WNBA pioneer will make farewell tour

By Jeff Metcalfe
Updated: March 8, 2009

PHOENIX — Curly Neal greeted Lisa Leslie with a kiss on the cheek during NBA All-Star Weekend at the Phoenix Convention Center.

“My hero,” said Neal, a profound endorsement coming from one of the greatest Harlem Globetrotters.

That chorus will only grow in the next seven months as Leslie, arguably the most influential women’s basketball player of all time, makes a farewell tour to wrap up her 12-year pro career.

One of the foundational players upon which the WNBA was built after the 1996 Olympics, Leslie considered retiring after last season and after she won her fourth Olympic gold medal.

I had to make the announcement I was pregnant and not play (in 2007),” Leslie said. “I thought it would be nice if I could make the announcement this would be my last year and provide the fans with an opportunity to have autographs and see me play for the last time.”

Leslie also will continue as a mentor for 22-year-old Parker, who is due to give birth to her first child in early May. Leslie expects Parker back with the Sparks in early July.

“Candace is still working out now,” she said. “She’ll snap back quickly.”

Leslie says her view of life has changed dramatically since giving birth to her daughter Lauren.

“Every baby that goes by, I have to say hi to and wave, or if a mom needs helps, make sure I’m assisting them,” she said. “I’m aware of so much more, just more giving, more compassionate, so much more selfless and aware of the whole universe, about taking care of it, going green.”

Leslie also is helping raise two stepdaughters with her husband Michael Lockwood, a pilot and author of “Women Have All the Power: Too Bad They Don’t Know It!”

Leslie knows it but is judicious in the use of her power. The 6-foot-5 center has infuriated college, international and pro opponents with her talent and elbows since 1991. Yet her basketball exterior quickly softens off the court, where she comes off as anything but a villain.

“She just gives back so much to the community no matter where she is,” said Reneé Brown, WNBA chief of basketball operations who met Leslie when she was 14.

“She’s done a tremendous job with Candace but also with all our younger players. She’s a teacher and wants to give back and doesn’t need any credit for it. She’s done an outstanding job of getting players ready to be professionals.

“Her handprint is on the WNBA and USA Basketball, and she has left both of them in great hands.”

Leslie is first in WNBA career points and rebounds, and she and Teresa Edwards are the only U.S. four-time Olympic gold medalists.

She said the first Olympic gold, won in 1996 in Atlanta, remains her career highlight “because we had 35,000 fans cheering, and we won in our country.” An even greater accomplishment could be her role in helping to carry the WNBA forward.

Leslie is interested in owning or investing in a WNBA team but remains a realist about the league’s future.

“We’ve had some teams come, some teams go, but we’re surviving,” she said. “We’re fighting and trying to keep our head above water. Now with the economy where it is does not help us.”

“We’re going to continue to play hard and work hard and give back to our communities and be role models. Hopefully we can hang on to those fans that can get through this and create more fan awareness as we go into the future.”

Leslie’s final regular-season game will be in Phoenix against the Mercury on Sept. 13. The Sparks and Mercury are intense rivals, and a lot could be at stake playoff-wise in the nationally televised game.

“Phoenix fans, they really get it,” Brown said. “They understand good basketball. I expect for them to show up and give Lisa a respectable send-off.”