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Leslie remains at forefront of women's Olympic basketball team

WASHINGTON -- Lisa Leslie broke into a mama's smile when she saw a little one holding out a basketball for a signature. The child was perhaps 3, and beckoned the star as she left the Verizon Center court Saturday.

This was the kind of day when it was easy to sign things and pose for pictures if you were in a Sparks uniform. Especially if you were wearing No. 9. Earlier in the afternoon, Leslie had been announced as a member of the U.S. Olympic team for the fourth time, and then she and Sparks defeated the Mystics, 70-59.

Still … you got the feeling that Leslie would have stopped anyway, even if Los Angeles had somehow managed to lose to Washington. Even had she been grumpy, she wouldn't have been able to resist.

"Hello there, sweet girl!" Leslie sang out to the youngster.

Leslie has her own daughter now; Lauren was born last year and Leslie missed the WNBA season on maternity leave. No matter how nutso-sentimental-gushy a person might be about kids anyhow, having one makes you even more like that. There's no mistaking that facial expression on a new or relatively new mom. It's this: "Oh, my, just look at you! I would say you remind me of my little girl … but the truth is that everything reminds me of her!"

The "mom thing" certainly has put its glowing stamp on Leslie. But so has a combined sense of perspective, maturity, accomplishment and gratitude. It was all on display Saturday.

Oh, sure, Leslie has provoked some uncharitable views from opposing fans over the years, with her gargantuan talent … and her nimble ability to give as good as she gets (or, uh, give more) in the wrestling ring of the paint.

However, when it comes to being an Olympian, Leslie has always presented a dilemma to the fans who get such a kick out of rooting against her most of the time. They simply can't help but like her, whether they like it or not. She has been the quintessential Team USA player.

And even if you're one of those folks whose "boo reflex" is triggered by the mere thought of Leslie, you still are aware that she has really been the most consistent driving force of the American team for a dozen years.

Current Sparks teammate and aspiring WNBA Wonder Woman Candace Parker -- one of four Olympic first-timers who will be on the U.S. squad -- talked Saturday about her memories of Leslie's first Summer Games gold. Parker said she watched the 1996 team get its medals and then told her parents that she'd be doing the same thing someday.

Now, sure enough, Parker will be in position to do that in Beijing in August. And Leslie is not just "still around," but still at the top of the heap.

"I feel a little emotional … I don't know why. Maybe it's because I had a baby," Leslie said, chuckling. "I feel so blessed to be young enough to play in another Olympics and yet old enough to be the leader and the veteran of so many great players.

"And to have Candace as a teammate in the WNBA has given us what we need to be ready for the Olympics. I have a chance to play with her every day prior to us getting together [as a U.S. team] at the end of July."

Later, Leslie was asked how it felt to hear the 22-year-old Parker talk of being just a kid at home watching the Atlanta Games on TV in 1996. Leslie laughed at how, initially, that seems unreal. Was 1996 really that long ago? It doesn't necessarily feel like it to Leslie. But, well, actually …

"It's so weird. Because when you count the years, it's true," said Leslie, who will be 36 in July. "I remember giving speeches after the '96 Olympics to little girls and boys, 'This is what it's about: that dream of believing you can do anything you want and be anything you want.'

"And then you have [Candace] on her couch at home believing that. It's amazing that it's come full circle."

On Saturday, Parker had 15 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and four blocks in the Sparks' victory. Leslie had 17 points and five boards … plus a great many "verbal" assists.

She doesn't talk to Parker like, "Hey, rookie, here's what you should do!" Instead, the two are always communicating about what just happened and what to expect next. And Leslie gives Parker both obvious respect and the kind of encouragement that especially means a lot coming from another great player.

It's one thing to be good enough to play professionally … another thing to be great enough to carry a pro team in games. Already, Parker has shown she can do that. Not that she has to do it all the time. But she can.

And who better to know how that feels than Leslie?

"Sometimes, you have so much pressure and nobody's helping you," Leslie said. "Everybody on your team is just like, 'Oh, she knows what to do.' I try to tell her, 'It's OK, keep playing hard.' Those are the things she needs to hear while we're on the floor."

There is something else that Leslie wants to make sure she gives not just to Parker but to the entire "new generation."

"I think about the history of women's sports and the people who didn't have this platform and opportunity," she said. "That's why I get the big picture. It's not just about what we do on the court, it's what we do off the court.

"It's about stopping and signing those autographs, being thankful to the community. That's the one thing we have to make sure we pass on to the younger players: 'Give back to people. We need them for our existence [as a league]. Don't take it for granted.'"

Leslie can put that in Olympic-sized perspective for the up-and-coming players because what she has done for Team USA has been so monumental a part of who she has been as a professional.

When you think of Leslie in historical terms, in your mind's eye, you probably are as likely to envision her as much in red, white and blue as her everyday Sparks' purple and yellow. In fact, maybe even more likely.

Atlanta, Sydney, Athens and now Beijing.

"It's about gold," Leslie said. "I know what it takes."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.