Leslie, Lisa 1972–

views updated May 18 2018

Lisa Leslie 1972

Professional basketball player

Teased About Her Height

Going for a Record

Took Her Skills Abroad

An Olympic Gold Medalist

New Career Opportunities


Lisa Leslie would seem to have it all: beauty and poise, athletic talent that earned her an Olympic gold medal, a high-profile contract to play professional basketball with the fledgling Womens National Basketball Association (WNBA), and a modeling career that has landed her in the pages of Vogue magazine. The six-foot-five-inch Leslie has been one of the biggest names in womens basketball since joining the United States national team prior to the 1996 Olympics. With her successand her refusal to conform to any stereotypeshe has helped popularize basketball as a sport any woman can play without sacrificing femininity or flair.

Leslie joined the WNBA as one of its founding players in December of 1996 and played her first pro season in America during the summer of 1997. At the same time, the 1996 Olympic basketball gold medalist signed a contract with the prestigious Wilhelmina modeling agency in order to do both runway and print modeling. Leslie told Womens Sports and Fitness that she loves the way her dual careersbasketball and modelinghave come together in the 1990s. Im passionate about both, and when Im doing both, Im giving you me, she explained.

Im being aggressive, doing what I love and what Ive practiced with attitude and style. The big difference is, Im showered and clean when Im modeling. The point is, I am a woman, always.

Teased About Her Height

Lisa Leslie was born in the Compton section of Los Angeles, California in 1972. Her father, who had played semi-pro basketball, deserted the family while she was very young. Her mother, Christine, had three daughters to raise and needed a livelihood that would bring in a dependable income. We had no money and we couldve gone on welfare, but my mom wanted to do something she was proud of, Leslie recalled in the book Venus to the Hoop. She sat us down and said, This is what Ive got to do. Im going to buy a truck and learn how to drive it. Its going to take time for me to pay it off and get a local route. I need you kids to give me five years.

Leslies mother went to work as a long-haul trucker, criss-crossing the country in her rig while her daughters grew up in Los Angeles. Christine Leslie was often away for weeks at a time and then home for only a few days,

At a Glance

Born Lisa Deshaun Leslie, July 7, 1972, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Christine Leslie (a truck driver). Education: Attended University of Southern California, 1990-94.

Professional basketball player. Member of Italian professional league, 1994-95; qualified for U.S. National Team, 1995; member of gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic basketball team, 1996. Los Angeles Sparks (womens pro team), founding member, 1996-.

Selected awards : Named All-America three times while attending USC.

Addresses : Office Los Angeles Sparks, Great Western Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood, CA 90306.

but she still managed to keep her daughters close and self-sufficient. Young Lisa had yet another cross to bear: she was the tallest child ever to pass through her elementary school. By second grade she stood five-foot-two and was taller than her teacher. Not surprisingly, she was teased about her height. They called me Olive Oyl, they called me all sorts of things, she remembered in Venus to the Hoop. The grown-ups mostly thought my height was beautiful, but the kids gave me a hard time. Leslies mother, who was herself six-foot-three, encouraged her daughter to keep her chin up and be proud of her height. It was valuable advice for someone who would one day turn her height into a valuable asset.

One question that Leslie heard constantly was: Do you play basketball? As a young teenager, she just couldnt understand why people expected her to play hoops just because she was tall. She might never have tried the game if the other girls in her middle school hadnt begged her to come and join the school team. Even after making the team she was less than enthusiastic about the game for awhile. I was so tall, theyd just throw the ball at me and Id make the basket, she said in Venus to the Hoop. All I did was do what I was told. Her middle school team was undefeated that year.

Going for a Record

Leslie became more serious about basketball during her freshman year of high school. That year she moved in with an aunt and began playing ball with an older male cousin who served as a mentor and private coach. My cousin made me do push-ups and sit-ups and then wed work on my shots, she recalled in Venus to the Hoop. I think it was at that point I learned how hard you had to work to get from one level to the next. Honing her skills on teams that were otherwise all male, she became a very skilled player.

Leslies mother finally got the local trucking route that she had coveted, and the family moved to Inglewood, Californiahome of the Los Angeles Lakers. Leslie attended Morningside High School in Inglewood, where she quickly established herself as a commanding force on the basketball team.

It was a Morningside High tradition that, in the last regular season game of the year, all the basketball players would feed the ball to a chosen senior just to see how many points that senior could score. In 1990 that senior was Lisa Leslie, and the game in question was not the final contest of the season, but the next-to-last, against a hopelessly overmatched team from South Torrance. In one 16-minute flurry, Leslie scored 101 pointsjust four points short of the national scoring record for an entire game. Her performance so humiliated the opposing team that their coach forfeited the game at halftime, denying Leslie the opportunity to break the record.

Leslies feat against South Torrance was covered by local and national television news crews and Sports Illustrated This one performance served to overshadow what was otherwise a notable high school career: Leslie had averaged 27.3 points and 15 rebounds per game as a senior, had been a member of the U.S. junior Olympic team, and had received the Dial Award as outstanding female scholar-athlete of 1989. Sports Illustrated called her the best high school player in the nation.

Many colleges tended to agree. Leslie received so many recruiting letters she had to put them in boxes under her bed. She finally chose to attend the University of Southern California, beginning her college career in the autumn of 1990. Even as a college freshman she was hailed as not just a star but the kind of superstar who can elevate the womens game to the next level in national popularity, according to Sports Illustrated Leslie, who was voted Pacific-10 Freshman of the Year, realized that she was serving as a role model and an inspiration to other athletes. I think we do need that one star that even people who arent familiar with the game can recognize, she admitted in Sports Illustrated It not only gets the attention of the public, it gets the attention of the kids who will grow up to be the next superstars.

Took Her Skills Abroad

Leslie left USC in 1994 with a wealth of basketball experience. She was a three-time All-America and had been named National College Player of the Year in 1994. She wanted more than anything to play for the U.S. Olympic team, but she realized that she would need some professional experience first. Since America had no pro basketball leagues for women, Leslie had to take her talents abroad to Italy. She signed a contract with an Italian league and began playing there. It wasnt easy. Its hell being overseas, she declared in Venus to the Hoop. Its lonely.... Youre by yourself. You think, okay, I could handle this for maybe one day, one week, but when you go six months, eight months, its like, whoa.

For Leslie the experience of playing in a foreign league was blessedly short. She played one season in Italy before trying out forand winning a place onthe U.S. national team. At six-foot-five she was the tallest player on the American squad. She was also a rarity among female basketball players because she could dunk.

The U.S. womens Olympic basketball team had fared rather poorly at the 1994 Summer Games. Staffed by talented professionals, the team had finished with a bronze medal after being defeated by the Unified Team in a playoff round. It was thought that the American women might have performed better if they had spent more time practicing together. However, the U.S. offered few incentives to entice the women away from their well-paying jobs in Italy, Japan, Spain, and Brazil.

By 1995, attitudes concerning womens basketball had changed in America. In preparation for the 1996 Olympics, the womens national basketball team began training in 1995 and embarked on an ambitious world tour in which they competed against the best international teams as well as top U.S. college teams. Led by coach Tara VanDerveerand featuring the statuesque Lisa Leslie at centerthe U.S. womens team went undefeated throughout their entire international tour.

An Olympic Gold Medalist

Leslie worked hard to prepare herself for the Olympics, lifting weights to improve her stamina and strength. Her slender 170-pound frame made her vulnerable to opposing defenses, as she explained in the New York Times: Their strategy is to beat me up, get me out of the game. During the teams pre-Olympic tours she averaged 17.3 points and seven rebounds per game. An aggressive style of play became Leslies trademark. As she told People, When its time to play, something clicks in my mind, and I becomeits almost like a monster. My favorite phrase is, Lets go for the jugular.

Off the court Leslie exhibited a different persona. She made no effort to hide her ambitions for a modeling career, making sure she was impeccably groomed and beautifully dressed whenever she represented the U.S. team. Whether Im on the court or on the runway, Im out there entertaining, she told Womens Sports and Fitness Theyre the same for me.

The performance of the U.S. womens basketball team was one of the highlights of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Most observers agreed that the womens games were far more interesting and inspiring than the one-sided routs delivered by the U.S. mens team, staffed as it was by the biggest names in the NBA. The womens victories were real victories, eked out against well-matched opponents. Furthermore, the Olympic womens team was not made up of multimillionaires but a group of players who earned relatively modest salaries. The U.S. womans team defeated Brazil in the gold medal game andwhile the world watchedcelebrated the triumphant end to a long year of hard work and high expectation.

New Career Opportunities

For Lisa Leslie, as for the other Olympic gold medalists in womens basketball, the victory in Atlanta provided many exciting opportunities. Leslie originally thought she would go straight from the Olympics into a new womens professional league, the American Basketball League (ABL). However, she decided that she needed a break from basketball. She signed a contract with Wilhelmina Models, one of the nations top modeling agencies, and continued her association with Nike shoes. In December of 1996 she was one of the first players chosen to play in the fledgling WNBA, a womens league financed and promoted by the NBA.

The WNBA proved to be a good fit for Leslie. She was signed to a team in Los Angeles, her hometown. As a founding member of the Los Angeles Sparks, Leslie made her American pro debut in June of 1997after having spent the off-season modeling sportswear in the pages of Vogue, TV Guide, and Shape.

With the financial backing of the NBA, the WNBA will be given several seasons to establish itself. As a result, Leslie will be able to play basketball and develop her modeling career at the same time. She has voiced a desire to move into acting and broadcasting when her basketball career ends. She would also like to become a new type of role model for women: an athlete who is proud to be feminine. If she has any message for youngsters, she concluded in Womens Sports and Fitness, its this: You can be whatever you want to be. Women dont have to fulfill the stereotype of looking like men with their clothes hanging off them just because they play basketball.



Corbett, Sara, Venus to the Hoop, Doubleday, 1997.


Essence, January 1997, p. 80.

People, June 30, 1997, p. 109.

New York Times, July 17, 1996, p. B11; January 23, 1997, p. B14.

Sports Illustrated, February 19, 1990, p. 30; November 25, 1991, p. 78; May 26, 1997, p. 36.

Sports Illustrated for Kids, March 1997, p. 62; June 1997, p. 28.

Womens Sports and Fitness, November 21, 1996, pp. 12, 50.

Anne Janette Johnson

Leslie, Lisa

views updated May 18 2018

Lisa Leslie


American basketball player

Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when Los Angeles Sparks star and WNBA pioneer member Lisa Leslie renounced basketball. Standing six feet tall in the seventh grade, Leslie was asked constantly if she played the game. Rather than spurring her interest, though, the repeated inquisitions turned her against the sport. "I hated it," she has admitted. At a friend's prodding, however, she eventually tried out for her middle school team, and her entire mindset changed. "I just changed my whole attitude," she noted in People. "I guess it was my destiny, but I never knew it."

Hard Work All Around

Once Leslie gained an interest in basketball, she worked hard to excel in the sport. With the encouragement of a cousin, she embarked on a self-directed training regimen, which included sit-ups, push-ups, drills and shooting baskets, as well as taking on male players after whom she then modeled her own style of play.

Hard work and perseverance were familiar to Leslie, whose father left the family when she was four years old. Raised by her mother Christine, Leslie learned about hard work and struggle watching her mother work as a cross-country truck driver to earn money to support her three daughters. During the school year, Leslie was often cared for by a babysitter or an aunt. Her mother's absence forced her to mature and gain self-reliance early. In the summers, she and a sister accompanied their mother, sleeping on a bunk in the back of the rig. Despite her mother's long absences, Leslie credits Christine with imparting numerous life lessons. Christine, who stands 6'3", taught her daughter to be proud of her stature. "She raised me to be confident and hold my head up," Leslie told People magazine.

High School Standout

Leslie entered Morningside High School in Inglewood, California in 1987. By her junior year she was receiving national attention for her on-court prowess. Averaging 21.7 points, 12.8 rebounds and 6.2 block shots per game that year, USA Today named her a first-team high school All-American.

The following season, Leslie achieved an almost unfathomable feat, scoring 101 points in the first half of a game against South Torrance High. She set a national high school record with thirty-one free throws and added thirty-seven field goals as well. With Leslie having scored all but one of her team's 102 points and her school leading 102-24 at the half, South Torrance forfeited, much to Leslie's dismay. Continuance of the game wold have allowed her to best the women's national high school record for points in a single game, held by basketball legend Cheryl Miller. Leslie begged the South Torrance coach to reconsider, but to no avail. Miller's record still stands today.

While that personal triumph was denied, Leslie and her team recognized a collective victory when they captured the California state title later that year. Leslie averaged 26.9 points, fifteen rebounds and 6.9 blocked shots per game that season and scored thirty-five points, grabbed twelve rebounds and blocked seven shots in the championship game against Berkeley High School, despite suffering from chicken pox. Her efforts yielded her a prestigious Naismith Award and a Dial Award for the nation's top high school student-athlete. Leslie graduated with a new state record for rebounding (1705). She held varsity letters in volleyball and track, as well as basketball. She also served as class president for three years.

Colleges, Nation Take Notice

Leslie became the most recruited female basketball player since Miller in 1983, and she elected to stay near home and play for Miller's alma matter, University of Southern California (USC). Leslie shone at USC, and was named national and Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. She also became the first-ever freshman to be named to the Pac-10 first team, to which she would be named every year of her college career. She led USC to four NCAA tournaments, advancing to the "Great Eight" in both 1992 and 1994. After her senior season, in which she averaged 21.9 points and 12.3 rebounds per game, she was awarded her second Naismith Award. She was named an All-American in 1992, 1993 and 1994 and USA Basketball named her Female Athlete of the Year in 1993.

In the off-season, Leslie experienced international competition. She played with the U.S. women's Junior World Championship team in 1989 and averaged a teamhigh 13.3 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. A year later she was the last player cut from the U.S. women's national team and a year after that, she led the U.S. women's team to a gold medal at the World University Games. Leslie was the youngest player to try out for the U.S. Olympic Team in 1992. She did not make the cut, but two years later she made the U.S. women's national team, which captured a gold medal at the Goodwill Games.

Goes Pro, Makes 'Dream Team'

Leslie traveled to Sicilgesso, Italy to play professionally in 1994, as there were at the time no U.S. outlets for female players. The lack of opportunities at home frustrated Leslie. "I think we are cheated as a gender," she told Entertainment Weekly "No one knows what happens to all the great people in our game. It seems like we're written off."


1972Born July 7
1987Enters Morningside High School in Inglewood, California and joins the basketball team
1989Named to USA Today 's high school All-American first team
1989Competes with U.S. women's Junior World Championship team
1990Scores 101 points in the first half of game against South Torrance High; denied national record for points in one game when South Torrance forfeits
1990Leads Morningside to state title
1990Awarded Naismith and Dial awards
1990Becomes last player cut from U.S. women's National Team
1991Enters University of Southern California as most highly recruited female basketball player since Cheryl Miller in 1983
1991Earns National and Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors
1991Becomes first freshman named to Pac-10 first team
1991Leads U.S. to gold at the World University Games
1992Attends Olympic trials as youngest player trying out for U.S. women's team
1993Named Female Athlete of the Year by USA Basketball
1994Earns second Naismith Award
1994Qualifies for U.S. women's national team and leads team to gold in Goodwill Games
1994Travels to Italy to play professionally
1996Named to U.S. women's Summer Olympics "Dream Team" and leads team to gold medal
1996Assigned to Los Angeles Sparks of newly formed Women's National Basketball Association
2001Leads L.A. to first WNBA title and named tournament MVP
2002On July 30 becomes first woman to slam dunk in a professional game
2002Leads L.A. to second WNBA title and named tournament MVP
2002Named regular season, All-Star and tournament MVP, becoming first WNBA player to win all three MVP trophies in one season

Awards and Accomplishments

1989Named to USA Today 's high school All-American first team
1989Competes with U.S. women's Junior World Championship team
1990Awarded Naismith and Dial awards
1991National and Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors
1991-94Named to All-Pac-10 first team
1992-94Named All-American
1993Named Female Athlete of the Year by USA Basketball
1994Qualifies for U.S. women's national team
1994Wins gold medal at Goodwill Games and bronze at World Women's Basketball Championships
1996Qualifies for U.S. Olympic team and leads team to gold medal
2001Leads L.A. to first WNBA title and named tournament MVP
2002Leads L.A. to second WNBA title
2002Named regular season, All-Star and tournament MVP

Leslie returned home in 1996 to play with the U.S. Olympic "Dream Team." The team earned a gold medal and Leslie led the team in scoring with 19.5 points per game. She also broke the women's Olympic record with thirty-five points in a semifinal game against Japan. After the Olympics, Leslie was offered an opportunity to play professionally at home, in the newly formed Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA). While initially unsure if she wished to continue playing after the Olympics, she eventually signed on with her hometown team, the Los Angeles Sparks.

Again, Leslie emerged as the star of the team. Coach Michael Cooper, who played for the L.A. Lakers, likened her to one of his former teammates. "Lisa is smooth like Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] ," he once told Sports Illustrated. Leslie led the Sparks to two WNBA championships, in 2001 and 2002, and was named MVP of the finals both times. In the summer of 2002, she scored one giant leap for womankind when, on July 30, she became the first woman to slam dunk in a professional game.

Shines Off-Court

Leslie has not limited her professional interests to basketball. Prior to the Olympics, she signed a contract with the prestigious Wilhelmina Models agency and has been featured in Vogue. She has also been a guest actor on several sitcoms, including Moesha and Sister, Sister.

In addition, after her mother experienced a breast cancer scare, Leslie became a spokesperson for breast cancer awareness and prevention. "Having that scare so close to home, I had to become more educated about it," she told Ebony. "I used to wear the pink ribbons but I did not really understand breast cancer." Now, she travels the country to speak on the topic, sometimes accompanied by her mother, and her public service announcements are shown on television and at sports arenas. "I've had a wonderful opportunity to reach a lot of people in innercity communities and just around the world," Leslie told Ebony. "A lot of people come up to me and say 'Thank you. I saw your public service announcement and I got checked and they found a lump. It was benign.' People have told me so many different stories about how they used to be afraid of [the exam]."

Whether its on the basketball court, on television or during public service activities, Leslie maintains a pioneering spirit wherever she ventures. The days when she swore she'd never see a basketball court are clearly behind her. Today, it is impossible to talk of the strides women have made in the sport without mentioning Leslie's name.

Career Statistics

LAS: Los Angeles Sparks.

Related Biography: Basketball Coach Michael Cooper

Before he became coach of the Los Angeles Sparks, Michael Cooper made his mark as a player with the powerhouse Los Angeles Lakers. Playing in the 1980s alongside such talents as Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, "Coop" and the Lakers won five NBA titles and made it to the finals eight times in that decade. He retired as a player for the team in 1990, but he became an assistant coach in 1994. Although his grandfather, a player in the Negro Baseball League, encouraged Cooper to try baseball, Cooper started out as a football player. After sustaining an injury in his first game, he turned to basketball, and stuck with it, playing for Pasadena High School, Pasadena City College and the University of New Mexico. It was at PCC where he began wearing his trademark knee-high athletic socks. He later explained that he opted for the look so his grandmother, who had cataracts, could distinguish him from the other players when she watched his games. Cooper was drafted by the Lakers in 1978 and he was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1987. His full story is recounted in the 1987 autobiography No Slack.


Address: c/o Los Angeles Sparks, 555 N. Nash Street, El Segundo, CA 90245.



Sports Stars, Series 1-4. UXL, 1994-98


Anderson, Kellie. "That Old L.A. Magic." Sports Illustrated (September 9, 2002): 56.

" But White Men Still Can't Jump." Newsweek (August 12, 2002): 11.

Collier, Aldore. "Lisa Leslie's Crusade." Ebony (October 2001): 60.

McCollum, Jack. "Life After Death: Magic Johnson Has Pulled Off One of the Great Comebacks in Sports History, and It's Got Nothing to Do with Basketball." Sports Illustrated (August 20, 2001): 70.

"WNBA 2001: L.A. Sparks Take First Title, Three MVPs for Lisa Leslie." World Almanac and Book of Facts (Annual, 2002): 1026.

Sketch by Kristin Palm