Lisa Leslie an Obvious Fit for U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee Hall of Fame
A four-time Olympic champion, Leslie is one of the most decorated basketball players in Olympic history.
Nobody who knows anything about basketball would question Lisa Leslie’s induction into the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee Hall of Fame, given her legendary international career.
But when you take a deeper look at Leslie’s career and consider that on Friday she became just the fourth individual from the basketball community — male or female — to enter the USOPC Hall, she stands even taller than her 6-foot-5 frame did when she patrolled the lane as an athlete.
Leslie, now 47, is the first Olympic basketball player to win four consecutive gold medals (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008), holds the U.S. Olympic women’s single-game scoring record (35 points), has the top three scoring performances in a single Olympic competition, as well as most blocked shots (14) in a single Olympic Games. She also holds USA Basketball Olympic career scoring (488 points) and rebounding (271) records.
“I really think the key to the undefeated runs (32-0 in four Olympic Games) was just being selfless, you know, very unselfish, not caring about and never really focusing on the points and all these records,” Leslie said prior to her induction. “I had no idea. I just found out I had these Olympic records. I never knew those things. Leading scorer, rebounders all those individual things that are records, I had no idea. It was really about our team and sacrificing self for the next player, following our coaches’ game plans and really, you know, instinctively having that pride in our red, white and blue, and I really appreciate just being a part of the USA Basketball system for such a long time.”
The other USA Basketball representatives in the Hall of Fame are players Teresa Edwards and David Robinson, coach Henry Iba and the 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1992 U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Teams.
To hear Leslie talk about team accomplishments over individual achievements should not be surprising. She made her first USA Basketball team as an 11th-grader at Morningside High School in Inglewood, California, and took cues from all of the players around her as she developed her skills.
“I think the culture of having the experience as a young player to see older players, to see more experienced players, to see players that are better than you play your position is helpful, because you can see where you are,” Leslie said. “And then you can also see sort of where you can get to. It can help you to set goals and aspire to be better. And so I remember, I've always been the type of player who takes little pieces from other players or admire things. So, Dawn Staley, obviously one of the best passers, we had just an unspoken connection, and her ability to pass the ball made me a better catcher — I had to get that ball, I don't care if I was falling out of bounds. Do not let that ball (go). Do not let her get a turnover.
“... But then Teresa Edwards, great hands, she could steal the ball from anybody. ... And then I looked at Katrina McClain, who was the most phenomenal rebounder ever, and I improved being an offensive rebounder, because I had an opportunity to play in practice and watch her. I mean, Katie Smith, amazing outside shooter, could post up, nice touch, you know, I could go on and on from each one of my teammates of things that they brought.”
It wasn’t only Leslie wanting to take in what the other players had to offer, but the other players willing to share their experiences and help a younger player out.
“I think it really is about that sisterhood of when you are the youngest,” Leslie said. “You come in, and you're sort of wide open and you're open to learning and taking feedback and criticism, but you also are inspired by how hard the other Olympians play. And those players with the experience, you know how focused they are. I remember Ruthie Bolton, who was a little bit older than me, and we made one of our first USA teams together (for the 1991 World University Games), but just her work ethic. I mean off the court, you know, lifting weights and doing pushups and sit-ups. And I always loved working out, but to be next to her as an Olympian, it inspired me to always want to work out and stay fit.”
There were plenty of indelible moments along the way, but what sticks out was that first gold medal, won on the home turf of Atlanta.
“I think one of my favorite Olympic memories was the ’96 Olympics being on the gold medal stand,” Leslie said. “I remember the days building up to us getting to our semifinal games and then our gold medal game. Seeing other Olympians win and crying on the podium. I'm like, ‘Oh my God, this is so fake. Like, everybody wants to be on the box of Wheaties.’ I wasn't really sure, because I had never felt that emotion until we had our day, and we beat Brazil and we are on the podium, and I'm just crying and I'm like, ‘Oh, I get it.’ It's that moment of, you know, you're overwhelmed because you work (so hard). Literally, blood, sweat and tears go into the hard work.
“Plus, what we put in that year prior to and we were 60-0, it was all well worth it. But the tears were of passion and of hard work. It was a pride, and then also hearing our national anthem, it still gives me chills because that was the ultimate goal. And we did it, so that's always going to be my most my favorite Olympic moment.”
While Friday’s Hall of Fame induction highlighted the individual accomplishments, Leslie doesn’t forget that it took more than her to get to this point.
“You know, for me to receive an individual award is always amazing, but I would not have been able to do that without my amazing teammates and coaches,” Leslie said. “So, I'm very thankful.”
Steve Drumwright is freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.