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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

She May Put the Model in Role Model

Basketball: After striking gold, Leslie considers her career options on runway.

August 05, 1996|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Women's basketball is ready to try again, but can any start-up professional league make it without its sport's biggest star?

The gold medal barely around her neck, Lisa Leslie says she is exhausted and eager to try something else.

The two professional leagues that will start next year, hoping to ride the wave of the U.S. women's Olympic gold, might have to toss up the first jump ball without her.

"I plan to model first," said Leslie, the striking former USC star who has signed a contract with the Wilhelmina agency. "I will play the game again. I'm not sure about when and where."

If it's not on opening day for the American Basketball League or the Women's NBA, their odds get longer.

Leslie, 24, is the game's most effervescent personality, a role she embraces. The smile is willing, but the body and mind, for the moment, are not saying yes. And she insists that's no negotiating ploy.

"I'm just tired. I don't know what I'll feel in two weeks," Leslie said. "I've been playing basketball nonstop for 10 years."

Watch her on the court and hear the words "runway model," and you think more fighter jet than Kate Moss. Leslie scored 29 points, blocked two shots and picked up six rebounds Sunday as the Americans shot down Brazil, 111-87. After some quiet early-round games, she glided through the medal round averaging 28.7 points and nine rebounds, making an incredible 74.5% of her shots. As the Brazilians noted, people don't even do that in the NBA.

But by the time Leslie emerged from the locker room Sunday, she was in full-on Wilhelmina mode. Six feet five before she steps into spike heels, she wore the sleekest of dresses, a tropical floral print of green, blue and orange hues that perfectly set off the gold medal on its deep-green ribbon.

"Over the next five years, I'd definitely like some little girl to be looking at me as someone who's a woman, intelligent, attractive and an athlete," Leslie said.

"Basketball has gotten me this far, it's gotten me the gold medal. I want to show that on the court you can be very aggressive and strong and work hard. I like my image. I hope it remains the same, as a basketball player as well as a model."

It isn't particularly fair, but the future of women's basketball in this country might depend on the decisions made by Leslie and the rest of the Olympic team. Guard Ruthie Bolton says she'll play professionally next season, but didn't rule out playing abroad. And if the Olympians don't carry the new leagues, no one will.

"They have to make the best decision for their individual careers," U.S. Coach Tara VanDerveer said. "She's tired. In time she'll reevaluate things, but she is tired.

"I think they just have to get this established. I think the ABL has to make a decision to let people play in both leagues."

It's not clear yet what the parameters are going to be, though the seasons won't be concurrent. The ABL will have a winter schedule. The NBA-sponsored league will play in the spring and summer.

"I don't think there's any pressure on me at all," Leslie said. "There are many great players, including my teammates. I'm not saying I won't play at all. Right now I'm just tired and I'd like to pursue other interests."

But if she wants to play in arenas where the fans speak her language, she'd better not dally long.

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