A pioneering star of the Women's National Basketball Association, American basketball player Lisa Leslie (born 1972) dominated the fledgling professional basketball league in its early years and electrified the crowd in 2002 when she became the first woman to dunk a ball in a pro match. Leslie won the WNBA's most valuable player award three times while leading the Los Angeles Sparks to two association championships. She also collected four Olympic gold medals as a member of the U.S. basketball team, making the Olympic roster in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008.
Lisa Deshaun Leslie was born July 7, 1972, in Gardena, California. She grew up in a single-parent household with her mother, Christine Leslie. Lisa Leslie's father, Walter Lee Leslie, had already fathered four children when he took an alias (Bernard Leslie) and moved to California, then wooing Leslie's mother into a relationship. After the couple had been married several years, he disappeared, leaving Christine Leslie four months pregnant. Lisa never knew her father; she spent her early life in nearby Compton, growing up alongside sister Dionne, who was five years her elder. As a child, Leslie amused herself playing tetherball in the back yard; it was her favorite game.
As an adolescent, Leslie felt gawky and uncomfortable; by age 12, she had size 12 feet and was so tall her mother bought her clothes in the men's department. Encouraged to play basketball, she joined the girl's team at Whaley Junior High School in Compton. To train, her cousin Craigie took her to a local gym to work out, and they played pick-up games. Leslie also trained with her uncle Ed, who took her to the courts to play with his guy friends. In her autobiography, Don't Let the Lipstick Fool You, Leslie wrote that her uncle's words galvanized her play. “Sometimes I would get pushed, tripped, knocked down, or fouled really hard,” she recalled. “Uncle Ed would yell to me, ‘Get up. Come on. Keep going!” ’ Uncle Ed always encouraged her to stay in the game and keep the guys from stealing the ball. “It was like when you got bullied at school and your parents told you, ‘Go back and fight that bully. If you don't fight him, I'm going to whup you!’ … I was just learning to play a physical brand of basketball, so his no-nonsense style of encouragement kicked my game up a few notches.”
As an adolescent, Leslie moved in with her grandmother in Inglewood and attended Morningside High School. During her freshman year as a player, she averaged 12 points, nine rebounds, and five blocked shots per game. The Morningside Monarchs finished with a 27-3 record. Leslie also played volleyball and participated in track and field, competing in the long jump, high jump, triple jump, and 400-meter run. Basketball remained her passion, however. At Morningside, Leslie improved her game under the guidance of Coach Frank Scott. Scott made her take 500 shots per day and practice layups with both hands. He stood in front of her wagging a broom above his head like an extratall defensive giant, trying to block her shots. This forced Leslie to put more arc on the ball when she attempted a basket.
During Leslie's sophomore year, Morningside went 33-2 and advanced to the state championship, where they faced Oakland's Fremont High School. The Monarchs were down 53-52 with a few seconds remaining, although the team had one last in-bounds play. The Monarchs dished the ball to Leslie, but she choked on the shot. “The whole team cried after the game, and I apologized a lot for letting them down,” she recalled in her autobiography. “I could not get that loss or that missed shot out of my mind. Maybe that was good in a way, because it motivated me to work even harder on my game.”
By the time Leslie's junior season arrived, she had reached her adult height of six feet, five inches. That season, she averaged 25 points, 14 rebounds, and six blocked shots per game as she led the Monarchs to a record 33-1 season. The Monarchs made it to the state championship and faced Fremont again. This time, they pulled off the victory, winning 60-50 to capture the 1989 California state title. For her efforts, Leslie was named to the USA Today All-America team.
During her senior season at Morningside, Leslie averaged 27 points, 15 rebounds, and seven blocks per game, even though she sat on the bench frequently. Because she dominated the court, her coach often took her out so the Monarchs would not run up the score and embarrass their opponent. “She's a go-to player,” Coach Scott told Peter Brewington for USA Today. “If you need a basket you go to Lisa. There is no one in high school that can stop her.”
In one famous game during Leslie's senior season, she scored 101 points during the first half. Tradition at Morningside called for the team's top senior to try and break the school's shooting record during the last home game of the year. Leslie's teammates were instructed to deliver the ball to her on every possession. After scoring 101 points in the first half—which lasted 16 minutes—Leslie was psyched. Cheryl Miller's national record for most points scored in a high-school game stood at 105. Leslie had an entire second half to beat it, needing only four points. Unfortunately, she never got a chance at the record because the opposing team refused to take the court after half time. Leslie did, however, set a national record for most points scored in a half—101—and most points scored in a quarter—52. The season ended on a powerful note when the Monarchs defended their state championship title.
After high school, Leslie attended the University of Southern California (USC). She came out strong her freshman year, boasting a 30-point, 20-rebound performance in her collegiate debut. For the season, she averaged 19.4 points and 10 rebounds per game and was named Pacific 10 Conference (Pac-10) Freshman of the Year. During Leslie's four seasons at USC, the Trojans amassed a record of 89 wins and 31 losses. They advanced to the Elite Eight at the NCAA Tournament in 1992 and 1994 but never made it to the finals. In 1993 and 1994, Leslie led the team in both scoring and rebounding. Over the course of four seasons at USC, she scored 2,414 points and graduated as the Pac-10's all-time leading scorer. She set a USC record for career blocked shots at 321. Despite the success, Leslie was disappointed at not winning a national title.
After graduating from college, Leslie signed with the Wilhelmina modeling agency and appeared in spreads for Vogue, Sports Illustrated, and Elle and in print ads for Anne Klein. Throughout her career, she strove to send a message that femininity and athleticism were compatible.
In 2000, Leslie returned to the U.S. women's national team, which was headed to Sydney, Australia. Once again, they went undefeated throughout the Olympics and captured the gold. The team's dominance continued in 2004 in Athens, Greece. In the championship game against Australia, Leslie led the team with eight rebounds as Team USA soared to a 74-63 victory for the gold. Leslie made her final Olympic appearance at the 2008 games in Beijing, China. She led the team with seven rebounds in the gold medal match as the United States beat Australia 92-65. With the win, she became the first athlete to win four consecutive gold medals in a team sport.
Leslie joined the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) for its inaugural 1997 season, playing for the Los Angeles Sparks. In her first professional game, she led the Sparks with 16 points and 14 rebounds, though the team lost 67-57 to the New York Liberty. The Sparks struggled all season and finished with 14 wins and 14 losses. Leslie struggled, too. She shot 43 percent from the field and 60 percent from the free-throw line. The experience was eyeopening; she realized that she was not in shape and needed more practice to adjust to the WNBA's orange-and-creamcolored ball.
In 2001, the Sparks finished with a 28-4 record with Leslie receiving the league's MVP award as the team headed into the playoffs. Earlier in the season, she had earned MVP honors at the All-Star game. The Sparks made it to the 2001 championship, where they faced the Charlotte Sting in a best-of-three series. In Game 1, Leslie led the Sparks with 24 points in a 75-66 victory. In Game 2, she led with 24 points and 13 rebounds in the team's 82-54 victory to take the championship. During the Finals, Leslie scored 24 points each game and pulled down a total of 21 rebounds with 10 assists and nine blocked shots. When she was named Finals MVP, she became the first WNBA player to sweep all three MVP awards. At that point in National Basketball Association (NBA) history, only Shaquille O'Neal, Michael Jordan, and Willis Reed swept the MVP awards in a single season.
Partway through the 2002 season, Leslie became the first WNBA player to reach 3,000 career points. A week later, she achieved another association first when she dunked a ball on a breakaway during a game against Miami Sol. In six seasons of WNBA play, no woman had dunked the ball. The Sparks finished the season 25-7 and stayed on fire through the playoffs. In the Finals, they knocked off Liberty to win their second championship.
During her time with the Sparks, Leslie was a fan favorite because she took time to greet young fans and shake hands after each game. The Sparks coach always had to wait on Leslie before giving the post-game speech because Leslie took so long to get to the locker room. “You cannot measure the inspiration she has brought to this city,” former Sparks team president Johnny Buss told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. “She captures everything that any town would want in a local hero.” During her pro career, Leslie was the face of the Sparks and the face of the WNBA.
In 2006, Leslie earned WNBA MVP honors for the third and last time, retiring at the end of the 2009 season. At the time, she held the WNBA league record for most points at 6,263 and most rebounds at 3,307. Retirement gave Leslie more time to spend with her family. On November 5, 2005, she had married U.P.S. pilot Michael Lockwood. Leslie sat out the 2007 WNBA season and their first child, Lauren Jolie, was born in June of that year. A son, Michael Joseph, followed in 2010, following her retirement.
By 2010, Leslie was working as a broadcaster covering the Lakers and Pac-10 basketball. In 2015, she was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Despite her numerous awards and her many “firsts” in the basketball world, Leslie told Vincent M. Mallozzi of the New York Times that she wanted to be remembered for her versatility—for her ability to be a center who could push forward and also shoot three-pointers. “Versatility and consistency were very important to me,” she explained. “I tried to show up every single day and give it my all.”
Leslie, Lisa (with Larry Burnett), Don't Let the Lipstick Fool You, Kensington Books, 2008.
Los Angeles Times, August 23, 2006, Bill Plaschke, “The Other Leslie Is Something to Behold,” p. D1.
New York Times, September 12, 2010, Vincent M. Mallozzi, interview with Leslie, Sports section, p. 13.
Sports Illustrated, September 10, 2001, Kelli Anderson, “Woman Possessed,” p. 46.
USA Today, November 29, 1989, Peter Brewington, “Top Player Gives No. 1 Team Its Edge,” p. C11.❑