In retirement, Lisa Leslie exceeds expectations of female athletes
It was halftime at a Los Angeles Sparks home game late last August, and suddenly the place was abuzz: Lisa Leslie would be brought on court for a special announcement. Unlike times past, when the basketball legend had received honors and awards, fans had no idea why Leslie was taking stage.
She emerged with team owner Paula Madison, who told the crowd that Leslie was now part of the Sparks ownership group. There were gleeful screams of surprise, followed by warm applause as Leslie told fans she was happy to rejoin the organization she had represented for all 13 of her years in the WNBA.
As the league's first ex-player-turned-owner, Leslie is in a unique position, and her duties often fall in the marketing and public relations realm. They are also just some of the numerous responsibilities she now has, which include running her new basketball academy, continuing her sportscasting career and raising two children with her husband. She sounds a little like an old television comedy skit when she says, "I've got five jobs."
But Leslie also points out that this is no different from any other time in her life, when she's pursued multiple endeavors at a time. She describes herself as goal-oriented and business-driven. The only things that have changed are the roles basketball has in her life, and the goals she is pursuing.
"I'm not doing anything new in wearing a lot of hats," Leslie said.
It's all part of what she says is her pursuit to achieve every one of her goals.
"I've always approached life like I approached the game," Leslie said. "Somebody's got to be the best, so why not me?"
Madison and her family-owned business Williams Group Holdings gradually became majority owners of the Sparks after initially investing in the team five years ago. A dozen entities comprise the Sparks ownership group, with Madison being the main face of the organization since last summer.
It was Madison who approached Leslie about becoming an owner. She characterized it as a common-sense move.
"We believe Lisa's great legacy as a member of the Sparks is a benefit to our team with regards to community engagement, sales and marketing," Madison said.
Leslie didn't need to be won over; she had been an admirer of Madison since she was a television executive. She agreed with Madison that she should focus on marketing.
"Her assistance ... will help us get fans in the seats, achieving our goal of filling the Staples Center," Madison said.
Taking charge of this effort makes sense for Leslie, who was the face of the Sparks until her retirement in 2009. She said that after that year, the team lost about 4,000 season ticket holders.
"The goal is to get those fans back and more, and then build on it," Leslie said.
She has appeared at season ticket holder and fan events, including the WNBA draft party in April. Two weeks before that, she was promoting the Sparks at the Final Four in Denver. And Leslie is part of meetings with potential corporate sponsors. She said it is similar to what she did in the early days of the league as a player and ambassador of sorts. Being an owner now, however, "can help get more butts in seats."
Leslie is keenly aware that the way to do this is to build a great team with a winning attitude. It is something she said she understands better as a spectator than she did as a player.
"You need to put a great product out there on the floor, and that means players who show up and play hard," she said. "People want to see the heart and the effort, and that really outweighs the wins and the losses. If you don't see the effort, you feel like you could have caught a movie instead."
"If (players) give lackluster effort, they leave people feeling like they don't care. I always say, 'make me want to come back.'"
This is something that the rest of the Sparks staff has been fervently working on this winter. It began with the hiring of veteran coach Carol Ross in January, and continued with a number of high-profile player signings, including Alana Beard, Marissa Coleman and Nicky Anosike. Then the Sparks used their first pick in the WNBA draft to take Stanford forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike.
Leslie is pleased with the developments on all fronts. She called Ross a high-energy coach who puts a lot of emphasis on defense -- something she said the Sparks have been missing the last several years. She sees the younger players as great additions to star forward Candace Parker, who just signed a multiyear contract extension with the franchise that drafted her in 2008.
"I'm hopeful about Nneka's impact this season," Leslie said. "She's not the type of rookie who needs two years to get acclimated -- she can adapt and help immediately."
The organization is understandably hungry. It has been 10 years since Leslie lead the Sparks to a WNBA championship, six since they made a substantial playoff run. Leslie said "it's time" should be the team's motto.
"Trying to win a championship is always the goal at the end of the day because we're not the type of franchise that's just happy to make the playoffs," she said.
In March, Leslie launched the Lisa Leslie Basketball and Leadership Academy in West Los Angeles, fulfilling a business plan she wrote about four years ago after her daughter was born. The boys and girls who enroll learn basketball skills in three-hour block sessions twice a week. They also get leadership training twice a month, in 45-minute increments. Topics include: "lose the emotion and win the game," "learning to play using professional principles," "the balancing act of school, sports and life," "dressing for success," "interview and media training," and discipline, among others. Leslie and her hand-picked staff of coaches also help with tutoring, counseling and they provide assistance with college plans.
Leslie said the curriculum runs deep because today's youth has a need for it.
"When I watch kids play basketball, they don't know how to think the game," she said. "They know what it should look like, but they don't know why."
She uses the acronym PIT as a framework: Purpose, Individual, Team. First she and her coaches teach the purpose of various movements, then individual skills, and then how to use that knowledge to help the team. This facilitates team ball, which is another thing Leslie said is missing from the game today. In the end, she said the game teaches life skills, too.
"The leadership training shows kids that basketball is a direct correlation to life -- the ups and downs, the emotions," she said. "I'm a better and more educated person because of basketball."
Though she is busy, Leslie has been at every basketball training session so far.
"At the Academy, I want every person treated like they're my daughter or son," she said.
One of the constants in Leslie's life for many years has been color commentating. She began doing spot appearances for TNT in 1998 and worked the WNBA Finals for ESPN in 2005. She has worked for ABC Los Angeles and may work for the Pac-12 Network next season. Leslie said she always knew she wanted to spend more time as a commentator after she retired.
"It keeps me close to the game and gives me a chance to talk about what I see," she said. "It's poetry in motion to me, and I analyze what I see."
This summer, for the first time in almost 20 years, Leslie will not be a member of the U.S. Olympic basketball team. But she'll still at the Games -- covering the action for NBC. This will come just after she achieves another life milestone: turning 40 on July 7. Leslie is taking it all in stride.
Leslie called her life "a balancing act." But ironically, what centers her are her two children: Lauren, who will turn five in June, and Michael, aka MJ, who turned two in April.
"They're on a schedule, and having a schedule helps," she said. "Kids go to bed and eat at the same times every day, and that's grounding for me."
So is the relationship with husband, Michael Lockwood. Yet, with or without a supporting cast, Leslie would likely be the same. In her younger years, she managed year-round training for basketball along with modeling and sportscasting. Now she co-owns a WNBA team and runs a basketball academy. She said she always has a few business plans on hand for the future.
"I always knew I wanted to be in television when I was a kid, and I knew I wanted to model," she said. "My goal was to win the championship, my goal was to win a gold medal, and my goal was to win (WNBA) MVP."
"Goal-setting and achieving those goals -- that's just what I do."