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Los Angeles sparks center Lisa Leslie wasn't sure there was such a thing as an MVP of the WNBA championship series. Nonetheless, while typing up a three-page personal mission statement for 2001, she included winning that award among her goals. She also put down being named regular-season MVP and All-Star Game MVP, leading the league in scoring and rebounding, and seizing a championship—surely one of the most ambitious to-do lists in pro basketball history.
Leslie did win the league and All-Star Game MVP trophies, barely missed the scoring and rebounding titles—her 19.5 points and 9.6 rebounds per game ranked second and third, respectively—and last Saturday nailed down the WNBA championship when the Sparks routed the Charlotte Sting 82-54 to sweep the best-of-three finals. Having dominated the series with 24 points in each game and a total of 21 rebounds, 10 assists and nine blocked shots, the 6'5" Leslie found that earning the championship MVP award hadn't been merely wishful thinking. As she held the crystal Tiffany trophy aloft during the postgame confetti storm, the crowd of 13,141 fans at the Staples Center screamed its approval. "Lisa wasn't going to be denied this year," said LA coach Michael Cooper after the game. "It's like she's been on a mission since the beginning of the season."
Make that since the end of last season, which came crashing to a halt when Leslie and the Sparks, who'd had the best regular-season record (28-4) in the league, lost two straight to the Houston Comets in the Western Conference finals. That sweep reinforced the rap on Leslie: Even though she had splendid skills and a pair of Olympic gold medals—not to mention the looks and poise to command around $1.25 million a year in salary and endorsement deals—she lacked the hunger and mental wherewithal to lead Los Angeles to a championship. "I watched tapes of last year's conference finals and decided I had to become more aggressive and more mentally tough," says Leslie, 29. "I also wanted to improve my passing, my shooting percentage and my ability to drive and dribble, left and right. I wanted to solidify my post game, too. It was time to make an investment in myself."
Upon returning from the Sydney Olympics last fall, she hired a trainer to improve her strength and help prevent the fatigue she often felt in her back. She ran, did yoga, squats and push-ups, and became well-acquainted with a Vertical Enhancement Resistance Training machine, which develops fast-twitch muscles and explosiveness. In January she added four 70-minute on-court sessions a week with Cooper, a former LA Lakers swingman and the 1987 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. They worked on ball handling and other guard skills, and honed a mid-range jumper to complement Leslie's redoubtable handiwork in the post. "We needed to expand her game," says Cooper, who brought in Lakers teammate and midrange master James Worthy for one session. "With the addition of [post players] Rhonda Mapp and Latasha Byears [in off-season trades], we had to find more places where she could play."
Beyond her workouts Leslie's main concern was her stepfather of five years, Tom Espinoza, who learned last December that he had liver cancer. Leslie, whose father left the family when she was two months old, was close to Espinoza and had bought him and her mother, Christine, a house near her own home in Los Angeles the previous May. When Espinoza fell ill, Leslie curtailed her usual off-season travels. "I didn't do the things I normally do," she says. "I didn't go to New York and model. I didn't go overseas. I just hung around with my mom and my stepfather and worked out."
Espinoza died on Jan. 15. "It was tough to see someone I loved dying before my eyes," says Leslie, "but it was motivating, too. I wanted to make the most of the game I loved. I worked really hard at it."
The effort paid off. This season Leslie deployed all the off-the-dribble weapons Cooper had taught her—the penetration, the pull-up jump shot, the spin move. "I call her the Package now," says Sparks assistant Glenn McDonald. "She can shoot the jumper, she can run the lane, she can shoot the hook, she can shoot the three. She does everything."
Leslie showed a wider range of skills on the defensive end as well. She blocked a three-point shot against the Sacramento Monarchs and, against the Utah Starzz, pinned a bank shot to the glass. "That shocked me," says Leslie of the latter feat. "I don't know how I stopped that ball. You see that in the NBA but not in the WNBA."
As for the enhanced aggression Leslie sought coming into the season, she can check that off her list too. "Lisa used to let things get to her," says McDonald. "She pulled away from the contact or complained about it to the refs. This year, no matter how much they banged her, she stayed in there and banged right back. She was not intimidated."
Although Leslie, a sweet-natured woman who reads romance novels, will never be one of the WNBA's goons, she has acquired a "thuggish mentality," says teammate DeLisha Milton. "She used to be feminine and dainty when she ran, like she didn't want anyone to hear her. Now she almost stomps. She wants the other team to hear her coming."