Lisa Leslie figured she would score between 25 and 30 points a quarter, or just enough to break Cheryl Miller's eight-year-old national single-game record of 105 points in a high school game. Just enough, she hoped, to solidify her position as the hottest high school player in the country. But a funny thing happened on the way to the record book.
"I heard a buzzer and looked up at the scoreboard," says Lisa, a 6'5" senior center at Morningside High in Inglewood, Calif. "It showed us up 49-6. I asked. "Is this the half?' "
It was the end of the first quarter, and Lisa had scored all her team's points in a Feb. 7 game against an injured, overmatched squad from South Torrance High. By halftime Morningside, the defending state champion, had a 102-24 lead, and Lisa had added 52 points in the second quarter for a stunning total of 101, four shy of Miller's record. But she wouldn't get it. Lisa's opponents had seen enough. Two members of the visiting South Torrance team had already fouled out, and another was injured, leaving only four healthy players to contend with Lisa and her teammates. So, after taking a vote among the wounded during intermission, South Torrance coach Gilbert Ramirez decided to forfeit the game.
Upon hearing the news, Lisa asked Ramirez if his team would let her score three more baskets to surpass the record. The South Torrance players said no. The referees allowed Lisa to shoot four technicals, levied for delay of game, at the start of what would have been the third quarter. She made them all to gain what she thought was a place alongside Miller, who played for Riverside (Calif.) Poly High and starred at USC, in the record book. The points, however, were later nullifed by Southern Section officials, who ruled that the game was over when Ramirez quit at the half.
February 19, 1990
The next day South Torrance's players, humiliated, limped back to school, where they met privately with principal John Schmitt, who said the team was "very upset." Schmitt then called an all-school assembly in which he voiced support for Ramirez, whom Southern Section officials suspended for one game for having forfeited. (He was subsequently reinstated and did not miss a game.) "This is not what we promote in high school athletics," Schmitt says.
Tell that to California state senator Diane Watson, who presented Lisa with a certificate of recognition two days after the massacre. "I heard how you burned up the court," Watson told her. "I heard how the other team was so in fear it had to leave. You are a winner."
South Torrance players knew before the game that they had been chosen as sacrificial lambs for Lisa, who was averaging 27.3 points, 15.1 rebounds, three assists and seven blocked shots for the season and in January was named the female recipient of the Dial Award, given annually to the nation's outstanding high school scholar-athlete. For the past three years Morningside coach Frank Scott has given one senior the chance to break the school's single-game scoring record in the team's final home game. South Torrance wasn't the Lady Monarchs' final home opponent this season, but a bench-clearing fight had broken out the last time Morningside played its last home foe, Centennial High, and Scott was worried the game could turn ugly again if Lisa attempted to break the record against the Apaches. Thus, South Torrance was led to slaughter.
"Lisa could have broken the record her sophomore year," says Scott. "And if I'd let her, she could have averaged 50 points a game instead of 27." Even so, perhaps Morningside's thoughtless tradition should be reexamined.
To her credit, Lisa did not dunk, something she does early and often in most every other game, on the smaller South Torrance players. And she didn't turn hostile when South Torrance quintuple-teamed her, swatting and scratching in futility at her shots, most of which were short-range jumpers. Lisa didn't escape unscathed, either. She suffered a cut lip and more than a few bruises, some of them coming from salvos fired at her the next day by the local media and by angry callers to radio talk shows, all of which decried her lack of sportsmanship in flogging an obviously helpless opponent. Of the criticism, Lisa shrugged and said, "I can handle it. I won't be here forever."
Having reached 6'2½" by the time she was in the ninth grade, Lisa has perfected the teflon approach to fielding insults. Life has not been easy for her. She met her father just once after he left the family when Lisa was four years old. He died five years ago. To support her three daughters—Dionne, 22, Lisa, 17, and Tiffany, 10—Christine Leslie bought an 18-wheel rig in 1982 and began taking to the road for months at a time, leaving a live-in housekeeper to care for the three girls. Christine doesn't like leaving her children, but the money she earns is too good to pass up. And every penny goes home.
"There were some sad times," says Lisa. "Mom had to travel so far and so long. But we understood she had to do it. It made me mature really fast. I had so much to do."
When school let out for summer vacations, Christine packed Lisa and her younger sister into the rig and drove across the country. Most of the time they all slept on a bunk in the back of the truck. "It was 36 inches wide," Christine says. "All of us would jam in there. We had to hold on to each other. That helps us now. We all hold on to each other in a lot of ways."
Lisa started playing basketball in the seventh grade, and by last season she was recognized as the best high school player in the nation. Last summer she starred on the U.S. Olympic junior national team that toured Spain. She has a 3.5 grade point average and has been class president three of her four years at Morningside. Recruited by hundreds of colleges, she says she has narrowed her choices to Long Beach State, Southern Cal and Notre Dame. In fact, women's basketball at the collegiate level has been praying for someone like Lisa to come along since Miller, a four-time All-America, finished at USC in 1986. So, no matter where she goes, everyone will benefit—except, of course, her opponent of the moment.
Lisa's performance against South Torrance did earn her a place in the record book in one category—most free throws made in a game. She converted 27 of 35 shots from the line. Lisa also converted 37 of her 56 field goal attempts in her 16-minute flurry. Looking back, she doesn't regret trying to break the record, only that she didn't make it. Of the South Torrance players, she says she's sorry if they feel bad.
"It wasn't personal," says Lisa. "They knew I was going for the record. I thought knowing that would take some of the hurt away."