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Lisa Leslie wants to go out a winner

The Sparks center, the leading scorer and rebounder in WNBA history, embarks on her final playoff run.

September 16, 2009|Mark Medina

It became the turning point of her final WNBA season.

In a locker-room meeting, three-time MVP Lisa Leslie went from teammate to teammate and dissected how each could help turn things around for the struggling Sparks. That included herself.

"I asked each person, 'Is it OK for me to be honest with you? You guys can be honest with me,' " Leslie said. " 'If I'm not working hard and I'm not bringing it, tell me.' "

The Sparks (18-16) closed out the regular season winning 10 of their last 13 games and secured a No. 3 seeding in the Western Conference playoffs. They host Game 1 tonight at Staples Center against a heated rival, the Seattle Storm, in what Leslie hopes will lead to her third championship.

At the time of that locker-room meeting last month, the Sparks had sputtered to an 8-13 record and appeared on the verge of missing the playoffs.

Those present said Leslie's analysis reshaped the team's attitude, which then sparked the turnaround.

"There were opinions," forward Tina Thompson said. "Some people agreed with them and some people didn't. But that's what a leader does."

For Leslie, a 6-foot-5 center who is retiring after 12 seasons as the league's all-time leader in points (6,263) and rebounds (3,307), this is nothing new.

"That's kind of what my job has always been," said Leslie, 37, who was drafted by the Sparks in 1997 and went on to set numerous records.

Yet, this season has also "been such a grind just to get to this point," she admitted.

In training camp, she injured her right thumb and was limited to 10.4 points and 7.4 rebounds in the first five games, far below her career averages of 17.3 points and 9.2 rebounds.

Then she was forced to sit out the next 11 games because of a sprained right knee.

But her approach never changed. Never give up.

"Everything she's doing, I'm soaking it in," Coach Michael Cooper said. "It's like that old movie reel. Once the last game is played, and hopefully for us it will be a championship game, there's not going to be any more.

"We're going to really miss her."

The Sparks certainly missed Leslie while she was injured.

Since her return, Leslie's performances have reminded Cooper of her prime years.

She eclipsed the 6,000 career-point mark this season and has led the team with 15.4 points a game, a clip forward DeLisha Milton-Jones says "epitomizes what Lisa has been about her entire career."

Case in point: Leslie also sat out 11 games in 2003 after suffering a left knee injury in the WNBA All-Star game. After the Sparks went 4-7 in her absence, Leslie averaged 16.8 points in the last five games of the regular season.

She averaged 20.8 points in the playoffs and led the Sparks to the finals, where they lost to Detroit.

Sparks forward Candace Parker, deemed to be Leslie's successor as the league's ambassador, often jokes with Leslie that she could last another 15 years simply because of her determination.

Said Parker: "I always say, it would be a wrap for me. When I'm 34, I'm out."

Instead, Sparks assistant Marianne Stanley -- who coached Leslie at USC where the former Inglewood Morningside High star finished as the Pacific 10 Conference's all-time leading scorer and rebounder -- views this latest comeback effort as another bar Leslie has set for the game.

"This is something that if those around her are really paying attention," said Stanley, "it's once again a learning tool for younger players that it's not over until that last buzzer sounds."

Even if it means fighting sickness.

In late August, Leslie had flu and then abstained from antibiotics to avoid drowsiness. Leslie still has what she calls a "dry cough" which she says has often made it hard to breathe.

Leslie's resiliency is nothing new to former Morningside coach Frank Scott. He saw her lead the Monarchs to the 1990 state championship with 35 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocked shots against Berkeley High, despite having chicken pox and a 102-degree fever.

Scott remains more impressed with that accomplishment than when Leslie scored 101 points in two quarters against South Torrance High.

"There was no way she was not going to play in that state championship game," Scott said. "Even if she had to wear a bag over her head, I think she still would've played because it meant so much to her."

Leslie's two broken knee braces illustrate what this final WNBA season means to her.

"It comes down to work ethic," she said. "I only know how to play one way."

That approach has usually been defined in her mission statement -- a two-to-three page paper in which she outlines her goals.

As a child, her goals entailed becoming a weather caster and then a model. When she joined the WNBA in the league's first year in 1997, Leslie's mission statement focused on basketball.

For the 2009 season, Leslie did not do a mission statement.

Asked why she didn't follow what she preaches in every public appearance, Leslie paused for seven seconds.

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