Given her many accomplishments, it might go unnoticed that Sparks center Lisa Leslie, who played her final regular-season game on Sunday, had the best shooting percentage this season (51.8) of her WNBA career. "That's what separates Smooth," says Los Angeles coach Michael Cooper. "She is never satisfied with what she did last year."
Leslie, 37, who will retire after the playoffs—the Sparks face the Storm in the Western Conference semifinals beginning Wednesday—has been working to improve herself since a middle-school tryout a quarter century ago in Compton, Calif. Players were divided into righties and lefties for layups; finding herself alone on the southpaw side, Leslie committed herself to becoming as deft with her right hand as with her left. All she did after that was make herself into the best back-to-the-basket center the women's game has ever seen.
The 6'5" Leslie also became a reliable outside threat, but that doesn't begin to describe her impact on the WNBA. In her 12 years (she sat out the 2007 season after giving birth to a daughter) Leslie was a two-time champion, a three-time MVP, an eight-time All-Star, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and in 2002 she became the first woman to dunk in a pro game. On top of that, she is the only person on the planet who has won four consecutive Olympic basketball gold medals.
Along the way she served as the game's most recognizable face, a model of grace, dignity and competitiveness. "Lisa was impossible not to notice," Lynx guard Candice Wiggins wrote on the Los Angeles Times website last week. "Watching her inspired me to compete."
Leslie didn't envision such a powerful legacy when she retired the first time, after the 1996 Olympics, to pursue a modeling career. When the WNBA started a year later, Leslie viewed it as a minor diversion. "I thought, Oh, a little summer league," she says. Thanks to her, it became much more.