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Leslie Enjoys Finest Hour

In her 10th season, the Sparks center has never played better. She hopes it ends with another title.

July 12, 2006|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

What a season Lisa Leslie is having.

Familiar words. For 10 seasons, the 34-year-old center who grew up in Inglewood has been a star for the WNBA.

But for Leslie, who takes the court tonight in Madison Square Garden as the Sparks' lone representative in the All-Star game, this may be the best season of her life.

And that's saying something, considering she led the team to two championships.

As usual, she is a statistical storehouse -- the WNBA's fourth-leading scorer this season at a career-best 20.1 points a game, and among the top five in rebounding (9.4), blocked shots (1.67) and double-doubles (nine).

Leslie agrees there may be something special going on.

"From an individual perspective this could turn out to be my best year," she said, with no trace of boast. "When you look at my numbers, definitely. To me it's a sign I continue to improve. So, honestly I'm not too surprised."

Improvement over last season wouldn't be hard. Despite a groin injury, which can heal only with rest, she pushed herself and played all 34 games. Not surprisingly, she averaged a career-low 15.2 points. Her 7.3 rebounding average was her lowest in a full season.

But career years aren't produced in a vacuum. The Sparks, who have seven new players including four rookies, are the surprise leaders of the Western Conference and hold the league's best record at 16-5. They've gotten this far not just because of Leslie. Six-time All-Star Chamique Holdsclaw is a scoring threat any time she has the ball. Playmaking guard Mwadi Mabika, healthy after missing parts of two seasons with leg injuries, is averaging 9.4 points per game.

With the season she is having, Leslie is satisfied that she still has plenty of ball left to play.

"I am very goal oriented," she said. "I'm always finding things I can't do in this game and want to do them. I strive for it."

For example, Leslie said, when she first entered the WNBA her primary move was to use her left shoulder to turn away from a defender and shoot with her right hand. But over the years she has learned to shoot the hook shot with either hand; drive to the basket from the free-throw line; shoot the three-point shot; and this season, become a better passer.

"It's like I can now see the game in slow motion," said Leslie, who is averaging a career-best 3.4 assists.

Still, it's not like Leslie's resume needs polishing.

She is the league's all-time leading scorer and rebounder, and on June 25 became the first WNBA player to score 5,000 career points in league play.

In 2001, she became the first player to win all three MVPs -- for the regular season, All-Star game and playoffs.

She was the playoffs MVP again in 2002 when the Sparks won their second title.

In 2004, she again was selected MVP for the regular season and defensive player of the year.

Throw in three Olympic gold medals and two FIBA world championships as a member of the U.S. national team and it has been a career anyone this side of Sheryl Swoopes would kill for.

Fortunately for the Sparks, it's a career not yet on the downside.

"Absolutely no question, this is the best I've seen her play," said San Antonio Coach Dan Hughes, whose Silver Stars were on the wrong end of Leslie's career-high 41-point game on June 25. "And I would have said that before the pretty good games she's had against us.

"The thing I appreciate about her is she finds a way to self-motivate herself. She's a good student of the game and she has such a high standard, and that something has motivated her from last year. I've seen her in Charlotte, in Cleveland and I've seen her here. But I don't think I've ever seen a better total package than what I see right now with Lisa in regard to leadership, performance and controlling the game as a dominant player can."

Mabika, who has been Leslie's teammate since the league began in 1997, agrees.

"Each year she gets better and better. Out of the 10 years in this league she's probably had only two bad games. And I mean games, not years," Mabika said.

"She still has that energy. She comes out every single night wanting to be better. That's the heart of a champion right there. You don't have that many people that will bring it every single night. But she is one of them."

But if Leslie isn't worried about diminishing desire, last season's injury was cause for concern.

She put the blame on herself for the groin injury, which came in training camp, because she had not done her normal training in the off-season. Instead of her usual rigorous workouts, she worked as a studio analyst for ESPN's coverage of women's college basketball.

"I know I wasn't playing well because of injuries. I couldn't jump, rebound or box out all on one play," Leslie said. "The injury was as deep of a pulled muscle as you can have. I did the ice tank every day before games but did not heal until after the season.

"My uncle Craig told me if I come back the way I played last year it was time to retire."

Instead of retiring, she gained an emotional anchor.

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