The U.S. women's basketball team was shooting layups as it warmed up for the gold medal game against Spain last summer at the World University Games in Sheffield, England. Lisa Leslie, USC's spectacular 6'5" center/forward, had made several trips through the layup line, taking an ordinary shot each time. That was not what anyone wanted to see. Not the crowd. Not her teammates. Not even her coaches.
That's because two things come to mind with the mention of Leslie's name. One is her 101-point performance two years ago as a senior at Morningside High in Inglewood, Calif., an effort even more amazing because it was achieved before halftime, after which the disheartened opposition packed its bags and went home. The other thing associated with Leslie is the dunk.
And Leslie can dunk, no small feat in women's basketball. West Virginia's Georgeann Wells, a 6'7" center who did it in 1985, is the only woman ever to have dunked in a college game. Leslie somehow failed to do it last year as a USC freshman, but everyone who has seen her slam the ball in practice, in pickup games, just about everywhere but in an official game, is certain she will join Wells this season.
It was obvious, then, that a Leslie dunk was what everyone in Sheffield Arena was hoping for—obvious, apparently, to everyone but Leslie. Finally, the U.S. coach, Tara VanDerveer of Stanford, took matters into her own hands. "Well, Lisa," she said, as Leslie wandered by, "go ahead and do it."
Leslie grabbed a ball, took a few dribbles and jammed it through, sending a jolt through the crowd and igniting a buzz that continued as Leslie again jogged past VanDerveer. Shrugging, the player said, "All you had to do was ask."
That's typical of Leslie. She is aware of the eyes on her, of the hopes that she will be not just a star but the kind of superstar who can elevate the women's game to the next level in national popularity. She responds to those expectations much as she did to those that permeated the crowd in England: She is confident of her talent but somehow seems to hold herself back—on the court, as well as off it—afraid of seeming immodest. You get the feeling that Leslie is capable of being every bit the drawing card that some think women's basketball needs, but that she isn't quite sure she should be so presumptuous as to try to fill that role. Maybe all the sport needs to do is ask.
"A lot of coaches have said I have the potential to be the kind of player who can help women's basketball reach more people," Leslie says. "I guess you never know when you've fulfilled those expectations. All I can do is try to be the kind of player my team needs, and if that's what women's basketball as a whole needs—great! But my first responsibility is to USC."
It's hard to be a breakout star when you're also trying to fit in. Leslie had a successful freshman season by any standard: She averaged 19.4 points, 10 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots, which led the Trojans in all three categories, and she was voted the Pac-10's Freshman of the Year. But she also committed nearly four fouls a game and fouled out nine times. She found herself needing to concentrate more on her role with the Trojans than her role in the future of the women's game.
"I think it was a revelation to Lisa that there were weaknesses in her game that other people could exploit," says USC coach Marianne Stanley. "There's a lot that she's still learning. She's like the colt who wants to get up and go and isn't real secure with all the skills yet."
There is a fine line between star player and entertainer, an even finer one between entertainer and hot dog. No one walked that line more adeptly than former USC star Cheryl Miller, the 6'3" wonder who brought the women's game more attention than it had ever enjoyed when she played for the Trojans from 1982 to '86. In addition to being remarkably multitalented, Miller was emotional and theatrical, sometimes even melodramatic. The media loved her, and women's basketball rode her shirttail to greater recognition and popularity.