The U.S. women's basketball team was shooting layups as it warmed up for the gold medal game against Spain last summer at the World University Games in Sheffield, England. Lisa Leslie, USC's spectacular 6'5" center/forward, had made several trips through the layup line, taking an ordinary shot each time. That was not what anyone wanted to see. Not the crowd. Not her teammates. Not even her coaches.
That's because two things come to mind with the mention of Leslie's name. One is her 101-point performance two years ago as a senior at Morningside High in Inglewood, Calif., an effort even more amazing because it was achieved before halftime, after which the disheartened opposition packed its bags and went home. The other thing associated with Leslie is the dunk.
And Leslie can dunk, no small feat in women's basketball. West Virginia's Georgeann Wells, a 6'7" center who did it in 1985, is the only woman ever to have dunked in a college game. Leslie somehow failed to do it last year as a USC freshman, but everyone who has seen her slam the ball in practice, in pickup games, just about everywhere but in an official game, is certain she will join Wells this season.
It was obvious, then, that a Leslie dunk was what everyone in Sheffield Arena was hoping for—obvious, apparently, to everyone but Leslie. Finally, the U.S. coach, Tara VanDerveer of Stanford, took matters into her own hands. "Well, Lisa," she said, as Leslie wandered by, "go ahead and do it."
November 25, 1991
Leslie grabbed a ball, took a few dribbles and jammed it through, sending a jolt through the crowd and igniting a buzz that continued as Leslie again jogged past VanDerveer. Shrugging, the player said, "All you had to do was ask."
That's typical of Leslie. She is aware of the eyes on her, of the hopes that she will be not just a star but the kind of superstar who can elevate the women's game to the next level in national popularity. She responds to those expectations much as she did to those that permeated the crowd in England: She is confident of her talent but somehow seems to hold herself back—on the court, as well as off it—afraid of seeming immodest. You get the feeling that Leslie is capable of being every bit the drawing card that some think women's basketball needs, but that she isn't quite sure she should be so presumptuous as to try to fill that role. Maybe all the sport needs to do is ask.
"A lot of coaches have said I have the potential to be the kind of player who can help women's basketball reach more people," Leslie says. "I guess you never know when you've fulfilled those expectations. All I can do is try to be the kind of player my team needs, and if that's what women's basketball as a whole needs—great! But my first responsibility is to USC."
It's hard to be a breakout star when you're also trying to fit in. Leslie had a successful freshman season by any standard: She averaged 19.4 points, 10 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots, which led the Trojans in all three categories, and she was voted the Pac-10's Freshman of the Year. But she also committed nearly four fouls a game and fouled out nine times. She found herself needing to concentrate more on her role with the Trojans than her role in the future of the women's game.
"I think it was a revelation to Lisa that there were weaknesses in her game that other people could exploit," says USC coach Marianne Stanley. "There's a lot that she's still learning. She's like the colt who wants to get up and go and isn't real secure with all the skills yet."
There is a fine line between star player and entertainer, an even finer one between entertainer and hot dog. No one walked that line more adeptly than former USC star Cheryl Miller, the 6'3" wonder who brought the women's game more attention than it had ever enjoyed when she played for the Trojans from 1982 to '86. In addition to being remarkably multitalented, Miller was emotional and theatrical, sometimes even melodramatic. The media loved her, and women's basketball rode her shirttail to greater recognition and popularity.
There have been other women players with flair, including Lynette Woodard of Kansas, Nancy Lieberman of Old Dominion and Andrea Stinson of North Carolina State, but none has had Miller's impact. Many of today's college players credit her with making them see their own possibilities in the sport. Little girl players fantasized about being Cheryl Miller the way little boy players fantasize about being Michael Jordan.
For Leslie, the comparison to Miller, who helped the Trojans win two national championships, is inescapable. She helped ensure that by choosing Miller's alma mater. There has been no national title at USC so far in the Leslie Era (the Trojans were 18-12 and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament last season), but with four returning starters, a trip to the Final Four at the L.A. Sports Arena in April is a reasonable goal.
The question isn't so much whether Leslie can be as good a player as Miller, as it is whether she can be as compelling. As dynamic. As important. The general feeling is that if Leslie possesses the same intensity, the same enthusiasm as Miller did, it's not evident. Not yet, at least. "Lisa has the potential to be as dominant as Cheryl, but she's not as flamboyant," says Washington coach Chris Gobrecht.
But Leslie is sure of her talent. "I don't want this to sound like I'm cocky or anything," she says. "But by the time I get to my senior year, I think I can be just as good as Cheryl."
And what about the rest of it? What about being the crowd-pleaser that Miller was? Is this the year she begins to lift not only her team, but the entire sport, as well? "This year," says Leslie, "I have to get more assists."
Maybe the entire premise is flawed. The suggestion that women's basketball can't begin to approach the appeal of the men's game without at least one transcendent star may be slighting the women as a whole. Most observers of women's basketball say there is loads of talent out there, more than there has been before, and they are right.
Watch Virginia guard Dawn Staley penetrate and somehow slip the ball to an open teammate. Watch Georgia guard Lady Hardmon, a remarkable leaper and open-court player. Watch shooters like Providence's Tracy Lis, Tammi Reiss of Virginia and Rehema Stephens of USC (box, page 85), and all-around players like forward Susan Robinson of Penn State (page 114) and guard MaChelle Joseph of Purdue, and it's clear that the women's game has its share of exciting players. And there are others of whom equally great things are expected: freshmen such as Notre Dame guard Michelle Marciniak and Tennessee point guard Tiffany Woosley.
Stanley acknowledges that Leslie has "a chance to be one of the best players ever" but thinks there's no need to find a single star of stars. "We've grown to the point where there arc a number of outstanding players of Olympic caliber," Stanley says. "We're beyond the point where the sport is focused on any one individual. The game's too good, too exciting to ignore. Our best players have to be visible, sure, people like Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley. But I don't think our fortunes and visibility as a sport depend solely on what they do."
Women's basketball has grown tremendously in many areas—more talent, more fans, more television exposure—and many within the game want the focus now to be on what the sport has to offer, not on what it may lack. Ask most women's coaches about the future of the game and they will first make sure you understand how far it has come.
They have a lot to talk about. Attendance at Division I women's games has increased each of the past 10 seasons and has more than doubled since 1982, from 1.18 million to 2.4 million last year. "I'd love to dig up stats on the men's game when it was 10 years old," says Gobrecht. Gross revenue from the NCAA tournament in its first nine years grew more than sixfold, from $360,000 in 1982 to $2.31 million in 1990.
Still, the impact of one or two megastars can't be completely discounted. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson helped rescue the moribund NBA when they came into the league in 1979. And hockey minus Wayne Gretzky might have gone into a steep slump.
"I think we do need that one star that even people who aren't that familiar with the game can recognize," says Leslie. "It not only gets the attention of the public, it gets the attention of the kids who will grow up to be the next superstars. The next Cheryl Miller, whoever she is, can have an impact on women's basketball for years after her career is over."
But there are many people who believe the sport has greater needs. One is for a pro league that will allow players to stay in the public eye longer. Although there have been plenty of attempts to form a profitable professional league, none has been able to survive more than a few seasons. "If there's a lack of identifiable superstars in our game," says VanDerveer, "it's partly because they have no way to stay out there in front of the public when their college careers are over."
Others think the game needs the dunk to be as big a part of the women's game as it is of the men's, which would require—besides lowering the rim—finding more players like Leslie.
All of it—the development of a high-profile star, the changing of the game to add more excitement—is meant to appeal to television. "We have to have more television exposure," says Virginia coach Debbie Ryan. "A few games on CBS and ESPN are not enough. It wasn't until Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were on TV that they became household names."
In some ways, Leslie's development is indicative of what the women's game lacks. She had never heard of Cheryl Miller and didn't know anything about basketball until she was in the seventh grade—and 6'2"—and a friend, Sharon Hargrove, who now plays for UNLV, encouraged her to play. Until then, Leslie had been busy ignoring people who thought it was strange that a girl her size wasn't a basketball player.
Once she did start playing, she patterned herself after male players, because she simply didn't see women playing basketball very often. "There weren't that many role models, at least not many that I knew of," Leslie says. "If, by the way I play, I can be a role model or encourage someone else, that would be great."
It will also mean the women's game will have taken the final step. And no sport can ask its stars for more than that.