Leslie, Lisa DeShaun

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LESLIE, Lisa DeShaun

(b. 7 July 1972 in Hawthorne, California), college, Olympic, and professional basketball player and professional model known for her grace, skill, and generosity.

Leslie was one of three girls born to Walter Leslie, a semi-professional basketball player, and Christine Leslie, a postal worker. Leslie's father left the family in 1976 when she was four years old. In 1982, after learning her postal carrier job might be terminated, Leslie's mother, Christine, sold her house and bought an eighteen-wheel truck. Leslie and her sisters—one older, one younger—spent summers traveling with their mother and the school year with relatives. Despite these separations, the family was close-knit and mutually supportive. In school Leslie was embarrassed by her height and teased by other children. Her mother, herself six foot, three inches tall, encouraged Lisa to be proud of her stature and enrolled her in charm school and paid for modeling lessons. Leslie grew more comfortable with her height but still was irritated by the constant question, "Why don't you play basketball?"

Leslie's basketball career began at Whaley Junior High in Compton, California. Convinced to play by a friend, Leslie figured if she gave the game a try people would stop asking her why she did not play. To her surprise, she liked the game and expressed her interest to her cousin, Craig Simpson, who agreed to work with her over the summer. Simpson worked on basketball fundamentals and did a good deal of strength training. They did sit-ups, push-ups, and basketball drills.

By the time Leslie arrived at Morningside High School in Inglewood, California, she was ready to join Morningside's Lady Monarchs, who were rated among the top 10 girls' basketball teams in the United States. As a six-foot, three-inch freshman, Leslie made the varsity team and started every game. The Lady Monarchs coach Frank Scott said she needed work, but was impressed by Leslie's work ethic and daily improvement.

By her senior year Leslie usually played only the first half of the game so that her teammates could get playing time. She averaged more than twenty-seven points and fifteen rebounds per game. In her last game at Morningside, the Lady Monarchs tried to help Leslie break the school's single-game scoring record. By halftime Leslie had accumulated an incredible 101 points, which beat the school record and was only five points shy of breaking the single-game high school record set by Cheryl Miller. The opposing team declined to play the second half.

In addition to leading her team to two state championships, Leslie won a number of individual awards. A solid student, she maintained a 3.5 average, was class president three consecutive years, played volleyball, and was a champion high jumper. In 1989 Leslie earned the Dial Award as the best scholar-athlete in the nation (female), and in 1990 USA Today and Gatorade named her Prep Player of the Year. Leslie also received the prestigious Naismith Prep Player of the Year in 1990 and earned All-America honors in 1994, 1993, and 1992.

Leslie earned international attention for her basketball performance in the 1989 Junior World Championship. This experience, combined with her high school record, meant that she was fiercely recruited by colleges in her last year of high school (1989 to 1990). The decision was easy; she wanted to play where her mother could come to games. Accepting an offer from the University of Southern California (USC), a Pacific Ten (Pac-10) school, Leslie stayed in Los Angeles.

Leslie settled in to the demanding schedule of practice, games, and study. During her first game she accumulated thirty points, twenty rebounds, and four steals, and quickly earned the starting center position. By the end of her freshman season, Leslie averaged twenty points and ten rebounds per game, making her the leading freshman scorer and rebounder at USC. Leslie became the first freshman named to the Women's College Basketball All-Pac-10. Her other individual honors include National and Pac-10 Freshman of the Year awards, and Pac-10 Player of the Week honors three times—all as a freshman.

Overall Leslie averaged 20.1 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 2.7 blocked shots per game in her college career. She also totaled 2,414 points, 1,214 rebounds, and 321 blocked shots—all Pac-10 records. She became the only Pac-10 player to be named All-Pac-10 four times. During Leslie's time at USC, the team went to the NCAA tournament every year and made it to the quarterfinals Leslie's senior year. Leslie graduated from USC in 1994 with a Bachelor's degree in broadcasting.

Leslie's subsequent international experience included playing on the women's U.S. national team, which went to the world championships in 1994, and one season as a professional with team Sicilgesso in Alcamo, Italy, in the 1994–1995 season. In 1995 she made the U.S. Olympic Team. Leslie shone on the court no matter where she played. During the 1996 Olympic Games, the U.S. women's basketball team won every game, with Leslie as the team's leading scorer.

After the Olympics, Leslie took time to pursue her second dream career, modeling. She signed with Wilhelmina Models and appeared on the cover of Vogue and on a few television shows. She felt it important that people see a tough, driven woman athlete who was also feminine.

With the formation of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) in June 1997, Leslie was again drawn to the courts. She signed with the Los Angeles Sparks in 1997 and became one of the league's three key spokes-people. While with the Sparks, Leslie was named to the All-WNBA first team in 1997, was one of the finalists for the 1997 Women's Pro Basketball ESPY award. In 1998 she was named USA Basketball's Female Athlete of the Year for the second time (the first was in 1993); and in 1999 and 2000 was the WNBA All-Star Most Valuable Player (MVP). In 2001 Leslie was named All-Star MVP for the second time and was the first woman to be named regular-season and All-Star MVP in the same season. She was named 2001 Women's Sports Foundation Sportswoman of the Year (co-recipient with pole-vaulter Stacy Dragila), as well as 2001 League MVP, Championship Series MVP, and All-Star MVP—the first player to be awarded all three. In addition, the Sparks won the WNBA championship in 2001. Leslie continued to play with the USA basketball team during the off-season, and the team won the gold medal in the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games.

Having spent her whole life in Los Angeles, Leslie gives generously to her community. Her many projects include "Taking It Inside with Lisa Leslie," a program that teaches young girls how to improve their self-esteem and how to set goals. She works with the Big Brother, Big Sister foster-care program, and is a spokesperson for Sears WNBA Breast Cancer Awareness. She donates money and equipment to her former high school and to her church, and owns her own company Lisa Leslie Enterprises. In 1999 Leslie was awarded the Young Heroes Award by the Big Sisters Guild of Los Angeles for her commitment to foster children.

Throughout her career Leslie has tried to do right. She knows she is a role model for children, both girls and boys, as well as one of the WNBA's most visible and best-loved players. Leslie's skill and talent speak volumes, and she brings depth and grace to the game. She is quick to point out that her height helps, but it nevertheless took a great deal of hard work to achieve her many successes. Leslie's role in women's basketball is matched only by her dedication to her community and her willingness to share her life with those around her.

Leslie's story appears in a number of books for young readers; the most complete is Brent Kelley, Women Who Win: Lisa Leslie (2001). She is also featured in Marlene Targ Brill, Sport Success: Winning Women in Basketball (2000).

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