- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
Editor's note: This column was originally published Sept. 15, before the WNBA playoffs opened. Since, Los Angeles eliminated Seattle in the opening round, and now trails Phoenix 1-0 in the Western Conference finals.
Maybe someday soon, you'll see Lisa Leslie on a ski slope. Or perhaps she'll race by you on Rollerblades. Who knows, she might even zoom by on a skateboard.
"So many times, I'll go on vacation, and I can't do much," Leslie said. "Because I can't risk getting injured. So I have ahead of me a chance to do a lot of things I've always wanted to do."
In 1997, Leslie was one of the key players who introduced the WNBA. Owner of one Olympic gold medal then, she would turn 25 during that inaugural season and establish herself as the anchor of the Los Angeles Sparks.
Now she's 37, married, the mom of a 2-year-old, has three more Olympic golds and is still the anchor of the Sparks. At least for a little longer.
L.A., the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, will start its playoff run in Seattle on Wednesday (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET). It could be the last game Leslie plays at home or it could be the start of a run that goes all the way to her third WNBA title.
Whatever happens, she says she'll be fine with it. Physically, she could keep playing. Mentally and emotionally, though, she's ready to stop when the Sparks' 2009 WNBA season ends.
"I used to ask coach [Michael] Cooper, 'How do you know when it's time to retire?'" Leslie said. "And he said, 'Oh, you'll know.' And this is a good time. I don't want to be out here when I'm not able to contribute.
"I leave playing at a high level, and I feel very good about the decision to retire now. I've accomplished everything possible, other than winning a national championship in college. I don't feel the desire to come back, because I've truly given it my all."
Leslie missed 11 games this season, but in the 23 she played, she was still very effective. She averaged 15.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. Once she was back in the lineup with Candace Parker, who missed the first month of the season on maternity leave, the Sparks became the team most expected them to be.
"We just weren't able to jell and get our chemistry early," Leslie said. "But it's better late than never. We went on a six-game winning streak [in August], that really turned things around. It's still a challenge, because we're still finding ourselves. But now is the time."
Leslie doesn't sound in any way sad or wistful; rather, she seems matter-of-fact and happy. She has always had a plan, and she's one of those rare people who can say that at least so far, everything has been efficiently accomplished. Maybe that's why there isn't so much mushiness about her retirement among women's hoops fans who don't happen to be Sparks followers dreading her leaving.
She doesn't inspire poetic tributes, like the way a scrappy guard might. Even now, she's not really what you'd call a sentimental favorite. That's because in her career, she's been more like the "Terminator" -- whether you were rooting for or against her, you expected it would make no difference. Either way, she was just going to get it done.
Fans did have a chance to experience what the WNBA was like without Leslie, as she sat out the 2007 season to have her daughter, Lauren. Even some "enemy" fans found they missed her.
"In her career, she got booed in every opposing gym she went into," said Dawn Staley, Leslie's longtime USA Basketball teammate. "She was faced with all that. Maybe she didn't like it, but she didn't really care, either. She just did her job."
Leslie says that she didn't actually ever notice much if she was being treated like the "bad guy" by fans.
"The thing I've always loved about basketball is that it brings people together," Leslie said. "It's about breaking down barriers. Even when they're cheering against me, the fact that they're in the gym and they're involved in the game makes me happy.
"When I'm playing, there are so many times I'm in such a zone that I don't hear it either way -- whether they're cheering for me or against me. The game for me is almost like well, I see it in slow motion. I don't know how to explain it.
"But none of that has ever bothered me. And when I've stepped off the court, I've never been mistreated by fans. People always wanted my autograph, whether I was on the road or at home or in another country, even. It's all part of the game, and I've loved it."
As lethal as Leslie's talent has been in the WNBA -- she has been MVP three times, scored 6,263 points and grabbed 3,307 rebounds -- she's especially excelled internationally.
Leslie was fresh out of Southern Cal in June 1994, when the United States lost to Brazil in the semifinals of the World Championship and then took third place.
"It hurt my feelings to get a bronze medal," she said. "I remember against Brazil -- a classic mistake -- I inbounded the ball under the other team's basket, and they stole it and scored.
"But Brazil kicked our butts, and then we had to ride the same bus with them. And they shaved their coach's head on the bus in celebration of beating us."
Then Leslie laughed, remembering that.
"It was just 'on' from that moment," she said. "I thought, 'I will never put this uniform on again and experience losing.'"
And she never did, winning with Team USA in the World Championship in 1998 and 2002 and in the Olympics in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008. The lone loss for the Americans since 1994 was to Russia in the 2006 World Championship, a tournament in which Leslie didn't play because her uncle had a serious accident.
"I always felt like the biggest honor was to represent our country," she said. "That desire to not let us lose was so strong -- it was almost stronger than the desire to win, if that makes sense."
No matter what happens in the WNBA playoffs, a month from now, Leslie's basketball career will be over.
Yes, she'll have some fun doing the stuff she couldn't do before. But the highest priority in her post-competition life will be her family: husband Michael Lockwood, a former Air Force captain who is a commercial airline pilot, and their child, Lauren.
"It's a great opportunity to watch my daughter grow," Leslie said. "She's already in swimming and gymnastics, and I miss that a lot during the season. I don't want to miss anymore."
But Leslie also sees the chance to help many other girls as well. She plans to run a basketball/leadership academy because she wants kids to be taught from the start the right way to play and conduct themselves.
"I think they can learn it from an early age," she said. "It's important to stay close to the game and pass on all the information I've learned. It's not going to help me to hold on to it; I want to help young girls coming up. Sometimes, they can play because they're talented, but they have no real understanding of the game.
"And I also would like to do broadcasting for both men's and women's basketball. I love public speaking and giving support to important causes, like breast-health awareness."
Leslie has been asked frequently if she would ever go into coaching. She says it's not something she's thinking about now, but would always keep the door open. What about an administrative role in athletics?
"I feel I'm capable of doing something like that," she said. "I'm passionate enough about the game and want it to succeed. So I would never rule it out."
She hopes the younger players today and those who will follow them truly understand they have to be ambassadors for the game the way she has been.
"I've talked to players like Candace and Sylvia [Fowles] and share with them that sense of responsibility," she said. "You need to stop and sign autographs for fans. You have to see the big picture. We owe that to fans; they should feel like they can say, 'Hi' and bring something to a game to get autographed. And also, be role models. It's so important. Even though everyone isn't as accepting of the responsibility, it's our duty to do that."
Leslie makes it clear that's what she wants to be remembered for, even more than all her basketball success: as someone who "got" it, who understood a person with so much athletic talent can make an impact on many lives.
But there's also no doubt that as a basketball player, she'll always be at the top of the list when the "greats" are being discussed.
"I'm a little biased, because I played with her and saw her improve something at every stage in her career," Staley said of where Leslie stands in the history of women's basketball. "For me, Lisa is the best who's played the game. I don't think there will ever be another Lisa Leslie."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
After 12 seasons in the WNBA, Lisa Leslie will retire when the Sparks' playoff run is over. What's next? The possibilities are endless.