Leslie, Lisa (1972—)

views updated

Leslie, Lisa (1972—)

African-American basketball player and model, one of the most popular players in the world of sports. Born Lisa Deshaun Leslie on July 7, 1972, in Los Angeles, California; daughter of Walter Leslie (a semi-professional basketball player) and Christine Leslie-Espinoza (a truck driver); graduated from Morningside High School in Inglewood, California; attended University of Southern California, 1990–94.

Won the Dial Award (1989); named Pacific-10 Freshman of the Year (1990); was a member of the World University Games team, winning a gold medal (1991); was a member of the Jones Cup team, winning a gold medal (1992); named National College Player of the Year (1993); was a member of the Goodwill Games team, winning a gold medal, and the World championship team, winning a bronze medal (1994); led University of Southern California in scoring and rebounding and the Pac-10 in blocked shots (1993–94); named All-Pac-10 all four years of her college career, the only player in Pac-10 history to do so; played one season for Sicilgesso in Italy (1994–95); was a member of the undefeated U.S. National team (1995–96); was an Olympic gold medalist with the U.S. National team at Atlanta, scoring 29 points in the gold-medal game against Brazil (1996); was a founding member of Los Angeles Sparks.

Known for her athletic prowess, grace, and style, Lisa Leslie helped to establish national respect for women's basketball. She was among the first to sign a contract with the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) at its inception in 1996, while also maintaining a high-profile career with Wilhelmina Models, one of the nation's top modeling agencies. Independent, determined, and highly successful, Leslie became a role model for many young women, advising them to pursue their dreams. "You can be whatever you want to be," she often said, echoing

what she had heard from an inspirational speaker when she was in the second grade.

Born on July 7, 1972, in Los Angeles, California, Lisa Deshaun Leslie was the daughter of Walter Leslie, a semi-professional basketball player who deserted the family early on, and Christine Leslie, who struggled to provide for the family, working as a mail carrier and on a General Motors assembly line before becoming a cross-country driver for North American Van Lines. While her mother was scaling the gender barrier to become a successful trucker, Lisa and her sister Tiffany Leslie stayed with an aunt in Carson, three miles from Compton. "Give me five years, and I'll give you a better life," Christine told her children. She would often be on the road for weeks at a time, returning to the family whenever she could. At Christmas and on school holidays, the girls would sometimes accompany their mother on her trucking route. The long separations were painful for Lisa, who was so attached to her mother she was nicknamed Shadow. As well, her classmates teased her about her height. By the time she was in the second grade, Leslie was 5′2″—taller than her teacher, and the tallest child ever to cross the threshold of the school. By age 12, she had passed the 6′ mark, eventually reaching 6′5″. However, under the guidance of her 6′3″ mother, Lisa learned to carry her height with pride, sometimes walking with books balanced atop her head to correct her posture.

Initially, Leslie resisted expectations that she would be interested in basketball because of her height. She nonetheless agreed to play when some of her classmates asked her to join the middle-school team. During her freshman year of high school, Leslie began practicing with an older male cousin who assumed the role of private coach, instructing her in the discipline of push-ups, sit-ups, and shooting hoops. She played on all-male teams, excelling at the sport, as her skills developed and her interest grew. When her mother was assigned to a local truck route, and the family moved to Inglewood, California, Leslie joined the Morningside High School girls' basketball team, quickly becoming their premiere player. During one remarkable game in her senior year, Leslie scored 101 points in a 16-minute period. The national scoring record was 105 points, but that was for an entire game. The other team, wincing with mortification, forfeited the game at half-time. Had the game continued, Leslie most certainly would have broken the national record. That fact was not lost upon the scouts and national news teams present. She was identified as "the best high school player in the nation" by Sports Illustrated, without qualifying her by gender. Her high school record included an average of 27.3 points and 15 rebounds per game. A member of the U.S. Junior Olympic team, Leslie also received the Dial Award for being the outstanding female scholar-athlete of 1989.

Heavily recruited by colleges throughout the nation, Leslie decided to attend the University of Southern California in the fall of 1990. Voted Pacific-10 Freshman of the Year, she began to recognize her responsibilities as a role model for younger women and athletes. By the time she left the University of Southern California in 1994, she had been named All-American three times and was that year's National College Player of the Year. Now deeply committed to the game of basketball, Leslie wanted to play for the U.S. National team, but she was unable to gain the necessary professional experience in the United States. She therefore signed a contract with an Italian league, remaining for one season before gaining a slot on the U.S. team. She was the tallest player on the squad. Just as women's basketball was gaining popularity in the United States, the National team embarked upon a rigorous training program, which included a world tour, to prepare for the 1996 Olympics. They played against the top international and college women's teams, under the coaching of Tara Van-Derveer , and went undefeated throughout their tour, bringing prestige to the sport. The team went on to the Olympics to defeat Brazil in front of millions of television fans and claimed the coveted gold medal. In that highly charged game, Leslie scored 29 points.

During the pre-Olympic tours, Leslie averaged 17.3 points and seven rebounds per game, and became noted for her aggressive court style. Concurrently, she devoted more time to her modeling career. Seeing herself primarily as an entertainer, Leslie was impeccably groomed off the court and well-trained and prepared on the court. She became one of the most recognizable celebrities and had a lucrative contract with Nike shoes. Following the Olympic victory, Leslie took a brief break from basketball before signing on with the newly formed Women's National Basketball Association in December 1996. The formation of a professional women's league, financed and supported by the National Basketball Association, marked national acceptance of women's basketball in the United States. For Lisa Leslie, it meant remaining in her home-town, where she became a founding member of the Los Angeles Sparks. Following a successful modeling season, during which she appeared in such national publications as Vogue, Women's Wear Daily, and Shape, Leslie played in her first U.S. professional game in June 1997.


Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 16. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

Sports Illustrated. Spring 1997.

suggested reading:

Corbett, Sara. Venus to the Hoop (biography). Doubleday, 1997.

Lolly Ockerstrom , freelance writer, Washington, D.C.

About this article

Leslie, Lisa (1972—)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article