Noting that today is National Girls and Women in Sports Day, Sparks co-owner Carla Christopherson ticked off a list of Leslie's impressive achievements. Leslie, now 36, was one of the keystone players, allocated to the Sparks in 1997 when the WNBA was founded. With a career total of 5,909 points and 3,156 rebounds, she holds both the league records in both categories.
Her career has been filled with accolades since she first picked up a basketball at the age of 12 as a student at Morningside High. "It will be 24 years this year since I fell in love with the game of basketball at the age of 13," she told an audience of reporters that also included a team of young players from her alma mater and her former high school coach, whom she thanked both for "opening up the gym" and for "opening up his life" to her.
Leslie might have gotten a late start in the game, but she picked it up as quickly as she was growing, and that was mighty fast. Six feet tall as an eighth grader, Leslie hit 6-5 by age 15. Encouraged by her uncle and a cousin, both in their teens, she developed the work ethic that has become her trademark. She set a high school record at Morningside, scoring 101 points in the first half of a game against South Torrance High on February 7, 1990. She was unable to beat Cheryl Miller's record of 104 points in a game, however, when South Torrance walked off the court at half-time.
Leslie went on to the University of Southern California where she continued to chalk up records, some of which still stand. Averaging 20.1 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, she set the Pac-10 conference records for scoring, rebounding and blocked shots, accumulating 2,414 points, 1,214 boards, and 321 blocks over the course of her collegiate career, during which she helped carry the Lady Trojans to four NCAA tournament appearances and a Pac-10 conference championship. Leslie was named All-Pac 10 during all four years, becoming the first player in Pac-10 history to receive first team recognition during all four years, and earned the Rookie of the Year Award in 1991.
An All-American in '92, '93, and '94, Leslie was honored as the National Freshman of the Year in 1991 and as the National Player of the Year in 1994. She was inducted into the USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005 and her retired jersey hangs in Galen Center on USC's campus.
Leslie, whom Christofferson noted is "the player Sparks fans love and the player fans from other teams love to hate," also left her mark on USA Basketball. The last remaining member of the core group who trained together for a full year to bring the gold back to the United States in 1996, Leslie finished her USA Basketball career last summer with a 32-0 record in Olympic competition. She is the only female basketball player to win four consecutive gold medals (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008), and holds the record as the USA's all-time leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker with a total of 488 points, 241 rebounds and 36 blocked shots in Olympic competition. An unselfish player, she also ranks fourth in assists (45) and sixth in steals (35). She was honored as the MVP of the 2002 FIBA World Championships and as the 1993, 1998, and 2002 USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year.
Leslie said that she has been considering retirement since last season, when she talked it over with Sparks coach Michael Cooper on several occasions. "He told me I had another good season or two left in me." Leslie had sat out the 2007 season due to her pregnancy with daughter Lauren, and said that the effort to come back and to balance her basketball career and motherhood have been considerable.
"I never cried as much in basketball as last season," said Leslie. "I know it may have been the hormones," she stated, adding that she is interested to see how it will be to play this year without the hormonal and emotional pressures of the recovery from pregnancy.
Leslie thanked her mother, sisters and other family members, as well as her husband, who travel with the team and make it possible for her to manage her basketball career and motherhood. But Leslie's mother, Christine Leslie-Espinoza, put the credit back on her daughter. "She gets up at 5:30 in the morning to dress her and do her hair," said Leslie-Espinoza. "She doesn't have to do it, but she wants to be the one to do it. She doesn't want to come home at 11:00 and night and have the baby be in pajamas. She wants to be a good mom."
But it is also important to Leslie to be a good player. Asked the inevitable question, "Why now?" Leslie responded that she never wanted to reach the point where she was resting on her laurels but not contributing to her team. "I didn't want to get to where I couldn't get to the ball, I wasn't fast enough or strong enough.... I don't want to be that player and I don't want you to have to see that player."
Leslie even said that she felt she'd set her goals for herself too low last season, settling for getting back to where she had been, rather than elevating her level of play. Not until the playoffs, she said, did she really take things to the level she should have been. No more of that. If this is to be her last season, count on her making it her best one yet.
Still, if Leslie was disappointed in last season, she may have been one of the few who were. Despite sharing the offense in the Sparks' prodigious front court with rookie sensation Candace Parker, her season average of 15.1 ppg was only slightly off her career average of 17.4 ppg, and her rebounding fell by just a hair from her career average of 9.3 boards per game to 8.9 rbg. Her blocks per game actually rose--from a career average of 2.3 apg to a season average of 2.9. She also equalled her career average of 2.4 assists per game. Her performance within a year of delivering her first child was good enough to earn her Defensive Player of the Year honors, and she was one of the front runners for last year's MVP, an honor that Leslie had taken home three times previously and that last year ultimately went to her rookie teammate.
As for the future, Leslie was vague about all but one thing. She doesn't want to coach, she stated. But then she hesitated. She does run the Lisa Leslie camps, and then there's the year-long academies. That's not really coaching, she tried to explain. It's more about giving back and helping kids get to be better players and better people. (Some might argue that's what coaching is, isn't it?) When Michael Cooper got his chance, he said he does see coaching in Leslie's future--even now, she does it from the bench. In fact, though he got the dates off a bit, that's where he met Leslie. She was a high school student, working as an assistant coach at a Pasadena College camp he was running, and he started yelling at her to "get with her team and get the job done." He's been yelling at her ever since, they joked.
All kidding aside, Leslie said she's not sure what she'll do. She noted that President Barack Obama is expected to be staffing his advisory Council on Physical Fitness and Sports in the near future and said that's a project she would relish the opportunity to work with. She's also "open" to a front office job if asked (Christofferson said the Sparks or any team would love to have her, but also noted what an asset Leslie would be to the league's front office) and would love to maintain her connections to the game. She sees her "spiritual gift" and calling in life as public speaking and serving as a role model to young women and boys. "Even though I get nervous," she said, "you never know if the one thing you say will be the thing that will help turn a life around."
Being a role model is something Leslie says has always been important to her, and her definition ranges from how she performs as an athlete to how she behaves off the court and even to matters of personal appearance. "I've always wanted to do good," she said. "My sisters used to tease me that I'm a nerd." It didn't occur to her to take what she calls the "easy route": "It's easy to go around swearing at people. It's harder to be a role model," she said.
Part of it has to do with overcoming what Leslie feels are the stereotypes attached to her Compton upbringing. "People don't want to come out and see girls covered in tattoos and braids, going around dirty or not put together, not speaking well and representing themselves well. They think that's all you can be because you're from the inner city or a gang neighborhood." Leslie, who never emerges from the locker room without her hair coiffed and her makeup on, feels confident that there are plenty of "beautiful women" in the league--her teammate Candace Parker, for one--who will pick up the torch and carry on being role models--which to her includes being feminine, being married, having children and presenting a family image.
As for her own role models, Leslie points to Billy Jean King, and a list of coaches--Marianne Stanley, Pat Summitt, Tara VanDerveer. Coach Michael Cooper, on the other hand, compares Leslie to three of the male greats--Kareem Abdul Jabar, Magic Johnson and Bill Russell, adding "and Smooth has better ball-handling skills than any of them." (Though this is a day to cherish Leslie's accomplishments, anyone who has winced as Leslie has commenced a waist-high dribble down the court might balk at that one.)
Looking back on her storied career--the 101-point half, the NCAA Tournament appearances, the MVP awards (in 2001 she took home three in a single season as MVP of the WNBA season, All-Star Game, and Finals), the Sparks' two championships, the league's first dunk, the Olympic Golds--she said without hesitation that the high point in her career was the Olympic gold medal she won in Atlanta in 1996. "To play for your school or your city is great," she said, "but to play for your country is something else entirely. It's a whole different level. Then to play in your own country. With 36,000 people watching. And to win." To win and then some. After dedicating a full year to bringing gold back to the United States, the U.S. took the final match against Brazil, 111-87, with Leslie putting up a game high 29 points. "It was definitely the moment I'll never forget," said Leslie, who said she maintains close ties with Katy Steding and Rebecca Lobo, as well as Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes and others from the '96 Olympic Team.
What she'll miss the most once she hangs up her high tops is the locker room and the cameraderie of her teammates, says Leslie. There are special bonds that develop in the trenches, through all the hard work, pressure, and ups and downs, she noted. Interestingly, the Sparks players she mentioned by name--Nicky McCrimmon, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Mwadi Mabika, Tamika Dixon--most now gone from the L.A. roster, were all members of the 2001 or 2002 championship teams.
That's fitting, because while Leslie may be indefinite about her career goals for the long haul, she was unequivocal about her goal for the immediate future: To take L.A. to its third "but not its last" WNBA championship. Being Lisa Leslie, there's little doubt she's written that one down.
The Sparks front office also shared comments on the difficult task of filling Leslie's shoes. Check back later for further details.