Farewell to a Legend
Lisa Leslie ends her Hall of Fame career with no regrets
By Evan Barnes
Sentinel Sports Editor
On the final day of her basketball career, Lisa Leslie was the last player to enter the conference room where the Sparks held their exit interviews.
She walked in with the same poise she’s carried for over a decade in the WNBA. The face of the league finally saying goodbye to a game she has elevated like few others.
Leslie’s story is one you can’t write any better. A girl who grew up in Compton and Inglewood idolizing the Showtime Lakers of the 1980’s and ended her career being coached by one of them, Michael Cooper.
In between, she starred on a national level at every stop of her career (Morningside High School, USC and the Sparks), became an international icon for women’s basketball and helped it expand its profile – fulfilling a prophecy Sports Illustrated made about her in 1990 as a college freshman.
“If I had to write it, I don’t know who’d have this many opportunities to stay home and play in front of friends, family and the community,” she said.
The legacy she created in this town was evident at her farewell ceremony during her final regular season game at Staples Center. Many celebrities and basketball icons turned out, including Lakers legend Magic Johnson.
Despite the Basketball Hall of Fame honoring one of its most star-studded classes ever, including Michael Jordan, Johnson said it was better to be at Staples to support someone who would eventually be there.
Her resume almost guarantees it. Two WNBA titles, three league MVP awards, eight All-Star appearances and four Olympic gold medals. Not to mention the face of a game for over a decade.
“She done everything that anybody could ever want to accomplish in basketball,” said Sparks forward Candace Parker, one of the heirs to the throne Leslie leaves behind.
Her final season didn’t go as planned. An up-and-down season saw the team play inconsistent and a knee injury take her out for 13 games. But Leslie recovered and the team rebounded to reach the postseason.
While falling one game short of the WNBA finals, it was fitting that in her final game, Leslie led her team in scoring (22 points) and walked off the court with no regrets.
“Every time I stepped out on that court I played as hard as I could,” Leslie told reporters after the game. “I left everything out there.”
At the team’s exit interviews, she reiterated that she didn’t want to retire after her skills had diminished.
“We’ve seen over the years, so many players stay a few years too long and I didn’t want to experience that. I wanted to play, finish and go out when I’m still able to contribute.”
But it’s her off-the-court persona that has made an icon. Whether it be through modeling, acting or television appearances such as ABC “Superstars” this past summer, she has served an ambassador of her sport.
The consistency that she has shown on the court has been matched by it off the court. During the offseason, you’ll see her in the news for positive stories as opposed to being anywhere near trouble.
“She’s always been the same, a consummate professional,” said Sparks forward Tina Thompson, who’s known Leslie since their days at Morningside High School and played together in WNBA All-Star Games and Olympic teams.
“The example that she has set has been one to follow. She’s done it the right way in representing herself and the WNBA,” Thompson added
Unlike most athletes, she embraced being a role model – something she accepted as a seven-year-old – and helped inspire hundreds of girls to not just continue a career in basketball, but following their dreams.
“Girls look up to her and see that coming from where she came from and being able to accomplish what she did, anybody can aspire to be whatever they want to be,” Sparks guard Noelle Quinn said.
Quinn knows this firsthand, having grown up in Los Angeles and playing ball for Bishop Montgomery High School and UCLA.
She’s among the scores of WNBA players that grew up watching her and for her younger teammates, it was a valuable experience learning from the best. One comment that Sparks general manager Penny Toler highlighted what teammates discovered most about her.
“They said they knew I was good, but they didn’t know how much work I put into being good,” Leslie said.
That ethic inspired her to wake up at 6:30 a.m. to shoot jump shots before practice, work on different moves and never settle for getting by. It’s why after sitting out a season after giving birth to her first child, she made her comeback by winning Defensive Player of the Year at 36 years old.
It came in part from her mother and role model, Christine Leslie-Espinoza, a longtime truck driver who would be on the road early in the morning before she and her sisters would wake up. She also survived breast cancer 10 years ago.
So what’s next after finding success in three different decades? Broadcasting remains an option – she earned her degree in communications and also worked on ESPN’s coverage of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament in 2005.
She also has more time to spend with her husband, Michael Lockwood, their daughter Lauren and stepdaughters Gabriel and Mikaela. And don’t count helping Cooper in some capacity at his new job as the USC women’s basketball coach.
“I want to find things I’m passionate about because I know I’ll be successful at it,” Leslie said.
She shook the hands of every reporter after the interview, thanking them for covering their coverage. It was another reminder why this local icon remains a class act and a legend in the city she never left.