual residency, seeing it as an opportunity to truly become New England’s team. But while Berube, Wolters and the UConn women were enjoying another undefeated regular season, the Blizzard stumbled to a 16-24 record. They missed the playoffs, but it was clear there was an appetite for the women’s professional product in Connecticut.

 ***

Sienko moved into the general manager role in year two and made several immediate changes. Boston Celtics legend K.C. Jones was hired as the team’s new head coach, the Whalers left town for North Carolina, opening up more home dates in Hartford, and Sienko drafted both Berube and Wolters to upgrade the roster.

“Chris Sienko was smart to bring in the UConn girls because he knew they would sell tickets,” says Berlet, who also covered both UConn and the Blizzard for the Courant. “I used to go to other cities with the team and they had nowhere near the number of people the Blizzard had. The Blizzard would have eight to ten thousand people and then you go out on the road and other teams were lucky to get three thousand even though they had really good players, too.”

K. C. Jones

Former Celtics great K.C. Jones lent more star power to the young franchise. 

Along with more name recognition, Berube and Wolters brought an infectious chemistry developed over their four years together in Storrs and a childhood of playing AAU ball together. They knew how to tease each other and were even roommates upon first signing with the Blizzard. When they eventually settled into separate apartments, they were still near enough to carpool to every practice and game. They took turns driving. Berube was always prompt in picking up her teammate, while Wolters was reliably tardy.

“I would go to pick her up and was always beeping my horn because she was always late,” says Berube, now the head coach at Princeton University. “We didn’t have cellphones back then so I was honking my horn like, ‘Kara, come on.’ She’s notorious for always being late for everything. I remember when she had to pick me up I would be sitting out on the stairs like ‘Where is she?’ and I remember her flying through our apartment complex like, ‘I’m so sorry!’ Always late.”

While Berube brought toughness and Wolters brought a towering inside force, K.C. Jones lent a breezy, hands-off approach under which the team thrived. The 12-time NBA champion, who died late last year, was known for his easy-going nature off the court, never afraid to sing before a crowd during a post-game meal at Coach’s or make public appearances. His affability carried over onto the court, mainly because he had Rizzotti to get after his team for him. Berlet jokes that the easiest years of UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s career were the four years Jennifer Rizzotti spent on campus. A two-time ABL All-Star, she didn’t let up at the pro level, either, and later became a coach herself.

“They would break the huddle and Jen would be talking before they made it ten feet from the bench,” he remembers. “I can’t think of another team I covered that had more of a coach on the floor or the field than her.”

The team improved in 1997–98, and attendance numbers rose from around 5,000 per game during the inaugural season to above 8,000 per game, including 12,683 for the season opener. Sienko kept the team’s core players busy with public appearances like golf tournaments and The Big E fair, and events like Tip-A-Blizzard, a dinner where the players served as waitresses, with the tips they earned donated as charitable contributions. It was a different experience from UConn. They were working professionals, part of the local community.

“When I was in college, we were pretty sheltered. We were there to go to class and play basketball, but there wasn’t a lot of interaction with the outside world at the time,” Rizzotti says. “Part of that was because we were young, and part of that was because it was hard to go anywhere for a while without getting recognized. Especially if I was walking with Rebecca [Lobo] or Kara [Wolters], there’s no way they didn’t know who we were. When I went to the Blizzard, there was just this sense of, ‘We’re going to be part of the community. This is who we are, this is the community we play in.’ I feel like I became more connected to the fans.”

With new players, a new coach and the highest attendance numbers in the league, the Blizzard earned its first playoff berth during the 1997–98 season. The franchise’s attendance numbers were so good, according to Sienko, that they began occasionally out-drawing the UConn men when the two teams would have games in the Civic Center on the same day. Blizzard fans were ready for playoff basketball, and the ABL, struggling to find traction in its other markets, was eager for Hartford to play host.

Despite a 10-point lead late in the third quarter, the Blizzard dropped game one of its first-round series at home to the San Jose Lasers. San Jose won again in game two, this time in California, to complete the sweep. It was a disappointing culmination to an exciting season, but the franchise had successfully harnessed the fervor for women’s basketball first cultivated by Auriemma and UConn. There was momentum. 

*** 

With the Whalers gone and the Blizzard settled in Hartford full-time, the team began its third season with just a 3-10 record. It was December and the team was preparing for a road trip that would keep them out of town through Christmas. The Blizzard administration gathered at the team offices for its holiday party, and that’s how it ended. Everyone together in the conference room watching the news on television before Sienko could tell them. Rather than slinking home, everyone stayed put. The Christmas party became a wake.

“We stayed there for a long time,” Sienko remembers of that December night. “We did not go home anytime soon. It was good. It’s one of those things where you laugh, you cry, it’s a terrible shock and unexpected, and so we focused on having a good time and then the next day we started doing what we needed to do from a league perspective.”

CHRIS SIENKO

On Dec. 23, 1998, one day after learning the league was shutting down, it was packing day at the Hartford office of Blizzard GM Chris Sienko. At the time, he said, “From the beginning, we all believed in something and we’ll finish it all the same way. But I’m not going to vacuum the rug.” 

The WNBA’s television contracts and ability to lean on the existing marketing infrastructures of partnered NBA franchises allowed it to outlast the ABL, and the December folding catalyzed a massive crossover. Rizzotti and Wolters shipped off to Texas together and won a championship that summer with the Houston Comets. Carolyn Jones, who finished as the ABL career record holder in points-per-game average (21.5) and free throws made (555) also played in both leagues. Berube decided to use the league’s collapse as an opportunity for an early start in her coaching career and retired from playing.

Sienko’s work with the Blizzard and the relationships he developed helped land him the position of general manager for the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun when the Mohegan Tribe purchased the franchise and moved the team from Orlando to its casino facility in Uncasville ahead of the 2003 season. Using lessons learned in Hartford, Sienko helped the Sun become the first profitable franchise in league history despite not being based in a major media market. Sienko joined the Atlanta Dream in 2017 and, after being named the 2018 WNBA’s Executive of the Year, was promoted to the team’s president and general manager. But after the team struggled over the next two seasons, he was dismissed in April of this year. Once again, things change quickly in the sports world.

Chris Sienko and Kelly Loeffler

In July 2019, Sienko, then GM of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, chats with owner Kelly Loeffler.

After her playing days were over, Rizzotti went on to coach the University of Hartford women’s basketball team for 17 seasons, leading the Hawks to four America East Conference championships and six NCAA Tournament berths. She moved on to George Washington University in 2016 before being named president of the Connecticut Sun earlier this year, taking the helm of a franchise that she, in many ways, helped build in the first place. She will also serve as an assistant coach for the USA women’s Olympic team in the rescheduled 2021 Tokyo Games. After 17 highly successful seasons as the head coach of the Division-III Tufts University women’s basketball team, Berube guided Princeton to a 26-1 record in her first season as head coach in 2019–20 and was named coach of the year in the Ivy League.

Carla Berube

Former UConn and Blizzard star Carla Berube led the Princeton team to a near-flawless record in her first year as coach.

Rizzotti and Berube’s proximity to the game has allowed them to observe the lasting effects of a team that, despite only playing two and a half seasons, helped launch the sport at a critical juncture. “Starting with UConn and then when the Blizzard took off with the fans that they had, women’s basketball is sort of the heart of Connecticut sports, it really is, and the Blizzard had a big part in that,” Berube says. “A short amount of time, but a big part of it, and sort of gave the blueprint for the Mohegan Sun and the Connecticut Sun to say, ‘Oh yeah, we can be successful here.’ It’s not just the UConn men’s and women’s teams, and I think the Blizzard showed that. It’s too bad that the rest of the country and the other teams [in the ABL] didn’t fare so well, but clearly the Blizzard showed that it can be done.”

“It was living proof that we could have professional basketball in the state of Connecticut and that, even in the same season as UConn, people would go and watch,” Rizzotti adds. “It proved that Connecticut is a women’s basketball state. They love it. Now when I look at how long the Connecticut Sun has been there and how well they have done in their attendance, it makes me proud to think that we were part of the first professional team in Connecticut. Hopefully the Blizzard’s legacy is that it created a path for a professional team to come later and be really successful.”


After the Blizzard

Jennifer Rizzotti was introduced as president of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun on Tuesday, April 27, 2021 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. The New Fairfield native was a national championship winner at UConn.

After the Blizzard

When the bankrupt ABL folded in December 1998, taking the successful New England Blizzard into oblivion with it, state officials in Connecticut, including then-Lt. Gov. M. Jodi Rell, got to work on keeping professional women’s basketball going in the state. They sent letters to the presidents of the NBA and the WNBA asking that the WNBA, which started play in 1997, add a franchise to basketball-hungry Hartford. Despite high attendance at Blizzard games, prospects for a new team were dim. At the time, WNBA franchises had to be located in cities that also had NBA teams. One WNBA official, quoted in a news report at the time, said, “If we were to go into New England, it would have to be in Boston. That’s the WNBA policy.”

Hartford would not score a WNBA franchise, but the state would not have to wait long for the return of pro basketball. In 2003, the Mohegan Tribe bought the failing Orlando Miracle franchise and moved the team to the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville. The Sun were the first WNBA franchise not to share a market with an NBA team. The WNBA has yet to ship up to Boston.

Jarrett Van Meter is a writer based in Asheville, North Carolina. His first book, How Sweet It Is, is about high school basketball in his home state of Kentucky.

This article appears in the October 2021 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can  here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.