When the “face” of your sport is a Wilhemina model, you know you’re off to a good start. But Lisa Leslie, the most-recognized player in the WNBA, brings considerably more than a stunning visage and statuesque body to the court. She also happens to be the most dominant player in the women’s game. A two-time MVP who’s still hungry for more, Lisa is leading the charge for the new-look Los Angele Sparks. This is her story…

GROWING UP

Lisa Leslie was born on July 7, 1972, in Los Angeles. Her mother, Christine, stood 6-3, so there was little question that Lisa and her sisters, Dionne and Tiffany, would be six-footers. When Lisa was a toddler, her father left home. Rather than working low-paying jobs or accepting public assistance, her mother bought a truck and went into business for herself. The family lived in Compton, and later in Carson.

During the school year, Christine would be gone for weeks at a time, with a live-in housekeeper looking in on the girls. The girls’ aunt Judy also provided some fill-in parenting. But much of the household responsibility fell to Lisa, who was doing plenty of maternal things by the time she was 10.

During school breaks, Lisa and Tiffany would hit the open road with their mom, eating at truck stops and sleeping in the cab. Each summer, as the girls grew, that cab got a little tighter. Lisa sprouted past six feet in the seventh grade. Everyone asked her the same question: Do you play basketball? She did indeed play, but was hardly passionate about the game. In fact, this question got so annoying that she decided it would be easier to quit basketball just so she could say, "No." Besides, her dream was to become a TV weather reporter.

Fortunately, the star of the junior high team talked Lisa into trying out. She started center, and the team went undefeated. Lisa loved being in the middle of the action. Her teammates looked to her to score, rebound, or create scoring opportunities with her passing.

Lisa soon began to get serious about basketball. Her favorite player was James Worthy of the Lakers, a young star who could shoot, rebound, play D and finish on the break. Lisa realized that being tall was no enough of an advantage, so she began playing with her cousin, Craig, who helped her develop her footwork and shooting. A natural lefty. Lisa began working with her right hand at an early age. To improve her stamina, she did sit-ups and push-ups every day. Craig took her two Victorian Park near his house in Carson for workouts and pickup games.

Lisa entered Morningside High School in Inglewood in 1986 and made Frank Scott’s varsity, starting every game. She also joined the volleyball and track teams, increasing her leaping ability and speed in the process. She would eventually win state titles in the high jump and triple jump.

In Lisa’s sophomore year, Morningside advanced to the state playoffs. In the semis, the team had a chance to win the game at the buzzer. Lisa took the shot—and missed. She brooded all summer, and worked even harder on her game. Lisa achieved her full height, 6-5, in her junior year, and cemented her rep as the top high-schooler player in the city. By this time, she could dunk the ball in the open court. Her high-jumping technique enabled her to rise off the floor and jam-one handed, even though she could not palm the ball.

Lisa led Morningside to the state title in 1989. After her junior season, she was invited to play for Team USA’s Junior World Championship squad. Lisa topped the team in scoring and rebounding that summer.

During her senior year, Lisa became the top player in the country as Morningside won the state finals again.. She averaged 27 points and 15 rebounds a game, despite the fact that Scott pulled her from many games a few minutes into the second half. He was careful not to humliate teams Morningside would have to face the following season, when Lisa was no longer on the team.

It was a tradition at Morningside to let the squad’s star player try to break the school scoring record at the end of her senior year. In the 1990 finale against South Torrance, Scott instructed Lisa’s teammates to feed her the ball whenever she was open. She was gunning for the a new mark of 69. In the first quarter, Lisa poured 49 points. In the second quarter, she dumped in 52 more. Morningside held a 102-24 lead at halftime, and Lisa had 101 of those points.


 

 

 


James Worthy photo

 

     
 

The all-time record for a high school girl was 105 points, by Cheryl Miller. Lisa was a lock to shatter the mark—or was she? Across the hall, the South Torrance players voted to forfeit. Two of their three low post players had already fouled out, and the third had injured herself trying to stop Lisa. Though disappointed, Morningside accepted the decision as a compliment—when the other team doesn’t even want to come out of the locker room, you’ve accomplished something.

ON THE RISE

Lisa got good grades at Morningside, and basically had her pick of any college in the country. She decided to stay close to home, opting for Southern Cal. She had grown up rooting for Miller and Cynthia Cooper, and liked what new coach Marianne Stanley—a star at Immaculata in the 1970s—had to say about the opportunities that awaited her both in the hoops program and the school itself.

In her first game for USC, Lisa scored 30 points and grabbed 20 rebounds against Texas, and went on to have a fabulous freshman year. She averaged 19.4 points and an even 10 rebounds a game. She was an easy pick for NCAA Freshman of the Year.

Lisa not only posted impressive numbers as a frosh, she elevated her game, controlled her emotions, and played like a veteran. She wasn't afraid of anyone—becoming the intimidator herself when anyone tried to get in her face. Of course, nothing was as unsettling to opponents as the USC warm-ups, during which Lisa would dunk in layup drills.

The summer after her freshman year, Leslie toured with Team USA, helping the team to gold at the World University Games. During the competition, she developed an appetite for international competition, and was disappointed whe she was not added to the 1992 Olympic squad. In turn, she set her sights on the ’96 Games in Atlanta, and went about the business of becoming the top player in the world.

Lisa usually hit for around 20 points and collected 10 rebounds a night as a collegian. Within those numbers, she steadily improved her defense, and became adept at passing out of the double-teams she inevitably faced. In fact, between her first and last seasons at USC, she quadrupled her assists per game. Lisa made All-American her last three years with the Lady Trojans, was USA Basketball’s Player of the Year in 1993 as a junior, and won the Naismith Award as a senior. USC went to the NCAA Tournament in each of Lisa’s four seasons, but lacked the depth to win it all, losing in the regionals each year. Unranked when Lisa arrived, the team had climbed to #7 by the time she graduated.

After graduation, she played for Team USA in the 1994 Goodwill Games and crushed her opposition. Hitting on 70 percent of her field goal attempts, she averaged 19 a game. After the tournament, Lisa was recognized as the top young female star in the world.

Lisa now faced a crossroads in her career. There was no women’s pro basketball in the United States, so her goal was to stay sharp for the 1996 Olympics and make a few bucks along the way. She joined Sicilgesso of the Italian League, and averaged a double-doulbe (22.6 points and 11.7 rebounds) for the 1994-95 season. That spring, she was officially added to the U.S. Olympic squad by coach Tara VanDerveer.

From the standpoint of women’s hoops, more was riding on these Olympics than any other in history. Title IX legislation had jump-started the sport in the 1980s, and subsequent rules changes had helped it become an understandable, marketable product in the eyes of fans and American corporations. If the U.S. women could win the gold and put on an entertaining show in Atlanta, interest in launching a pro league with a real future would gain serious momentum.

Lisa joined a group that included some of the best players in the world, including Nikki McCray, Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo, Katrina McClain, Ruthie Bolton, Carla McGhee, Teresa Edwards and Jennifer Azzi. Some, like Lisa, had turned down good salaries in 1995-96 to spend time coming together as a team.


Cheryl Miller, Kelloggs card
     
 

Lisa was different than her teammates in one key respect. Team USA’s guards and forwards had little in the way of head-to-head competition awaiting them in Atlanta. Lisa, the squad’s starting center, would be matched against big, physical women who were used to dominating games. If Lisa could not handle these players, the gold medal might be in jeopardy.

In the 52-game exhibition run-up to the Olympics, the Americans melded as a team, and Lisa got a better feel of what would be expected of her. The club built up a head of steam heading into Atlanta, and kept rolling once the Summer Games began. Team USA won its first five over Cuba, Ukraine, Zaire, Australia, and South Korea—all with relative ease. In the semifinals, Lisa netted 35 against Japan to set up a gold-medal final against Brazil.

This was the team that concerned the Americans most. Brazil’s center, Marta de Souza Sobral, was a tough defender and rebounder, and a savvy offensive player. VanDerveer told Lisa to step away from the lane and fac up for mid-range jumpers. This pulled Sobral out of the paint, and gave the U.S. forwards room to work underneath. With Lisa hitting her shots, Team USA should have been in fine shape for a win. But on the other end, the big Brazilian was having her way.

VanDerveer pulled Lisa out of the game and let her know she had to do a better job on defense. Lisa responded when she re-entered the game, and the Americans captured the gold with a 111-87 win. Lisa was high scorer, with 29 points on 12-for-14 shooting.

The success of Team USA in Atlanta —and winning personalities of its players created enough interest in a women’s pro league that two actually started: the WNBA—an enterprise backed by the NBA—and the American Basketball League. Lisa joined Swoopes and Lobo as the WNBA’s marquee threesome, while the ABL boasted a constellation of college stars. The best player in either league turned out to be Cynthia Cooper, a guard on the 1988 and 1992 Olympic teams. She won the WNBA scoring title and MVP award in the league's first season, and along with Swoopes (who missed much of the campaign after giving birth to a son) led the Houston Comets to the 1997 championship.

Lisa was allowed to stay close to home with the Sparks. The WNBA had placed its two best “big men” in LA and New York, as Lobo suited up for the Liberty. The pair met in the league’s first game. Lisa scored 16 and pulled down 14 boards, but the Sparks lost. That would be a familiar stat line in ’97. Lisa topped the team with 15.9 ppg and led the league with 9.5 rpg, but Los Angeles split their 28 games and missed the playoffs.

Like most WNBA teams, the Sparks spent a couple of seasons finding themselves. From an original core of Lisa, point guard Penny Toler, Tamecka Dixon and Jamila Wideman, the team solidified when Dixon—a shooting guard out of Kansas—and Mwadi Mabika—a backcourt star from Zaire—took charge. After finishing 12-18 in 1998, the Sparks won 20 games in 1999. Forward DeLisha Milton, acquired after the ABL folded, was a big addition to the team. The Sparks had a chance to unseat the two-time champion Comets in the playoffs, but after taking the opener in the best-of-three Western Conference finals, LA dropped a pair in Houston and came home empty-handed.

The Sparks took an important step forward in 2000, winning 28 of 32 games in the regular season and finishing ahead of the Comets for the first time. The difference? New coach Michael Cooper, the ex-Laker. And Ukari Figgs, the floor general for Purdue’s 1999 national champions, who solidified the point guard position for LA. Lisa averaged 17.8 points and 9.6 rebounds a game, and was first-team All-WNBA. Once again, however, the Sparks were bounced out of the Western finals by Houston, which went on to win its fourth consecutive league title.

After the season, Lisa accompanied Team USA to Australia for the 2000 Olympics. The Americans seized the gold again, with Lisa going for 15.8 points per game. Her most notable battle came against Aussie teen Lauren Jackson, who yanked off Lisa’s hair extension in a game. This was the start of what would become a fierce rivalry between the two, as Jackson eventually made her way to the WNBA.


Lisa Leslie, 1995 Topps
     
 

But not until Lisa had a championship under her belt. The Sparks went 28-4 again in 2001, with a perfect 18-0 record at home. This time they were unstoppable in the post-season. LA swept the Comets, beat the Sacramento Monarchs two games to one, then wiped out the Charlotte Sting and their previously impenetrable defense in the finals, winning 75-66 and 82-54.

Lisa was magnificent from wire to wire. She boosted her scoring to 19.5 per game in the regular season, then upped that to 23.5 in the playoffs. She also yanked down 14.5 rebounds and dished out five assists per game in the post-season—both team highs. Lisa also garnered her own version of theTriple Crown, earning honors as the All-Star Game MVP, league MVP and MVP of the WNBA Finals.

Knowing how hard it was to defend a title, Lisa spent the winter addressing the remaining holes in her game. She strengthened her right hand, sharpened her dribbling and passing, and improved her hook shot. With their star an even more dominant presence, the Sparks repeated as WNBA champions in 2002 after a 25-7 regular season. Nikki Teasley replaced Figgs at the point, but the same core of Lisa, Milton, Dixon and Mabika was on the floor getting the job done. Lisa averaged a double-double for the first time since 1998, and became the first player in WNBA history to dunk during a game, flushing one against the Miami Sol on July 30th. The Sparks did not drop a game during the playoffs, sweeping the Seattle Storm, Utah Starzz and New York Liberty on the way to their second title in row.

The Sparks tried for a three-peat in 2003 but came up a couple of wins short. After a 24-10 regular season, they scored clutch playoff victories against the Minnesota Lynx and Sacramento Monarchs, after dropping the first game of each series. In the finals against the Detroit Shock, the Sparks won the opener and then lost two excruciatingly close contests, 62-61 and 83-78.

Lisa’s frustration was compounded by injuries that nagged her all year. She was at 100 percent for fewer than half the team’s games. Adding to her ire was the fact that her emerging rival, Jackson, waled away the MVP award.


Lisa Leslie, 2001 SI for Kids
     
 

The 2004 season marked the last hurrah for LA’s Big Five, as Lisa teamed up with Mabika, Milton, Dixon and Teasley for a league-high 25 wins. She was rock solid as usual. Midway throught the campaign, the league broke for the Olympics. There Lisa guided Team USA to gold for the third time.

Upon her return to the WNBA, Lisa kicked it into high gear, averaging more than 22 points a game while shooting almost 60 percent from the field. On September 9th, she became just the second player in WNBA history to notch a triple-double when she ravaged Detroit for 29 points, 15 rebounds and a record-tying 10 blocks. Best of all, she edged Jackson for the '04 MVP award, 425 points to 351.

In the playoffs, WNBA fans could hardly wait for the Lisa-Lauren showdown in the conference finals. But the Sparks may have been guilty of looking past their first-round date with the Monarchs, who cleaned their clocks with huge victories in Games 1 and 3 to advance.

Over the winter, the team began to reconfigure. Veteran forwards Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Whitmore arrived to assume some of the scoring and rebounding burden, freeing Lisa to pick her spots, and providing depth along with Mabika, Dixon and Teasley. With a talented but aging roster, the Sparks are looking to ring up a couple more championship before this group sails into the sunset.


Lauren Jackson, 2004 Ultra
     
 

After a decade of groundbreaking basketball, there would be no better way for Lisa to leave her final mark on the women’s game.

LISA THE PLAYER

Lisa is the most agile center in the history of women’s basketball. In most of the game she plays, she is basically unguardable. A defensive center needs the quickness to follow her out toward the perimeter, but also the strength to counter her inside moves. It is literally a tall order, and only in recent years has the women’s game produced players who can fill it.

In response, Lisa has added that long-anticipated thug factor to her game. She will bring the hammer down on an opponent if need be, and can no longer be taken out of her game with a few sharp elbows.

Lisa’s arsenal includes a sweet jumper, several scoring moves around the basket, a talent for rebounding, and the dribbling and passing skills to thrive in the open court or in traffic. In the end, though, it is her will to win that separates her from the pack. Lisa is one of the most competitive athletes in all of basketball. She is dedicated to her game, running or lifting on most off-days, and willing to do whatever her team needs to come out on top.



Lisa Leslie, 2005 SI for Kids

 

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