By Joshua Schnitman
Many consider Lisa Leslie to be the most dominant center in WNBA history, as well as one of the league’s most transcendent all-time superstars. Leslie, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015, and selected to the WNBA’s Top20@20 Team in 2016, amassed one of the most impressive array of accolades during her 12-year playing career with the Los Angeles Sparks. She helped the new league survive and grow in popularity and stature, became one of Los Angeles history’s most beloved sports legends in the process.
Leslie was born in Gardena, California in 1972, just a few months after the Lakers had brought home their first NBA championship. Throughout her childhood in the 1980s, the “Showtime” Lakers would cosmically transcend the popularity of the NBA and become a significant part of the Hollywood entertainment scene. While the Lakers became a major epicenter of popular culture in the 1980s, women’s basketball was also starting to upsurge, led by the powerhouse University of Southern California (USC) women’s basketball program. It would just be a matter of time before Leslie, would begin to play professional basketball. Leslie attended Morningside High School, minutes away from the Forum, where the Lakers then played their home games. Leslie emerged as one of the greatest women’s high school basketball players of all-time, leading her high school team to two state championships in her junior and senior years. One of her most memorable highlights was an astounding 101-point performance in one of her games in her senior year. Leslie, who was recognized as the top high school womens’ basketball player in the nation in her senior year, opted to stay close to home and play for the USC Trojans. While “fighting on” for USC, Leslie was an NCAA All-American in all four of her collegiate seasons, and by her senior year, she was considered the best women’s college player in the nation.
A few years after Leslie graduated from college, and shortly after Leslie won her first of an eventual four Olympic gold medals, the WNBA was established. Rhonda Windham, the then general manager of the new Sparks franchise of Los Angeles, utilized the no. 7 pick in the WNBA’s Initial 1997 Allocation Draft to select Leslie. While playing for the Sparks, Leslie would prove to be one of the WNBA’s seminal megastars.
Leslie’s WNBA career really began to take off, shortly after the Sparks and Lakers moved from the Forum to the Staples Center. Shortly after the start of the new millennium, the Sparks hired “Showtime” Lakers great Michael Cooper as their head coach. In 2001, Leslie had perhaps the greatest individual season in WNBA history — she became the first WNBA player to win the league MVP, All-Star Game MVP, and Finals MVP in the same season. She led the Sparks to their first-ever WNBA championship. Leslie dominated the league again in 2002, winning her second consecutive league MVP award, second consecutive WNBA title, and second consecutive WNBA Finals MVP. Leslie, who would win her third league MVP award in 2004, was one of only three players in WNBA history to win the award three times. She would also win her first of an eventual two Defensive Player of the Year awards that year. Shortly after winning her fourth Olympic gold medal in 2008, Leslie walked away from her remarkable WNBA playing career in 2009 as an 8x WNBA All-Star and 8x All-WNBA First Team selection. Her no.9 jersey has been retired by the Sparks and hangs in the Staples Center rafters. It was announced in 2019 that a statue of her will be commemorated outside the Staples Center.
Leslie was part of an ownership group that purchased the Sparks in 2011 before they later sold the franchise in 2014 to an ownership group that included Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the legendary “Showtime” Lakers icon. Leslie has proven to be a tremendous NBA analyst and reporter over the years for various different networks. She was one of the only female BIG3 coaches and her keen basketball mind guided the Triplets in championship in 2019. As of 2018, the Lisa Leslie Award is given annually to the voted-upon best center in women’s Division 1 NCAA basketball.
Leslie, also a thoughtful philanthropist, has in so many different ways, been a stellar role model to the sports world, as well as to society in general.