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Full-Court Press

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Courtesy of Cornell Alumni Magazine

Liz Robbins '92 isn't likely to receive a holiday card from longtime basketball coach Larry Brown. Two years ago, as the NBA beat writer for the New York Times, Robbins broke a big story during the playoffs: while Brown was coaching the Detroit Pistons, he was in talks with the Cleveland Cavaliers about taking a job as team president. The next morning, Brown made his displeasure known. "That girl," he announced, as he stepped off the team bus and spotted her among a gaggle of reporters, "is an evil, evil woman."

There are many who disagree. Robbins says she has a good working relationship with "probably three-fourths of the coaches in the league." She chats about Cornell with Bryan Colangelo '87, general manager of the Toronto Raptors. She occasionally speaks Italian with Kobe Bryant (he spent much of his childhood in Italy; she studied Jewish history of the Italian Renaissance on the Hill). Former Times sports editor Neil Amdur, who hired her seven years ago, gushes that Robbins is "the embodiment of the modern American woman--smart, independent, motivated, athletic, committed to her craft, and, above all, a team player."

As for Brown's team, the Pistons were none to happy with Robbins's story, which began a sequence of events that eventually resulted in his ill-fated hiring by the New York Knicks (he was fired after a year). But at least the famously nomadic coach's hyperbole was a reaction to Robbins's work, rather than her gender--a far cry from her first job at Florida's St. Petersburg Times, where she covered sports while "dealing with high school coaches who didn't think that women should be doing what I was doing."

quoteAlthough she has experienced a couple of locker-room run-ins with misogynistic athletes--a New York Knick purposely flashing her, an Atlanta Brave telling her, "Honey, you don't belong in here"--she generally considers the women-in-sportswriting issue to be a thing of the past. Indeed, fifteen years after her start in the business, she says, "I certainly notice a difference. I think athletes generally accept that women are going to be reporters. Even the less enlightened ones are coming around."

Robbins briefly entertained thoughts of graduate school, but there was an air of inevitability to her career path. A foursport athlete at her Philadelphia high school, she played two years of lacrosse at Cornell before opting for the Daily Sun over daily practices."My coach also chose it for me," Robbins quips. "I was on the bench quite a bit." Robbins rose to assistant sports editor, then interned for a summer at the Boston Globe, where she was part of a team that compiled an award-winning series on racism and the Red Sox. One of Robbins's jobs: roam around a packed Fenway Park and record how many African Americans were in attendance (she counted seventy-one). Following graduation, a scholarship from the Association for Women in Sports Media earned her a summer gig at the Washington Post, which led to her job in Florida. In 1994, Robbins began a fiveyear stint at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where she rose through the ranks and covered big stories like the World Series and the Olympics. In March 2000, she was hired by the Times, her first assignment being the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments.

Although Robbins's byline has topped stories about everything from the Indy 500 and U.S. Open tennis to the Stanley Cup finals and the Athens Olympics, the NBA has been her primary beat since October 2004. It can be exhilarating (she ranks Lebron James's forty-eight-point playoff performance last season as one of her most memorable experiences) and occasionally troubling (she covered the early days of the recent referee betting scandal, which she says "calls into question the legitimacy of the league"). And it's always exhausting. During the NBA playoffs, Robbins--who has won three inhouse Publisher's Awards from the Times--has been known to spend fifty of sixty days on the road. "She works as hard on a 600-word story as a 6,000-word one," says colleague Joe Drape. "Liz is intensely curious about things beyond sports, and it informs her perspective. She's not going to just talk to [Phoenix Suns point guard] Steve Nash about how he runs the team. She's going to ask what book he's reading and how that influences him as an athlete."

In part because of that curiosity, Robbins has decided to write her own book-- about the New York City Marathon. After covering her eleventh straight U.S. Open in early September, she took a temporary leave of absence from the Times to write a narrative of race day through the eyes of a half-dozen runners, from professionals to disabled athletes. "I have a lot of friends who don't like sports," says Robbins, "and I tell them, 'I don't write about sports. I write about people'."

-- Brad Herzog '90, Cornell Alumni Magazine