Then a sixth-grader, Lisa Leslie was the six feet tall and the tallest girl in his class. But why in the world did everybody keep asking her if she played basketball?
“I just could not understand,” Leslie said. “Like, Mom, why are people asking me do I play basketball?”
The following year, Leslie said, the most popular girl was a girl named Shea. Everybody knew her name, Leslie said, because she played basketball.
“Just from that contact of just wanting to be popular, wanting to be known more for than just the tall girl, I decided to play basketball,” Leslie said. “And I learned to become so much more aggressive and tough.” And the one thing I’ve always had inside of, though, I’ve always been competitive and I love to win.”
But Leslie didn’t like being alone – and as the only lefthanded player doing layup drills, it felt lonely. So she got in line with all the other players – shooting righthanded – a move that would pay significant dividends later in her career when she was comfortable finishing with either hand.
“And then I found out, you know, wow, you can get a scholarship if you play basketball,” Leslie said. “You can go to college.
“I was very focused when it came down to getting better and improving. It didn’t hurt that I was growing, so I kept getting closer to the rim. And now, you know, I was 6-5 in the 11th grade and thank God I started praying, like Lord, okay, stop.”
Leslie wasn’t just tall. Her hard work paid off, leading Morningside High to a state championship and earning a scholarship to play for the University of Southern California. In college, Leslie set Pacific-10 Conference records for scoring, rebounding and blocked shots and was named the national player of the year as a senior.
Leslie then played for the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA, where three times she was named the league’s Player of the Year before retiring as the league’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder after 12 seasons. Leslie also found success on the U.S. National Team, leading the squad to four consecutive Olympic gold medals. In 2019, she received the NCAA’s Silver Anniversary Award for her collegiate and professional achievements.
“I don’t think there’s an athlete on the court today or in this league or in youth leagues all around this country who don’t owe a debt of gratitude to Lisa Leslie, or don’t look up to her as an iconic figure in women’s basketball,” WNBA President Donna Orender said in 2009 after Leslie had announced that would be her final season playing. “She has been one of the great competitors, the most fierce competitor.”