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For the U.S., Leslie still the guiding force

August 16, 2008|K.C. Johnson | Chicago Tribune

BEIJING -- The U.S. women's basketball team spent part of today touring the Great Wall.

In the specific universe that is women's basketball, Lisa Leslie is a similar institution.

The four-time Olympian and team captain suffered a minor left hip injury in the Americans' Friday night victory over Spain. Given that a lead shriveled quickly as she briefly exited to attend to the injury, Coach Anne Donovan wants no part in imagining life without Leslie.

More proof of Leslie's influence? She skipped the 2006 world championships to give birth to her daughter, and Russia upset Team USA in the semifinals.

"When we struggled at the world championships, a big reason was not having Lisa in the hole," Donovan said. "For our perimeter players, they know if Lisa is behind them and they get beat off the dribble, she's there to at least change the shot if not block it.

"Her influence on the court, you can't put it into words. Off the court, she sets the standard for sure."

Her teammates reveal that Leslie is queen of the corny joke. But it's no joke to say that, at 36, she has influenced every player on the roster with her skill, experience or expertise.

"Oh my gosh, I don't even know where to start," forward Tamika Catchings said. "I remember in 1996, that was my first time watching the Olympic team. And from that moment, I thought if I can ever make the team and play for a gold medal, that's what I want to do, and I want to play with her.

"My first experience playing with Lisa at the world championships in 2002, I knew she was an effective player. But I guess I never knew how effective she was until I actually was on her team and had to go against her."

Through four games, Leslie is averaging 11 points and 8.8 rebounds. Her presence still draws double teams and opens opportunities for players to whom she's passing the torch, such as Candace Parker.

Guard Diana Taurasi raved about witnessing Leslie's focus and preparation at the 2004 Athens Olympics, lessons Taurasi said she still uses here.

"People say, 'Lisa's not the same,' " Taurasi said. "Uh, Lisa is as dominant as ever. . . . When you lose some things to age, you pick up other things in experience. And her leadership always will be there."

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