WNBA Guru's Bio of Lisa Leslie for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Printed Program
By Mel Greenberg
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- As the best of her era and worthy of having her likeness sculpted onto a Mount Rushmore of Women’s Basketball, Lisa Leslie has arrived in Springfield tthis weekend with an extra special notation – elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on her first eligibility for induction.
She had the same honor earlier this summer when Leslie, now 43, was part of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame induction class, also on her first eligibility, in Knoxville, Tenn.
And why not?
Just google her name on the internet with the word “first” and you will find enough items to fill half this printed program. And then add the many statistical achievements that cement her as one of the all time greats in her sport and basketball in general and that will take care of the other half but by doing all that we wouldn’t be fair to the space needed to talk about the other inductees being enshrined tonight.
In college at Southern California, besides being named national freshman of the year and in her senior year in 1994, earning national player of the year, Leslie set career records in the then-Pac-10 conference for scoring (2,414 points), rebounding (1,214), and blocked shots (321). She still holds the USC single season record for blocks at 95.
In the WNBA, she became the first to score 6,0000 career points.
She was the first in the league to hit the MVP triple, earning the citation for the season, the All-Star game and the playoffs.
Few can be both pioneer and also a standout when the trailblazing starts to take hold.
But as a founding player of the WNBA back in 1997 with special marketing status along with former UConn star Rebecca Lobo and former Texas Tech star Sheryl Swoopes, Leslie’s play helped the pro league take hold and then she continued to set standards until her retirement in 2009.
And after the seasons of 40 minutes of glory were done, Leslie, who grew up in Los Angeles, was still making history.
She became the first person to play in the league and become a part owner, being with the Los Angeles Sparks for both, though since then that group gave way to one which has former Los Angeles Lakers great Magic Johnson on board.
Recently, Leslie became part of the first all-female television hosting panel discussing sports We Need to Talk as presented on the CBSSports network.
In Leslie’s life, tall came well before basketball, being 6-foot in the sixth grade, 6-4 by the ninth, and then her full 6-5 in the 11th.
In that period, she credits her mom Christine, herself 6-3, for telling her to stay positive and love herself in being taller than most of her classmates.
Christine was sort of a heroine starting her own trucking business to care for Leslie and two other daughters after Leslie’s father left the household before she ever knew him.
What really got Leslie’s juices flowing toward her destiny was being exposed to the Showtime Lakers in the early 1980s and when James Worthy was referred to as L.A.’s go-to guy, Leslie knew what she had to become.
“That’s it. I want to be a go-to player. I want my team to throw me the ball.”
As Leslie became more immersed in hoops, by the 11th grade, she recalls, “Basketball was this thing – oh, I get it, this thing can really help me here.”
At Morningside High, she won back-to-back national championships in 1988-89 and 1989-90. Her senior year in one game she scored 101 points in a half in just 16 minutes.
Leslie, a perennial All-Star in the league, became the first to dunk in a WNBA game playing with Los Angeles.
In the USA Basketball system, she was a true golden girl, becoming the first individual to win four straight gold medals in a team sport from 1996 through 2008.
Four coaches each had influences on Leslie, who developed a tremendous work ethic to become the best.
“I became a student of the game. I could learn from anybody. I can watch kids. I watched men play. I watched other women play,” she explained.
Her high school coach spent hours going over the many skill levels.
At USC in future Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer Marianne Stanley, Leslie had someone to challenge her.
As a freshman, Leslie recalled Stanley told her, “You can’t be a leader (of a team) until you lead by example. You have to do it every day, not just in games, but in practice. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. Every day you have to show up. And it was about being consistent.”
Stanley, who actually also helped coach Leslie for a time in the WNBA with the Sparks, is now an assistant to Mike Thibault on the Washington Mystics.
“Lisa has been the prototype for the current stretch fours,” she explained. “She’s been a tremendous ambassador for our game at all levels. Four time Olympian – what else can you say, coming at a time when we’ve had great, great Olympic teams.”
Stanford’s Naismith Hall of Famer Tara VanDerveer was one of Leslie’s Olympic coaches and then there was Michael Cooper, a Showtime Laker himself, now with the WNBA Atlanta Dream, but coached Leslie on the Sparks when they won back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002.
“He was an early riser like me. We would meet every morning at 6:30 a.m. to work on individual skills,” Leslie related.” Every season I wanted to learn three moves and I picked three and we worked on them every day.
“That was the difference for me. I wanted to learn. And it was my mental toughness and my ability. – yes, I’m good. But how do I reach greatness.”
Cooper said the same thing recalling their time together. “Every year she wanted to get better and never stopped learning. She was always a student of the game. That’s half the battle with superstar players. They think they know everything and Lisa wasn’t like that.”
Leslie, who has also been a model and actress, married Michael Lockwood in 2006 and the couple have two children: Lauren Jolie and Michael Joseph Lockwood II.
She wrote an autobiography in 2008, entitled, “Don’t Let the Lipstick Fool You.”
Chamique Holsclaw, who played with Leslie in the Olympics and with the Sparks, related, “She used to tell me (Naismith Hall of Famer) Katrina McClain was the best post player she ever played against, but when I look at the best post player I’ve played with and against, it’s Lisa Leslie.
“She not only played like a legend. She walked like a legend. On the Sparks with her knowledge, I got to see her helping other players on the team.”
There wasn’t much exposure to women’s basketball initially when Leslie came on the scene to watch those before her, though,Cheryl Miller was in her backyard and also played at USC a decade earlier, but Leslie has now been a model for younger generations of women’s stars.
“I remember the first time I saw her play with the 1996 Olympic team,” said former Tennessee star Tamika Catchings of theWNBA Indiana Fever who herself will be retiring next year. “That’s the first recollection I have of really wanting to play on the elite level with USA Basketball.
I was like, `My God, if I could ever get on the court with her – she’s just definitely one of the sweetest people I ever met and from the basketball side, someone that consistently challenged me to be better with my game just on and off the court.”
“She had the fire in her belly and just outworked people,” WNBA Chicago Sky coach Pokey Chatman said. “I think what people don’t talk about, she’s among that first group of post players who thought the game like a guard.”
After the American Basketball League folded, DeLisha Milton Jones landed on the Sparks but also had played with Leslie in the Olympics.
“Playing alongside Lisa, I learned how to be a professional,” she said. “Even more so, how to be a lady on and off the court. She was all about wearing lip gloss and the lipstick, but that didn’t stop her from being a fierce competitor. She put the fear factor in me and I appreciate that.”
When the WNBA hit one of its milestone seasons several years ago, Leslie was named one of the top 15 all-time players in a fans vote.
For all her acclaim heading into the start of the WNBA, Leslie did not have a stellar inaugural summer, and was overshadowed by another former USC star: Houston’s Cynthia Cooper.
“It was an adjustment for all of us. I thought it was going to be reversible jerseys and a typical summer league,” Leslie said.
“I had signed a modeling contract with Wilhelmina and I was in New York right after the Olympics in ’96. I had not even been back on the court till we played in the WNBA.
“But I had no idea it was going to be the same arena as the Lakers and all the celebrities coming out. It turned out to be a big deal. And I was not prepared. But I did learn how to be a professional. My first year was dismal for my standards,” she said.
“But I figured it out quickly. I went overseas. I figured out how train in the offseason in L.A. Getting up every morning at 6:30 four days a week. I also hired a trainer. Then, of course, eating better.
“I figured out how to be a pro real fast.”
Leslie continues to pass her experiences down to succeeding generations as a motivational speaker. She is also a mentor to several WNBA players. Lisa is the brand ambassador for Capital One, UPS and American Federation for Children inspiring leadership, business and thought leaders in the community. Lisa is currently working on her second book, "From The Court to The Boardroom" available in December.
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