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There have been other women players with flair, including Lynette Woodard of Kansas, Nancy Lieberman of Old Dominion and Andrea Stinson of North Carolina State, but none has had Miller's impact. Many of today's college players credit her with making them see their own possibilities in the sport. Little girl players fantasized about being Cheryl Miller the way little boy players fantasize about being Michael Jordan.
For Leslie, the comparison to Miller, who helped the Trojans win two national championships, is inescapable. She helped ensure that by choosing Miller's alma mater. There has been no national title at USC so far in the Leslie Era (the Trojans were 18-12 and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament last season), but with four returning starters, a trip to the Final Four at the L.A. Sports Arena in April is a reasonable goal.
The question isn't so much whether Leslie can be as good a player as Miller, as it is whether she can be as compelling. As dynamic. As important. The general feeling is that if Leslie possesses the same intensity, the same enthusiasm as Miller did, it's not evident. Not yet, at least. "Lisa has the potential to be as dominant as Cheryl, but she's not as flamboyant," says Washington coach Chris Gobrecht.
But Leslie is sure of her talent. "I don't want this to sound like I'm cocky or anything," she says. "But by the time I get to my senior year, I think I can be just as good as Cheryl."
And what about the rest of it? What about being the crowd-pleaser that Miller was? Is this the year she begins to lift not only her team, but the entire sport, as well? "This year," says Leslie, "I have to get more assists."
Maybe the entire premise is flawed. The suggestion that women's basketball can't begin to approach the appeal of the men's game without at least one transcendent star may be slighting the women as a whole. Most observers of women's basketball say there is loads of talent out there, more than there has been before, and they are right.
Watch Virginia guard Dawn Staley penetrate and somehow slip the ball to an open teammate. Watch Georgia guard Lady Hardmon, a remarkable leaper and open-court player. Watch shooters like Providence's Tracy Lis, Tammi Reiss of Virginia and Rehema Stephens of USC (box, page 85), and all-around players like forward Susan Robinson of Penn State (page 114) and guard MaChelle Joseph of Purdue, and it's clear that the women's game has its share of exciting players. And there are others of whom equally great things are expected: freshmen such as Notre Dame guard Michelle Marciniak and Tennessee point guard Tiffany Woosley.
Stanley acknowledges that Leslie has "a chance to be one of the best players ever" but thinks there's no need to find a single star of stars. "We've grown to the point where there arc a number of outstanding players of Olympic caliber," Stanley says. "We're beyond the point where the sport is focused on any one individual. The game's too good, too exciting to ignore. Our best players have to be visible, sure, people like Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley. But I don't think our fortunes and visibility as a sport depend solely on what they do."
Women's basketball has grown tremendously in many areas—more talent, more fans, more television exposure—and many within the game want the focus now to be on what the sport has to offer, not on what it may lack. Ask most women's coaches about the future of the game and they will first make sure you understand how far it has come.
They have a lot to talk about. Attendance at Division I women's games has increased each of the past 10 seasons and has more than doubled since 1982, from 1.18 million to 2.4 million last year. "I'd love to dig up stats on the men's game when it was 10 years old," says Gobrecht. Gross revenue from the NCAA tournament in its first nine years grew more than sixfold, from $360,000 in 1982 to $2.31 million in 1990.