Lisa Leslie celebrates individuality and details pathway for 'young girls to grow the WNBA'

Former Los Angeles Sparks center Lisa Leslie sat down with Sky Sports to chat about her journey to the WNBA, and what the league must do to inspire the next generation of young women to pick up a basketball

By Maryam Naz

Image: Triplets head coach Lisa Leslie celebrates with Triplets player Jannero Pargo.

Lisa Leslie won two championships, three MVP awards and two Defensive Player of the Year honours with the Los Angeles Sparks from 1997 through to 2009. Her introduction to basketball, however, was a tumultuous one.

"I was the only left-handed player at my practice in junior high, so I decided to learn with my right hand too. I didn't understand at the time how special I was".

Leslie also explained the problems she faced as the only girl playing with a group of boys.

"They didn't pass to me for quite some time, I believe for two or three games at least. But they didn't know what my skills were. I was 6ft 5ins, taller than anybody else. I was never born to fit in, I was born to stand out.

"One day, I stole the ball on a pass intended for a team-mate and scored. By the time I'd put in a few plays, the crowd was yelling 'give it to the girl' because I could actually score the basket better than the boys. So, things changed quickly.


"We ended up losing the championship that year. It was the first time I'd really experienced a loss. But I knew I loved playing and it didn't matter if I played with boys or girls. I'd fallen in love with the game."

This led her to become a prominent figure in the University of Southern California's women's basketball team, with whom she won the 1994 Player of the Year trophy.

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Leslie also received All-American honours for 1992, 1993 and 1994, setting conference records for scoring, rebounding, and blocked shots. She also became the first player to make the first all-conference team in each of her four years, graduating with a bachelor's degree in communications.

At the time, there were no opportunities for women to play professional basketball in the US. So, like many other college stars, Leslie signed with a team in the European women's professional league. She joined Sicilgesso, based in Alcamo, Italy, for the 1994-95 season.

"Having the opportunity to play overseas is amazing because not everybody can make it to the NBA or the WNBA. I'm happy that I got the chance to play in Italy and meet some amazing people. Picking up that basketball has allowed me to travel the world so I never have any regrets".

When the WNBA was established in the summer of 1997, Leslie, along with Sheryl Swoopes and Rebecca Lobo, became the face of the new league. Leslie anchored her hometown team, the Sparks.

Image: Los Angeles Sparks' Lisa Leslie drives around the Minnesota Lynx's Nicole Ohlde

"I'm really happy that the WNBA came around in '97. I'm happy that we had the platform to be role models to the rest of the world. The WNBA had the best players in the world at the time and now we're showcasing that same talent.

"That's the beauty of it, we've been able to grow this sport, it's 26 years young, but we're grateful that David Stern has allowed us to do so."

Leslie also had more to say about the work the NBA is doing alongside the WNBA.

"The WNBA and the NBA have teamed up in such a great way, we're a force," she said. "We're finding more ways to be inclusive with women, we're seeing women that played in the WNBA now working in the NBA, on the benches.

"Maybe in five or eight years, there'll be young girls picking up the ball once we leave, continuing to hone their skills and hopefully make it to the WNBA. The sky is the limit."

Leslie now operates as one of only two female head coaches in the men's professional game, leading the Triplets in the BIG3 professional league.

She added Coach of the Year to her list of accolades after her very first season on the bench in 2019, and had this to say on the campaign ahead: "Being the coach, I'm always thinking of winning the championship. The player who can help me do that is Joe Johnson, so I'm hoping he'll be back to join us.

"But overall, it's the BIG3, there's so much talent, every team is competition. There's no weekend you can take off because you just never know who's going to win. It's very tough to predict who'll be the best, but Team Triplets will be at the top!"