Game ball

Lisa Lissimore and Linda Roberts (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

Basketball standout Linda Roberts wasn’t always one of the biggest stars of the game. Staff at the park where she picked up a ball for the first time as a 12-year-old joked that she couldn’t dribble and chew gum at the same time. 

Roberts’ younger cousin, Lisa Lissimore, mastered dribbling right away. However Lissimore, who started playing at about the same time as Roberts, recalled that her skinny-girl self couldn’t shoot the ball very well. 

It wasn’t long before both Roberts and Lissimore overcame their challenges and developed into star athletes who would lead their Central High School team to victory in 1976 at the first girls’ state tournament sponsored by the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL). Both remain connected to the game through their careers, Roberts as director of special events and community outreach for the University of Minnesota’s athletics department and Lissimore as associate director of the MSHSL. 

For these two cousins, winning was the easy part. Figuring out who to credit is harder. 

“Lisa’s going to tell you that she made me who I am,” quipped Roberts, who played center and was often fed the ball by point guard Lissimore. “But if she wouldn’t have missed [shots] with the ball, I wouldn’t have gotten the rebound.” 

Neither girl had family members who played basketball; rather, it was friends who influenced them. Lissimore had recently moved to Hague Avenue when she started going to Oxford playground in St. Paul and convinced her mother to let her play flag football on the girls’ team. 

“That was the start of my athletic career,” recalled Lissimore, who later played softball, track and broomball. By the time she attended Ramsey Junior High, however, she narrowed her focus to basketball. 

A single-sport athlete, Roberts’ dedication to basketball was clear. “I loved the game,” she said. “I became addicted to it.” 

She also became a force to be reckoned with. “Linda turned out to be one of the best basketball players this state has ever seen,” stated Lissimore. Even though she may be biased, there are statistics to back up Lissimore’s claim. Roberts still holds 11 University of Minnesota records, including 1,413 career rebounds during her tenure with the Golden Gophers from 1977-1981. She ranks fourth in all-time scoring. She has been inducted into the Hall of Fame at Central High School, the MSHSL and the University of Minnesota. In 2006, the Gophers retired her jersey, No. 21. 

Lissimore is a Hall of Famer herself, having been inducted at both Central High School and Grand View College in Des Moines, where she finished her basketball career after a year-long stint with the Gophers. 

Luckily for both the Central Minutemen and the Golden Gophers, the teams had not seen the last of this talented family. Lissimore’s younger sister, Roxanne Lissimore, played for Central and was on the state championship team in 1979. The high school was also home to younger cousin, Ashley Ellis-Milan, who graduated in 2005 and made a name for herself as a starting center/forward for the U of M. The two-year team captain finished fifth on the school’s all-time rebounding list with 860 and ranked 12th in career scoring with 1,281 points. 

Ellis-Milan literally followed in her family’s footsteps when, at age 11, she learned how to play while attending the Shooting Stars basketball clinic run by Roberts and Lissimore. For the last two years she has been playing professional basketball in Europe. 

“My mom decided to put me in the camp because she thought it would be good for me because I was so tall and the camp was run by family members,” wrote Ellis-Milan in an email from Germany. “My mom influenced me to play. She always kept me in the sport when I was young and I grew to love the game and committed myself to the sport.” 

Ellis-Milan also credits Title IX, an amendment to the U.S. Constitution enacted in 1972 that leveled the playing field for girls and boys in education and athletics. “Girls in my age group are well aware of Title IX,” Ellis-Milan said. “We know that it gave us the opportunity to play sports and if we didn’t have it we wouldn’t be where we are today.” 

Lisa Lissimore indicated there is still work to be done to achieve a truly level playing field, including hiring more women coaches and athletic administrators. Clearing up the misperception that Title IX is to blame for cuts to men’s athletic programs is also important, she said. “While we have come a long way, schools must closely monitor their athletic programs to make sure they meet the interests and abilities of all their students.”