Los Angeles Sparks superstar center Lisa Leslie stands a lot taller than her 6-and-a-half feet. Perhaps, it’s because of her fearlessness when rebounding on her opponents (she ranks No. 1 this season in rebounds), or her agility when dunking (she’s the first woman to showcase a dunk that Michael Jordan would be proud of), or because she put her soul in the hole to become the WNBA’s first and only 3,000-point scorer, or because this baller has nabbed nearly every award given by the league over the past year. Whatever it is, the WNBA’s reigning all-star and playoff MVP has set monumental precedents that make her larger than life and one of baskeball’s biggest sheroes.
On the eve before one of the most highly anticipated games of season — the L.A. Sparks, the WNBA’s reigning champion team vs. the Houston Comets, four-time WNBA champions — Leslie is enjoying the peaceful drive home from the hairdresser. She looking good and feeling good. Leslie knows the Comets won’t be easily defeated, but she also knows that the road to this year’s championship will have to go through L.A. and through her. On game night she won’t be focused on her looks, just her impeccable sportmanship — rebounding, blocking shots — adding invaluable points to her already record scoring title, and proving that her recent honor as WNBA’s 2002 MVP player was no magic, but a payoff for her sweat and indefatigable hoop dreams.
Essence.com rolled with the Inglewood, Calif., native on her drive home and chatted about raising the net in the WNBA, what it means to be a most valuable player and what she expects from a potential beau.
Congratulations on your MVP Award! You’ve won all of the WNBA’s major awards as well as awards from sports media. How important are these awards?
It feels good to be winning at the highest level. The hardware (trophies) is important and sets me apart. To go back to my roots, I started playing because you get a trophy at the end of the season. I won at the high school and college levels and now it feels great to be winning at the highest level. Winning the WNBA championship and the MVPs are my goals. I go through rigorous training during the off-season. I put in a lot of work, that people don’t see. I’m playing ball with the guys, I’m up at 5 in the morning, running, and working on my dunks. So when I get the MVP, the ESPY Awards it says, ‘Yes, Lisa Leslie you are the best basketball player, the best athlete. And I’m proud of that [because] I’ve worked hard for it.’
You’re now the league’s first 3,000-point scorer and the first to dunk in a game. How does it feel to know that you set a precedent and will be known as “the first” forever in the WNBA record books?
It feels really good. I’ve been here [with the WNBA] since day one. The 3,000 points speaks to my progress as a player. I’ve gotten better as the league itself has progressed, and by dunking we take the game to another level. I put dunking in a game on my goal sheet because I wanted to be the first. I knew there were several other players in the league who could dunk including Michelle Snow, Sylvia Crawley, Margo Dydek, to name a few, but I wanted to be the first. I have been dunking since the ninth grade. I didn’t realize I could [until] I went out for track. I would dunk at rallies and during warm-ups (in high school, college and the Olympics), but I never really used that as a part of my game. My next goal is to dunk on somebody in a game. The 3,000 points and all of [my] first accomplishments are [all things] one would expect from the WNBA’s marquee player.
Eight years ago there was no WNBA and the American Basketball League was not setting the world on fire. When you were signed to the league, did you feel any pressure to make sure the WNBA was a success and were you afraid that it would always be in the shadow of the NBA?
No, I didn’t feel any pressure initially because I had no idea it would be such a first-class organization. I thought they would just find us some gyms to play in and we’d wear reversible jerseys (laugh) and [we’d operate as] a summer league. I had no idea we were going to be such an investment and play in the same arenas as the NBA. It was a pleasant surprise. [And] yes we are in the shadow [of the NBA], but it’s definitely a good thing. It is a great connection — being linked to the NBA — because they have such a strong and positive impact. As a business, the NBA is one of the strongest sports organizations worldwide. Our league benefits from their influence. If you look at us now — six years down the road compared to how the NBA was in their sixth season — we are doing very well.
You have done more in the past year than some male ballers have in the last 10 years. Does your success make dating hard?
It’s hard right now because I have so many things happening for me. It’s good being single because it allows me to focus my energy on the upcoming playoffs. When I have down time, I want that relationship, when things are moving slow. Right now, all that can wait because I’m focused on winning another championship. I am open to dating, but not until after Sept. 1 [after the playoffs]. I’m not looking. But I like a man who is intelligent, who can teach me something. Ain’t no free ride here so they will have to have goals and drive. As far as my accomplishments? I wouldn’t use them to discourage any one. This is my job; this is what I do, and what I want.
When it’s all said and done, will Lisa Leslie will move beyond being a female athlete and be recognized as one of the best basketball players among the Bill Russells, Magic Johnsons and Michael Jordans of the court?
Without a doubt and I feel it’s coming. I am winning the awards in the WNBA and setting first-time records. When people talk about the best female athletes of the day, you’ll have to mention Lisa Leslie. So by the time I’ve finished you will have to say Lisa Leslie is one of the best ballplayers ever and one of the best athletes in history.