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BEIJING 2008 / HELENE ELLIOTT

Leslie is handing off the golden torch

August 24, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT

BEIJING — The medal on the green ribbon was Lisa Leslie's first golden Olympic souvenir. She won it in Atlanta in 1996, when she was 24 and wondering if she'd have to abandon basketball for modeling because there was no women's pro league in America where she could earn a living.

The medal on the blue ribbon came from the 2000 Sydney Games. By then a star in the WNBA, she helped the U.S. women beat the hometown favorites for their second successive Olympic championship.

The medal on the multi-colored ribbon is from Athens in 2004, when Leslie and Team USA extended their Olympic winning streak to 25 games, the last by again defeating Australia.

The medal suspended from a bright red ribbon was a new addition to the jumble of fabric looped around her neck. It was placed there Saturday after the U.S. routed the cold-shooting Aussies, 92-65, at Wukesong Arena, and it will be the last in her fabulous collection.

Knowing this would be her Olympic finale, Leslie -- now 36 and mother of a 14-month-old daughter -- brought her three gold medals to Beijing. She had rolled them up in a satin bag and stashed them in her room at the athletes' village until Saturday, when she pulled them out for all the world to see her wear.

"It was my vision," she said. "My dream was to have four gold medals around my neck by the time we finished our last game here in Beijing."

And so she did, becoming the first female Olympic basketball player to win four consecutive gold medals. She is one medal overall behind Teresa Edwards, who won gold in 1984 and 1988, bronze in 1992, and gold in 1996 and 2000.

Leslie is the bridge from Edwards' generation to the future, an era that will showcase Candace Parker -- Leslie's teammate with the Sparks -- and Sylvia Fowles, and other talented young women streaming out of college and into the WNBA.

"That's what USA Basketball is all about, passing the torch," guard Sue Bird said. "Your legacy, of course, starts with gold medals. Lisa has four. No one can ever take that away from her.

"She's a major reason why basketball in the U.S., not just Olympic-wise but WNBA-wise, is what it is today."

Leslie wanted her last opponent to be Australia, in deference to the teams' great battles over the years, but she did not go out with a grand game in which she dominated the boards and the score sheet. She contributed a respectable 14 points and pulled down a team-high seven rebounds but fouled out with 6:33 left in the fourth quarter.

She could have played cautiously after she got her fourth foul in order to wring the last minutes out of her Olympic career but instead was assertive and strong in a game that called for bold play and tight defense.

She had been a nervous wreck during Team USA's semifinal victory over Russia, but she was serene on Saturday.

"I was in a very calm place, very peaceful," she said. "I knew I had to come out and play very physical, jump-start our team, so I tried to come out and be aggressive and let our team know I was there, ready to fight the fight for us."

Although she wasn't in the game when time ran out, she exited on a good note, at the right time, while she could still play at a high level and had the credibility to set an example young players were eager to follow.

She was embraced by teammates when she reached the bench, but her thoughts were not about herself or her emotions.

"I was really thinking more about Candace and Sylvia. Those are the babies and just the fact I felt good about what I was able to do to contribute as a leader in helping them," she said.

"Sylvia did the running hook that I just showed her five days ago. Candace got her chance to get out there and cross people over and get to the basket, and that's what it's about, passing the torch."

And she passed it with steady hands, though she joked that she had grown tired of hearing teammates say they had grown up watching her play or gotten her autograph when they were kids.

"We've only been together for one month, but I've never seen a team so unselfish in a short period of time," she said.

"That's what really scared me about coming back to play with a younger group. I was, 'I hope they're not about themselves and thinking about points and all that,' and I could not have been more wrong about what these young ladies were about.

"It was all about team, for every minute, every second, and that's what made us successful."

She leaves the U.S. women's program in good hands. Fowles, 22, said Leslie and Tina Thompson "paved the way for us to be here." She added, "We appreciate everything they've done to get us this far, but I can definitely see us taking it to the next level."

It will take a lot of doing to match Leslie's feats.

"I wore this uniform for the last time, and I won my fourth gold medal," Leslie said, "and I've given it my all."

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@ latimes.com. To read previous columns, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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