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When Door Opened For Women's League, Lisa Leslie Walked Through It

Maya Moore has a vivid memory of first being on the basketball court with someone she genuinely thought of as a legend.

"My freshman year at Connecticut, we played the national team in an exhibition," Moore said. "I was like, 'Whew ... OK ... I'm about to box out Lisa Leslie. Cool! Let's go!' I remember that moment of 'Wow.'

"She was one of the first players I had a poster of in my room. She was one of the foundational players who cared about and built the image of the WNBA."

That meeting between current Minnesota Lynx star Moore, now the reigning MVP of the WNBA, and Leslie happened in 2007. Moore was just getting started in college, and Leslie was nearing the end of a brilliant career that would include four Olympic gold medals and two WNBA titles.

This weekend, Leslie will be one of six inductees into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennessee, all of whom have had a measurable and lasting impact on the game. But it would be difficult to find any player whose consistent excellence came at a more important time for the sport than Leslie's.

When a realistic door was finally opening to a sustainable women's professional league in the United States, Leslie -- a 6-foot-5 center -- was there to walk through it. She was one of three marquee players, along with Sheryl Swoopes and Rebecca Lobo, who committed to play in the newly launched WNBA, which began in 1997. In June of that year, Leslie's Los Angeles Sparks would play in the very first WNBA game.

Leslie would go on to be the league's MVP in 2001, '04 and '06. She and the Sparks won WNBA titles in 2001 and 2002. And she was an integral force in USA Basketball for the better part of two decades, helping the Americans win gold at the Summer Games in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008.

"I watched her a ton," Moore said. "I loved her confidence; she was a dominant player that played with a little attitude -- blocking shots, scoring inside, having that look in her eye. You knew she was about business, and her teams won."

Leslie, 42, came to prominence at Morningside High School in Inglewood, California, where in February 1990, she scored 101 points in the first half of a game. The other team refused to play the second half that night, denying Leslie an opportunity to try to break the national single-game scoring record of 105 that had been set by another Californian, Cheryl Miller.

For the rest of her career -- which included being an All-American at Southern Cal -- opponents wouldn't have the opportunity to duck Leslie, although more than a few surely would have liked to. She was a punishingly good low-block genius who also developed an effective face-up game.

"It's hard to put her career in perspective, because she is the gold standard," said Indiana Fever assistant coach Gail Goestenkors, who also will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend. "And not just because of all of her championships, but because she was a leader for so many things.

"She was one of the first really visible stars in women's basketball in the modern era. She could dunk. She carried herself with such grace and poise. She was the face of women's basketball for a long period."

Leslie, who averaged 17.3 points and 9.1 rebounds in her 12 seasons with the Sparks, retired after a 2009 season in which she was still very effective, with averages of 15.4 PPG and 6.6 RPG. But once she decided she was at the end of her playing days, she never wavered.

That was another hallmark of Leslie: How meticulously she planned her life and her career, and then how faithfully she kept to her plans.

"She was big on setting goals; she always talked about that," said Atlanta post player DeLisha Milton-Jones, one of Leslie's former teammates with the Sparks. "Whether it was her motivational speeches to the team or just the things she said to you individually, you learned so much just by being around her."

Goestenkors was head coach at Duke when she first worked with Leslie as an assistant on the U.S. national team. She said Leslie was the first player who really displayed to her the full range of what it meant to be an athlete at the highest level.

"I gained even more respect for her being around her with USA Basketball, because she was the consummate professional," Goestenkors said. "She was so gracious with all the interviews, all the requests on her time. But she was also dedicated to her regimen to keep her body and mind in shape.

"She was very conscientious about nutrition, something that a lot of players then -- and still now -- aren't always meticulous about. She was the first player who really introduced me to what professionalism was in the best possible sense."

Leslie was so good, though -- and so visibly confident about it -- that to a degree, she wore the villain's cape for much of her WNBA career. She'd be the player booed most by opposing fans, a sign of how much they worried about what she'd do to their teams.

"She also carried that burden well," Goestenkors said. "It was impressive to watch."

There's no doubt, also, that Leslie could dish out what she needed to get her job done. She was the opposite of bulky, but very strong. If you tried to guard Leslie, you felt it the next day.

"She was a handful," said Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, who as an assistant in Charlotte and Detroit strategized against Leslie. "She was 6-5 and tenacious. You don't see it as often with the tall players, where they have that type of intensity and don't just rely on their size. She was wiry-strong and long and agile.

"And she always had the veteran tricks, too -- she was good at knowing her spots and how to get things done. I would say she's the greatest center our league has seen."

In fact, it's hard to imagine how the WNBA's development would have gone without Leslie, because she was so key a figure in building the brand -- both as standout player and eloquent spokeswoman. And it's equally hard to conceive of USA Basketball without Leslie's contributions, especially coming at a time when the United States truly took over globally in women's basketball.

Connecticut Sun coach Anne Donovan, a star center at Old Dominion from 1979-83, also had an extensive USA Basketball career. Donovan won two gold medals as a player with the national team, and then coached the Americans to gold in 2008 at the Beijing Games, which was Leslie's last major competition. So Donovan is as qualified as anyone to assess Leslie's career, and she puts her at the top.

"I think she goes down as the best player at her position," Donovan said. "She was one of the first low-post players who really wanted to be very versatile. As our game changed, Lisa led the way.

"And she was able to bridge the gap between the 'old guard' and the 'new guard' in women's basketball. I don't think you can overstate how significant her impact was in the WNBA and the international scene."