Lisa Leslie was one of a kind

Dawn Staley always knew the right button to push with Lisa Leslie. They had been USA Basketball teammates since they were in college and had known each other since high school.

When Staley wanted Leslie to step things up a notch, she'd approach her close friend as they walked onto the court.

"I'd say it with some extra language that I can't say for publication," Staley told espnW this week. "But I would tell her, 'You are the best player in the world. You need to play like it.'

"That would get her going every time."

As Leslie prepares to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, later this week, it will be Staley's words again compelling her to move toward her best self. Staley will introduce Leslie -- who came to the game of basketball as a tall, gawky, slightly reluctant middle schooler -- and the former 6-foot-5 center will come forward to join an esteemed club and cement her status as one of the all-time greats in the women's game.

Leslie, with her long, lithe frame, her versatility and her swagger, is legitimately unique in a game in which somebody is always coming along and reminding you of somebody else.

But is there anyone playing right now, internationally or in the WNBA, who looks like, plays like or models her game after Leslie?

Candace Parker, who might be closest to the Leslie mold, answers: "No. There's still nobody out there like her."

Leslie was then, and is now, an original -- and, without question, a pioneer.

The WNBA will celebrate its 20th anniversary next season, and it can be argued that milestone wouldn't have been reached had Leslie not lent her name and talent to the venture.

Along with Rebecca Lobo and Sheryl Swoopes, Leslie was one of the first three players to sign on with the WNBA after the 1996 Olympics Games. She became the anchor in a starring role for her hometown team.

"Everybody in the gym knew it was going to Lisa, and Lisa would score. She was the focal point of everyone's defense, and it didn't matter." Tara VanDerveer

In 2002, Leslie was the first player to dunk in a WNBA game. She won two championships (2001, '02), three regular-season MVP awards (2001, '04, '06) and was named an All-Star eight times. She was the first player in league history to score 6,000 points.

"She knew how to win at this level, how to lead at this level, how to carry a team at this level," said Sparks coach Brian Agler, who coached against Leslie in the WNBA starting in 1999.

Leslie is also among the most decorated athletes in Olympic history, as she won gold with Team USA in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008.

She was the most difficult matchup on the floor in any game she played for a decade and a half.

"She carried the torch for a long time in women's basketball," Parker said.

Leslie's reputation on the floor was as a player who always wanted the ball, didn't shy away from the spotlight and, in the early days of her career, didn't love the physical punishment that came her way.

Off the court, she was an ambassador and for years the highest profile player in the women's game. This year, she is being recognized for the sum total of her contributions and inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Hall of Fame just a few months apart.

It is an interesting ending for a player who had a slightly reluctant beginning.

Leslie's basketball career began rather late, compared to those of many of her contemporaries and certainly today's generation of players, who have been playing in leagues since elementary school.

When she shot up to 6 feet in the sixth grade, Leslie confessed that it "drove her crazy" when people asked if she were a basketball player. She wanted to be a TV weather reporter. But she took up the game anyway, thanks to a friend's begging her to come to tryouts. Turns out, it was fate.

Leslie received recruiting letters before she played a minute of high school basketball, and she became the nation's top recruit out of Morningside High School in Los Angeles, where she made national headlines by scoring 101 points in a single game. She landed at the University of Southern California as the nation's top recruit.

"She wanted to be the person with [the ball] in her hands with the game on the line ... A lot of players shy away from that responsibility, but Lisa, she was a magnet for it." Dawn Staley

Leslie finished her college career as the leading scorer and rebounder in Pac-10 history. But she never played in a Final Four, unlike the rest of her teammates on the 1996 Olympic team coached by Tara VanDerveer.

Instead, Leslie became the prototype center every coach in international basketball wanted.

VanDerveer talked to Leslie on the phone as a high school recruit. Then she had a long run of coaching Leslie on USA Basketball teams, from Leslie's college days playing in the World University Games through the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, where Leslie led the United States to the first of four straight gold medals.

VanDerveer, herself a Naismith inductee, is making the trip to Springfield at Leslie's invitation. Their relationship was testy at times, as VanDerveer challenged Leslie at many turns, both as her coach and on the opposite bench. When Leslie was a college player at USC, VanDerveer told her Stanford posts to keep a forearm in her back because Leslie didn't like the contact.

One of those Stanford posts came back to the post at one point and told VanDerveer, "She doesn't like it. She told me to stop," VanDerveer recalled with a chuckle. "I said, 'That's why we are doing it.'"

VanDerveer said she thinks Leslie now appreciates how hard she was on her.

"It's like that for a lot of the great players," VanDerveer said. "Even if they are mad at you at the time."

Former USC coach Marianne Stanley recruited Leslie to revive USC's program, which had not seen glory days since Cheryl Miller's time.

"I remember how much promise [Leslie] had," Stanley said. "She was a 6-foot-5 kid who had done tremendous things in high school, but college basketball was going to be more physicality, more pressure and more visibility. It was a big step up. And she had to do it as a freshman. She wasn't tutored or mentored by another player. She was in the starting lineup right away."

VanDerveer called Leslie a "combination of size, athleticism, coordination, grace, speed and hands."

"She produced in big games," VanDerveer said. "She always came through when we needed her to. [Staley] would come down with the ball, and everybody in the gym knew it was going to Lisa, and Lisa would score. She was the focal point of everyone's defense, and it didn't matter. She was still going to get the ball, and she was still going to score."

Los Angeles Sparks general manager Penny Toler and Leslie have known each other since they were teenagers. As founding players for the Sparks in the WNBA, they were roommates on the road. Then Toler was the Sparks' general manager at the end of Leslie's playing career.

Toler said she went home and cried in 2009 when Leslie announced she was retiring, and she tried to talk her old friend into playing a few more years.

"I figured that 80 percent of Lisa Leslie was better than 100 percent of anybody else in the league," Toler said.

Toler said she remembers how, in the early days of the WNBA, many post players around the league came to training camp slimmer and quicker, hoping to emulate Leslie's game.

"That was the ultimate compliment to her," Toler said.

Parker herself was mentored by Leslie when she was drafted by the Sparks into the league in 2008. Parker and Leslie played two seasons together.

"I learned a lot from her," Parker said. "The importance of working and lifting and eating right and being a mom and playing a sport. She taught me all of it."

Leslie led while evolving her own game. Agler said Leslie was viewed as a "finesse" player early in her career, but she developed an unmistakable toughness as she got older.

"She got to be nasty around the rim," Agler said. "She didn't back down from anything, and I think that was the key to the championships that Los Angeles won those two years. There was a mental and physical toughness to her game later in her career."

Staley, now coaching at South Carolina, keeps in close touch with Leslie, who is raising her two children in Los Angeles with her husband, Michael Lockwood. Leslie is a part-owner of the Sparks, along with Lakers legend and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Magic Johnson. Leslie runs her own business enterprises, is a television host and does public speaking engagements.

But the fierce and fearless competitor is what Staley will always see -- the one who only needed a well-placed prod to be the best player on the planet.

"She wanted the ball. She wanted to be the person with it in her hands with the game on the line," Staley said. "She loved to score, and she loved the spotlight. A lot of players shy away from that responsibility, but Lisa, she was a magnet for it."