A True Game-Changer: USC's Lisa Leslie

by Michelle Smith

Lisa Leslie left the WNBA in the summer of 2009 a basketball legend, considered one of the greatest women's players in the history of the game.

If her remarkable career began in middle school when a classmate begged the then-6-foot-1 sixth-grader to join the basketball team, and if it blossomed when she scored 101 points in a high school game for Morningside High School, then it truly became special during her time as one of the most decorated Pac-10 athletes of all times.

Leslie, who grew up in nearby Gardena, Calif., played at USC from 1990-1994. She was a star, a game-changer and a record-breaker.

She finished her career as the Pac-10's all-time leader in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. She still holds the blocked shots record. She was the first player in the history of the Conference to be named first-team all-conference in four straight seasons.

She won a Pac-10 title, made four trips to the NCAA Tournament, was named the national freshmen of the year in 1991, the national player of the year in 1994 and set the stage for a world-class athletic career.

"My strongest memories were always trying to beat Stanford," Leslie said with a chuckle. "I think maybe one time we beat them, but that one time will always standout."

Actually it was twice, home wins in 1993 and 1994 against the two-time national champion Cardinal.

As much as Leslie wanted to beat Stanford, it would be fitting later that she would play for Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer as a member of the historic 1996 Olympic team that finished 80-0 and won the gold medal in the Atlanta Games.

Leslie considers VanDerveer the best coach she ever played for, the coach who made her the player she became.

And the player she became was extraordinary. Leslie won four Olympic gold medals, was a founding player in the WNBA and became the first player in the history of the professional league to dunk in a game.

She would become a three-time WNBA MVP, a seven-time all-star and her Los Angeles Sparks teams would win two WNBA titles.

Her game was never typical. She was lithe and fluid, incredibly tough and tenacious. She was no back-to-the-basket center. She ran the floor well and had a great face-up game, including the ability to shoot the 3-pointer.

Her WNBA jersey, the No. 9, was a best-seller. Fans loved her, unless she was playing against your team.

Diana Taurasi once said of Leslie, "No one in the hundred years of women's basketball has represented it like Lisa has on and off the court.

"She's one that is so hard to compete against, because she fights and wants to win so bad. I think that's the ultimate respect that she gives to the game."

On the day she retired from the WNBA in 2009, Leslie said she had "no regrets."

"Every time I stepped out on the court, I played as hard as I could. I fought hard, I crashed the boards, I didn't back down from anybody, I shared the ball and I was a great team player," Leslie said. "You do your best and try to be the best role model you can be."

Leslie said she always felt "empowered" to be a female athlete in the Pac-10, a feeling that continued throughout her playing career and beyond. She acknowledged the lineage of great players such as Ann Meyers Drysdale and Cheryl Miller, who defined West Coast basketball until she got there and redefined it.

"We have done so much in the Conference, but in a way it seemed like we had kind of just begun back then," Leslie said. "There wasn't a Pac-10 Tournament, but there was a major legacy before us."

Leslie's Olympic, international and professional careers are almost unparalleled in the women's game. Her time as a college athlete played a crucial role, she said.

"It taught me a lot of life lessons," Leslie said. "Particularly how to be self-motivated."

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