Woman Possessed Spurred by her stepfather's cancer, Lisa Leslie rebuilt herself and her game, then led the Sparks to the WNBA title

September 09, 2001

Los Angeles Sparks center Lisa Leslie wasn't sure there was such
a thing as an MVP of the WNBA championship series. Nonetheless,
while typing up a three-page personal mission statement for
2001, she included winning that award among her goals. She also
put down being named regular-season MVP and All-Star Game MVP,
leading the league in scoring and rebounding, and seizing a
championship--surely one of the most ambitious to-do lists in
pro basketball history.

Leslie did win the league and All-Star Game MVP trophies, barely
missed the scoring and rebounding titles--her 19.5 points and 9.6
rebounds per game ranked second and third, respectively--and last
Saturday nailed down the WNBA championship when the Sparks routed
the Charlotte Sting 82-54 to sweep the best-of-three finals.
Having dominated the series with 24 points in each game and a
total of 21 rebounds, 10 assists and nine blocked shots, the 6'5"
Leslie found that earning the championship MVP award hadn't been
merely wishful thinking. As she held the crystal Tiffany trophy
aloft during the postgame confetti storm, the crowd of 13,141
fans at the Staples Center screamed its approval. "Lisa wasn't
going to be denied this year," said L.A. coach Michael Cooper
after the game. "It's like she's been on a mission since the
beginning of the season."

Make that since the end of last season, which came crashing to a
halt when Leslie and the Sparks, who'd had the best
regular-season record (28-4) in the league, lost two straight to
the Houston Comets in the Western Conference finals. That sweep
reinforced the rap on Leslie: Even though she had splendid
skills and a pair of Olympic gold medals--not to mention the
looks and poise to command around $1.25 million a year in salary
and endorsement deals--she lacked the hunger and mental
wherewithal to lead Los Angeles to a championship. "I watched
tapes of last year's conference finals and decided I had to
become more aggressive and more mentally tough," says Leslie,
29. "I also wanted to improve my passing, my shooting percentage
and my ability to drive and dribble, left and right. I wanted to
solidify my post game, too. It was time to make an investment in
myself."

Upon returning from the Sydney Olympics last fall, she hired a
trainer to improve her strength and help prevent the fatigue she
often felt in her back. She ran, did yoga, squats and push-ups,
and became well-acquainted with a Vertical Enhancement Resistance
Training machine, which develops fast-twitch muscles and
explosiveness. In January she added four 70-minute on-court
sessions a week with Cooper, a former L.A. Lakers swingman and
the 1987 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. They worked on ball
handling and other guard skills, and honed a mid-range jumper to
complement Leslie's redoubtable handiwork in the post. "We needed
to expand her game," says Cooper, who brought in Lakers teammate
and midrange master James Worthy for one session. "With the
addition of [post players] Rhonda Mapp and Latasha Byears [in
off-season trades], we had to find more places where she could
play."

Beyond her workouts Leslie's main concern was her stepfather of
five years, Tom Espinoza, who learned last December that he had
liver cancer. Leslie, whose father left the family when she was
two months old, was close to Espinoza and had bought him and her
mother, Christine, a house near her own home in Los Angeles the
previous May. When Espinoza fell ill, Leslie curtailed her usual
off-season travels. "I didn't do the things I normally do," she
says. "I didn't go to New York and model. I didn't go overseas. I
just hung around with my mom and my stepfather and worked out."

Espinoza died on Jan. 15. "It was tough to see someone I loved
dying before my eyes," says Leslie, "but it was motivating, too.
I wanted to make the most of the game I loved. I worked really
hard at it."

The effort paid off. This season Leslie deployed all the
off-the-dribble weapons Cooper had taught her--the penetration,
the pull-up jump shot, the spin move. "I call her the Package
now," says Sparks assistant Glenn McDonald. "She can shoot the
jumper, she can run the lane, she can shoot the hook, she can
shoot the three. She does everything."

Leslie showed a wider range of skills on the defensive end as
well. She blocked a three-point shot against the Sacramento
Monarchs and, against the Utah Starzz, pinned a bank shot to the
glass. "That shocked me," says Leslie of the latter feat. "I
don't know how I stopped that ball. You see that in the NBA but
not in the WNBA."

As for the enhanced aggression Leslie sought coming into the
season, she can check that off her list too. "Lisa used to let
things get to her," says McDonald. "She pulled away from the
contact or complained about it to the refs. This year, no matter
how much they banged her, she stayed in there and banged right
back. She was not intimidated."

Although Leslie, a sweet-natured woman who reads romance novels,
will never be one of the WNBA's goons, she has acquired a
"thuggish mentality," says teammate DeLisha Milton. "She used to
be feminine and dainty when she ran, like she didn't want anyone
to hear her. Now she almost stomps. She wants the other team to
hear her coming."

As for her ability to perform in big games, Leslie increased her
scoring (22.3 points) and rebounding (12.3) averages in the
playoffs while blocking 4.8 shots per game. She first wore down
the four-time defending champion Comets, then the Monarchs and
finally the Sting. "She's a problem," said Charlotte coach Anne
Donovan after Saturday's game. "A post player has to guard her
because of her size. Yet try to find one who has the footwork to
guard her on the perimeter and the physical presence to guard her
in the low post. Our answer was Charlotte Smith, and she gave up
five inches. That's a serious mismatch. In every way Lisa is a
step above everybody else."

Nearly two hours after she helped deliver Los Angeles its second
pro basketball title of the year, Leslie emerged from the
Sparks' locker room dressed in a skirt and heels and carrying
nothing but a bunch of grapes. Before she headed upstairs to
join a party thrown by team president Johnny Buss, she paused to
ponder what she had unloaded as well as what she had acquired
during the finals. "I'm not sure I'd call this championship
getting the monkey off my back," she said. "What I did was find
the heart I needed to win the big games, and that feels great."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH The Package Leslie dominated the Sting with 24.0 points and 10.5 rebounds a game.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)