Before there was Candace Parker or Maya Moore or before the WNBA became this legitimate place for elite women basketball players, there was Lisa Leslie.
Six-foot-five, smart and attractive, she was the face of this new league that was a curiosity at best, a future failure at worse. But Leslie stood tall, played great and handled herself with grace.
A star was born and that star birthed a women’s professional basketball league.
So while Leslie said she was surprised when she received the call notifying she had been voted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, she was probably the only one.
“I thought you had to be older to get into the Hall of Fame,” the 42-year-old Leslie cracked to the Associated Press.
“There never had been a woman built like her who could do the things that she did,” championship coach Geno Auriemma of Connecticut said. “She has been the forerunner . . . The impact she had in the women’s game at the time didn’t get the attention it did now. I’m glad people remember, since sometimes people forget. I had a chance to be on the coaching staff with her in Sydney when she was on the (2000 Olympic) team. She was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of player.”
Leslie, after an all-American career at USC, played her 13-year WNBA career with one of the league’s landmark franchises, the Los Angeles Sparks. She led her team to two championships with the Sparks. She is the first player to dunk in a WNBA game. And she was named league MVP three times and an all-star eight times. Oh, she’s also the WNBA’s all-time leader in rebounder.
And lest we forget, she has four Olympic gold medals.
“Playing in front of 35,000 fans cheering ‘USA’ really, really always warms my heart,” she said of the Atlanta Games. “The first time they placed a gold medal around my neck. The other three were great as well, but I can’t say how much that first time with that team meant to me. We’re going on our 20-year anniversary next year.”
Leslie is married with two children and in 2011 became part-owner of the Sparks. She does television commentary on WNBA games, has written a book and models. And she’s the model player, on and off the court, for a league she ignited.