Ever-successful Leslie decides to retire

Lisa Leslie will do after this WNBA season what she expected to do 13 years ago: end her basketball career.

Leslie made her impending retirement official on Wednesday. She hopes to go for one more championship with her Los Angeles Sparks, and then thinks many things could grab her attention.

Her daughter, Lauren, and husband, Michael Lockwood, will be No. 1 on that list. But there's also fashion, art, interior design, public speaking, broadcasting. Or how about just sitting on a beach in her native California, soaking up the beauty of the Golden State coast?

"Honestly, it will be nice to see what summer is like next year," said Leslie, who plans to retire after this summer's season. "I'll be able to enjoy it and take a vacation with my family."

That's 2010, though. For 2009, Leslie will be doing what has put her on the extremely short list of best-ever players in women's basketball history. She'll be studying tape, evaluating her performances, still attempting to get better at something.

"That's what I've always done, every year: try to improve," Leslie said.

Leslie will turn 37 in July, and at that point she will be in the midst of trying to win her third WNBA title. Her youthful sidekick, Candace Parker, is pregnant and will miss at least some of the season. So Leslie, who played well with Parker both for the Sparks and the U.S. national women's team last year, will have a heavier load again, at least for a while.

But that has always been where Leslie has stood out: She has consistently produced because she put in the work. She has adapted and adjusted no matter what defense opponents throw at her and regardless of how much help she's getting from teammates.

Leslie garnered notice in high school for her 101-point game. At USC, she twice led her team as far as the Elite Eigh in the NCAA tournamentt: as a sophomore in 1992 and a senior in '94.

Thus, it's safe to say that Leslie is the greatest women's hoops player of the NCAA era never to make the Final Four. You might wonder if that spurred her even more to do everything she has done in basketball since college. But, really, it didn't.

She was disappointed to fall short of the Final Four, but she never thought it was because she did not give it her best effort. So she didn't dwell on it unduly; she moved forward.

Except when she finished at USC in 1994, she figured that her forward progress in basketball would only take her as far as the 1996 Olympics. After that, she assumed she would go into modeling or some type of fashion career.

"My ultimate goal was to play in the Olympics, just one time," she said.

But you know the rest of the story: the 1996 U.S. women's hoops team was a phenomenon at the Atlanta Games, playing in front of enormous Georgia Dome crowds of 30,000-plus.

The process of starting both the ABL and the WNBA had begun, and the response in Atlanta added fuel to their progress. The ABL didn't last, but the WNBA did.

And Leslie was, from the beginning, one of the pillars of the WNBA. She became the face of the Sparks, a team that didn't necessarily embrace the "bad guy" role in the league but didn't really shy from it, either.

Leslie expected to hear boos from opposing fans -- and she got them. They'd complain that the Sparks threw too many elbows and engaged in enough extra-curricular physical play to drive other teams to distraction.

The Sparks and Leslie, meanwhile, would typically affect that "Who, us?" attitude and keep right on playing. And winning. But that wasn't just because they were more physical. It was also because they were very skilled, led by Leslie, who was nicknamed "Smooth" by Sparks coach Michael Cooper.

That has been a hallmark of the 6-foot-5 Leslie, who never just planted herself on the block. She became a face-up threat, including from 3-point range. She endeavored to understand everything that was supposed to happen on the court.

"You have to become a student of the game and can't get stuck in just one position," Leslie said. "For me, that was my main thing, even in high school. I was the center, but if the point guard wasn't able to, let me bring the ball down.

"You can shoot a trail jump shot, a trail 3 -- to me, the sky was the limit in the game. I think kids, based on their height, get put in one position and don't learn about everything else. But I wanted to know: What does the point guard do? What does the 2-guard do?"

Leslie bridged the era between women having no realistic dream of playing professional basketball in a well-established United States' league and actually doing just that. She lived it. She helped make it happen.

Leslie sat out the 2007 WNBA season after giving birth to Lauren, so the league and fans have had a taste of what it's like without her. Maybe one of the biggest compliments actually came from opposing fans who admitted they missed having Leslie to yell at.

Her importance to the WNBA can't be overstated. And yet when she's remembered in the future at what's sure to be more than one Hall of Fame induction, the vision conjured should be in the bright red uniform -- her favorite among Team USA's colors -- of the national program.

Since taking a bronze in the 1992 Olympics, Team USA has failed to win gold in only two major competitions. One was the 1994 World Championship, when Leslie was right out of college. The other was the 2006 World Championship, in which Leslie didn't play because of a family health emergency.

Every other time Leslie took the court -- including for four Olympiads -- the Americans won gold.

Another icon in the sport, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, appreciates Leslie's decades-long dedication.

"She has really established herself, not only as a professional player, but with her commitment to her Olympic opportunities," Summitt said Wednesday. "And making the most of them, helping us be so successful through her Olympic commitment. A lot of players, they come and go. She's been consistent and dedicated to both [the WNBA and Olympic team]."

Leslie herself has valued her Team USA experiences above all others.

"We've competed in so many countries," she said. "And every time I've stepped on the floor, whether it's practice or a game, I've given it my all. It's even hard to put into words what that's meant to me."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.