In the summer of 1996, fresh off an epic run at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, a young Lisa Leslie agreed to participate in the WNBA. She had no idea what she was getting herself into.
"I thought I was retiring from basketball. I signed a contract with Wilhelmina in New York and I was modeling," Leslie said. "And then, when the WNBA was announced, I thought, 'OK, this is cool. It will fit my schedule; it's just for the summer.'
"I thought it was going to be a small summer league. I had no idea that they would put down the marketing charge that they did behind it."
Fast-forward to 2015, and the former model is one of 11 new inductees into the esteemed Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
The festivities started Thursday afternoon, when Leslie and her fellow inductees -- including former NBA players Dikembe Mutombo and Spencer Haywood, and coach John Calipari -- received their commemorative blazers. While addressing the media, Leslie shared a childhood memory that foreshadowed a life she would eventually live. It started when she was about 7 or 8, when her mom found Leslie signing her name over and over.
"She said, 'Well, who are you going to give those autographs out to?'" Leslie recalled. "And I said, 'Well, I haven't decided who my audience is yet, but I got to give out autographs.'"
Leslie was definitely on to something, and dreaming big at an early age helped shape an illustrious basketball career. Leslie's road to the pros began to take flight in college, where in 120 games for the University of Southern California she averaged 20.1 points per game. A three-time All-American who was the national player of the year as a senior, Leslie graduated as the Pac-10's all-time scoring and rebounding leader.
One of the three original players signed by the WNBA, Leslie's career flourished during a pivotal moment in women's professional sports. In 12 seasons for the Los Angeles Sparks, Leslie won two WNBA championships, three regular-season MVP awards and was an eight-time All-Star. In 2001, she became the first WNBA player to win all three MVP awards -- All-Star Game, regular-season and WNBA Finals MVP -- in the same season. And before retiring in 2009, she added three more Olympic gold medals.
Despite her many accolades, Leslie remains humble. In her enshrinement speech, titled "I Didn't Get Here Alone," Leslie acknowledged the people who helped her become a Hall of Famer. In addition to her family, former teammates and coaching staff, Leslie recognized the other female Hall of Fame members who have influenced her.
Before the ceremony, Leslie said she made an effort to call every female Hall of Famer who had inspired her, asking them to come support her at the induction ceremony. Included on the stage with Leslie on Friday were Dawn Staley, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, Teresa Edwards, Katrina McClain, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer and James Worthy.
Lynette Woodard, the first female Harlem Globetrotter and a former Olympian and WNBA player, also honored Leslie onstage. She had nothing but praise for the 6-foot-5 former center.
"I watched Lisa grow as a young player, and she just blossomed into this, not only a superstar for the game here in the United States but around the globe as well," Woodard said. "Lisa is a great young lady. Always has been. Very kind to everyone, but she's also a hard worker. So she deserves every bit of this success, and it's so nice to see her in this light because she deserves it 100 percent."