Roberts returns to alma mater for jersey retirement

Robin Roberts accepts a framed banner of her retired No. 21 Lady Lions basketball jersey from President John Crain during the retirement ceremony at Southeastern's University Center on Feb. 5.

Robin Roberts approached the mic, smiled and said what she wanted to say in five words.

“It’s good to be home,” she said.

Applause erupted from Southeastern alumni as their 1996 Alumnus of the Year met with the assembled crowd in a private room before she stepped into the University Center’s spotlight on Feb. 5.

Roberts had traveled over 1,300 miles from Times Square to reunite with friends from her Lady Lions basketball team. The rest of her Southeastern family anticipated her return inside the arena. She took a breath and placed the mic near her mouth.

The room hushed.

“I have such great pride,” Roberts said about her alma mater. “A few years ago when I was battling breast cancer and feeling very low, Southeastern sent me the biggest stuffed lion you’ve ever seen in your life that I still have with me. I cuddled with it in my recovery.

“The student athletes here at Southeastern spelled out my name on the card, and that’s what this spirit is all about.”

She carried that same spirit and camaraderie to the basketball court, where her No. 21 jersey now hangs beside Queen Brumfield Nard’s No. 32 jersey in the rafters.

The center’s lights dimmed as Roberts stood beside President John Crain to watch her own green-and-gold banner unfurl. At that moment, she became one of two Lady Lions to have her basketball jersey retired.

“These kinds of events are essential for a university like Southeastern,” Crain said. “It’s a great day for the university and the Southeastern family.”

Roberts played four seasons for the Lady Lions, from 1979 to 1983, under Coaches Linda Puckett and Ace Bryant. She ranks sixth for points scored, fifth for field goals made, fourth for rebounds and free throws made and third for games played.

The distinguished Lady Lion joined Southeastern’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 1991 and became one of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s “100 Most Influential Student-Athletes” in 2006.

Ladies basketball has kept Roberts’ athletic spirit alive at Southeastern, but she attributes her success to the classroom.

“I’m so appreciative of the quality education,” Roberts said, “that I was a student first and then an athlete and how that was encouraged.”

She majored in mass communication and gained experience at local radio stations, including KSLU-FM and WHMD/WFPR Radio, as a sports reporter and director. Roberts graduated in 1983 and hasn’t stopped since.

For her, the Hammond market was just the beginning.

The Pass Christian, Miss., native moved to Atlanta and Nashville to advance her broadcasting career and later returned to her home state to accept jobs in Biloxi and Hattiesburg. In 1990, she moved up to the big leagues.

That’s when ESPN contacted her to join their team as anchor of the popular program “SportsCenter” and co-host of “NFL PrimeTime.” After 15 years with the sports giant, she landed the job that would define her career.

In 2005, Roberts accepted the co-anchor position at Good Morning America in New York City’s Times Square, where she continues to host two-hour chats and interviews with headliners around the world.

Sally-Ann Roberts, co-anchor of WWL-TV’s morning news program in New Orleans, agreed with her sister that success starts with education.

“It provided a foundation for everything she did later in life,” Roberts’ sister said. “There’s a camaraderie and warmth at this university. Robin is such a role model in our family. It is such an honor to see No. 21 up there.”

Back in Hammond, Roberts was the headline.

Cheers celebrated the jersey retirement as men from the Delta Tau Delta fraternity danced to the rhythm of a small marching band. They painted the phrase “Go Robin!” on their chests, followed by a pink ribbon in honor of Roberts’ battle with breast cancer.

After the ceremony, the honoree remained on the court for a continuous meet-and-greet session. She signed a golden arm cast and posed for one last memory as university officials escorted her off the court. Roberts smiled for each fan request and took the time to say, “You’re welcome,” for every, “Thank you.”

The day was a big one for the legendary Lady Lion.

“I thought the Saints winning last year was the highlight,” she said after Crain presented her with a framed banner that had her number on it. “This is my sports moment.”

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