Lisa Leslie, the Face of the W.N.B.A., Prepares for Life After Basketball
By BRIAN HEYMAN
Published: August 22, 2009
When Lisa Leslie was growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton, she had an idea that she was destined to be special. She kept signing “Lisa Leslie” on paper all around her family’s house from the time she was 7.
Lisa Leslie, a member of the all-decade team, was the first woman to dunk in a professional game.
“My mom would always ask me, Why am I signing my name everywhere?” said Leslie, who was 6 feet tall in sixth grade. “I said, ‘Because I want to give out autographs.’ I just told her I was going to be famous.”
Leslie reached 6-5 and stopped growing, but her talent did not. And she indeed became famous.
Her 12th and final season as a center with the Los Angeles Sparks is winding down. Leslie, one of the W.N.B.A.’s original players in 1997, will retire at the age of 37 as the league’s career leader in scoring and rebounding. She can also carry the satisfaction of knowing that her play, style and popularity contributed so much to establishing a professional league in which little girls with big basketball dreams can aspire to play.
“I don’t think there’s an athlete on the court today or in this league or in youth leagues all around this country who don’t owe a debt of gratitude to Lisa Leslie, or don’t look up to her as an iconic figure in women’s basketball,” Donna Orender, president of the W.N.B.A., said at the All-Star Game last month. “She has been one of the great competitors, the most fierce competitor.”
Sue Bird, Seattle’s All-Star point guard, regards Leslie as the face of the game.
“You walk in an airport with Lisa Leslie and it’s impossible,” Bird said. “When people look at her, they see women’s basketball. They see the W.N.B.A.”
Yet Leslie’s world has grown much wider. She gave birth to her first child, Lauren, with her husband, Michael Lockwood, in June 2007, and she sat out that season. Leslie also considers herself a mother to Lockwood’s two teenage daughters. She decided to retire after playing this season, saying it was difficult to balance being an athlete, wife and mother.
When Leslie talks about life with her 2-year-old, her voice fills with joy.
“I love being a mom,” said Leslie, whose mother, Christine, drove a truck to support her and her two sisters. “I think the best part about it is every morning when I go into her room and see her smile, and when I smile at her, she just says, ‘I’m happy.’ She’s just so smart. I enjoy teaching her. She does her ABC’s. She can count to 50.
“And as far as sports goes, oh, my gosh, I can’t keep a ball out of her hand, whether it’s a basketball, a soccer ball or especially a tennis ball.”
After scoring 101 points in the first half of a game as a high school senior in 1990, then starring at Southern California, Leslie played one season in Italy and helped the United States win a gold medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
“At that moment, I thought I had retired from basketball,” Leslie said.
She took her striking looks to New York that August, having signed two months earlier with the Wilhelmina modeling agency. She strutted the runway and posed for magazine ads.
But basketball came calling when the W.N.B.A., in affiliation with the N.B.A., tipped off with eight teams for the 1997 season. Leslie says now that she was surprised by the first-class operation.
Her league accomplishments since are impressive: eight-time All-Star; three-time most valuable player; three-time All-Star M.V.P.; two-time finals M.V.P.; two-time league champion; two-time defensive player of the year; first to score 6,000 points; first woman to dunk in a professional game; member of the all-decade team. That all goes with her four shiny Olympic gold medals.
“I definitely think it’s a will to want to be one of the best players and to win,” said Tina Thompson, another original W.N.B.A. player and eight-time All-Star, and Leslie’s teammate for one season at U.S.C., twice in the Olympics and this season with Los Angeles.
“When that’s something that’s inside of you when you set out, you raise the bar higher and higher, kind of nothing is ever enough. It continues to allow you to have that work ethic to get better. I think Lisa is one of the few players who possesses that.”
Leslie’s league found its little niche in the sports landscape. Despite hitting a few bumps along the way, it has shown the staying power that its forerunners did not.
The W.N.B.A. has 13 teams, down from a high of 16 in 2001 and 2002. Only seven are still owned by N.B.A. teams. Average attendance peaked in 1998 at 10,869, but it is on the rise for the third straight year, up 3 percent over 2008, at 7,945 through Thursday’s games. Merchandise sales at NBAStore.com are up 10 percent from 2008, with Leslie jersey sales having tripled.
Ratings on ESPN2 remain low, but they are up among children, teenagers and three male age groups. The W.N.B.A. is in the first year of an eight-year contract with ESPN/ABC, becoming the first women’s league to gain television rights fees. Three new corporate marketing partners have signed on and four have renewed, including Nike. Los Angeles and Phoenix have sold a sponsorship for their game jerseys.
“I think we’ve just truly evolved,” Leslie said, “by players individually, our individual talent level has risen, as well as our numbers and our fan support, as well as our corporate sponsorship.
“I feel very confident about where I’m leaving the game in the hands of these young players like Candace Parker, Sylvia Fowles and Sue Bird. I think it’s only going to continue to get better.”
Leslie’s farewell tour hit a snag five games into the season. She sprained a knee on June 19 and missed 11 Sparks games, as well as the All-Star Game. She returned Aug. 4 and is averaging 15.1 points, tops on her team, and 6.9 rebounds for the season.
She says she plans to stay close to basketball through broadcasting and, with her experience as a guest star on TV shows and in commercials, to do more acting. She has enjoyed being a role model, and that includes wearing lipstick and a ribbon in her hair on the court.
“It’s always been important to me to show the young girls that it’s O.K. to maintain their femininity and play sports,” Leslie said.
Parker, her Sparks teammate and the league’s most acclaimed young star, is thankful for Leslie and the other women who paved the W.N.B.A. way for her.
“Fortunately enough, because of them, I haven’t known anything else other than aspiring to play at the highest level, and that’s in the W.N.B.A.,” Parker said. “I think she’s meant a lot to women’s basketball, and she will go down in history as one of the best to ever play.”
"If you judge people, you don't have time to love them." -- Mother Teresa
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