I Didn’t Get Here Alone

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I’m just recovering from an unforgettable, whirlwind weekend in Springfield, Mass., where I was honored to be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

But first, I have to apologize to the Hall of Fame committee:

I know. I invited too many people.

My bad.

You see, I had to. I didn’t know what else to do. I just wanted everyone there. For the last few weeks, I have been repeating the same phrase in my head: I didn’t get here alone. I didn’t get here alone. I didn’t get here alone.

When I learned I was being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, I practically invited three full basketball teams worth of family, friends and teammates. I can’t stop thinking about every person who pushed me and supported me. I want them to know how much they mean to me, how much I owe them. My husband, my mom, my sister, my aunts and uncles. My best friend, my coaches, teammates and friends.

It really is an honor. I’m in awe of this opportunity to join some of the most amazing athletes in the world in this hallowed space. I’m very excited, but I feel a little weird about it, too. I pride myself on teamwork and I’ve always stayed conscious of trying not to separate myself from my teammates. So when I do receive individual awards, I always hope that I remember to thank everyone who has assisted me, sometimes literally, and supported my hard work. I have not really reached any of these pinnacles of success without family, coaches, teammates and sponsors.

Often, I have been referred to as the face of the WNBA. But I see my role a little differently. I like to think of it as a privilege to have had the platform passed on to me from so many hardworking women. We all stand on shoulders of others — even when you’re 6’5”.

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Rather than “the face of the WNBA,” I think of myself as a proud torch carrier — a player who received the torch from Cheryl Miller, Dawn Staley, Teresa Edwards, Katrina McClain, Annie Myers, Nancy Lieberman and Cynthia Cooper, to name a few. I carried it as far as I could and then I passed it on to the next group of players, such as Tamika Catchings, Diana Taurasi, Elena Delle Donne, the Ogwumike sisters, Skylar Diggins, Maya Moore and, of course, Candace Parker.

I’m excited about the new generation and how far they can go, which makes me think about how far I’ve come. I think of all the blessings that have been bestowed on me.

Starting with growing up in Compton.

One day, when I was seven years old, I was walking down the street on Atlantic Blvd. with my older sister Dionne. We found a little pink church and went in. The messages of faith, love and inclusion immediately spoke to me then, and they speak to me now. I accepted Christ as a seven-year-old. I didn’t have a real father figure — I only met the man who fathered me one day of my life when I was 12. He wasn’t around, so I never had a dad to shoot hoops with. But I never felt bad about it. I figured it was his loss. However, I do feel like my heavenly Father guided me as a young girl and as a woman. Growing up, I would walk back to this little church all the time and just pray. I have always felt a spiritual connection and I’ve always been a prayerful person. I prayed that I could be successful and that people would see me as beautiful — not odd, but smart, tall and beautiful!

Tall is a word I hear daily. I remember my second grade teacher once called my mom. There was urgency in her voice:

“Are you aware that Lisa’s head and shoulders taller than everyone in the class, including me?”

I was six feet tall in the sixth grade. At age 12, my shoe size was 12. But I was kind of a nerdy kid.

My mother paused. She was, as it turned out, quite aware.

“I’m 6’3” and her father is 6’4”,” my mom replied.

“OK, well then, excuse the call.”

I was six feet tall in the sixth grade. At age 12, my shoe size was 12. But I was kind of a nerdy kid — I loved to learn and compete in classes for the best grade.

I’ve been tall all my life, so I’ve never known anything different. I liked my height. I liked my skin. I liked my hair. I learned to love myself and be thankful for the body God blessed me with. I felt confident as a teen.

It didn’t occur to me as “different” until other people started pointing it out.

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Everywhere I’d go, people would feel the need to comment on my appearance. Adults would come right up to me and say things like, “You’re too tall.” As an eight or 10-year-old girl, how do you respond to that? I think I just internalized it.

I got teased growing up. I was never really bullied but I was teased.

Act your age, not your shoe size, kids liked to say. Oh wait, that’s right, they’re the same.

“Olive Oil” was a crowd favorite because of my skin tone and slim frame.

My mom would always support me. She’d say, “Most people wish they were tall, that’s why they comment on your height. It’s just wishful thinking on their part.” The taller I grew, the more challenging it became to find clothes. I would pray to God for clothes that would fit me and shoes that would fit me. Being “different” meant I had to be creative. At 6’5”, I had to choose from men’s clothing, as most of my peers were still shopping in the teens department. I’d wear men’s blazers and men’s jeans. I’d try weird hats. My favorite item was my pair of leather Oxford shoes my mom brought me from Mexico. I really loved those shoes. They were leather, pointy and formal, but I wore them with everything. I loved them so much they had holes in the bottom. I wouldn’t stop wearing them until that one rainy day I couldn’t avoid all the puddles and got soaked.

Today, I want to tell that little girl kneeling in the church pews with funky shoes and a fedora: Love yourself for who you are. You’re right on track.

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Being a young woman in this society teaches you a lot about people: sometimes we are more comfortable pointing out our differences, real or perceived, than we are pointing out commonalities. Even more so when we’re talking about girls.

Every little girl becomes self-conscious about her body. For me, it was my height. As your body is changing, you’re trying to figure it all out with your own two eyes, looking at yourself. But then you have everyone else’s eyes looking at you, too. Those eyes are evaluating you and judging you. Then you start judging yourself. It’s a cycle that girls are forced to learn from a young age. As you grow up, you have people, adults and kids alike, commenting on your body, on your height, on your weight.

There’s no one cookie-cutter way that a girl should have to identify herself to feel beautiful.

It was only later that I learned: We all develop at different times, in different ways and in different shapes. There’s no one cookie-cutter way that a girl should have to identify herself to feel beautiful. That’s what I tell to my daughter now that I’m a mom.

My mom was my first role model. She always had very “masculine” jobs. She drove an 18-wheeler truck cross-country, and before that she was a mail carrier. To me, she just worked hard. And because our dad wasn’t there, our mom taught us to take care of the family by taking pride in hard work: we mowed our lawn and we cut our hedges, we climbed the ladder and cut down the branches on our trees. When I would work with my mom my nickname was “The Shadow” because anything my mom did, I wanted to do too. But in spite of her toughness, or maybe because of it, she always had her lipstick tucked in her bra and her nails polished. I always saw my mom as tall and beautiful and very feminine — but always willing to do the hard work.

I saw that same work ethic in so many women who came before me who paved the way – women who really knocked down doors for me to have the opportunities that I got. When I was a kid, you barely saw women athletes on television. They weren’t in magazines. They were nearly invisible.

As I grew up, I was very aware of the underappreciated history of women’s basketball, women’s sports and the fight in general for women in our country to create our own space in the workforce, too.

So thank God for Title IX. I wouldn’t be where I am without Title IX, which began in 1972, my birth year. I feel like I’m a Title IX baby. It was a beacon of hope then and it still is. It gave me the opportunity to play in school, for Team USA and later in the WNBA. It’s easy to forget that before the WNBA was founded, many women’s leagues started and failed. If you were a woman and wanted to play ball, you had to go and play overseas and in other countries, like I did in Italy and Russia.

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Last weekend at the Hall of Fame, I only had five minutes to say everything I wanted to say. Due to a teleprompter glitch mid-speech, I didn’t get a chance to properly thank some of the people who helped me the most in my career:

Dawn Staley was a role model to me. Dawn’s the ultimate hard worker. At 5’6“ and 6’5”, we were polar opposites. I’m a Cali girl, she’s a Philly girl. Our fashion styles were totally different. But when we stepped on the court, we were made of the same thing … fire. She had the will to win and always had my back. I never wanted to let her down on the court and that made me strive for perfection.

Marianne Stanley, my coach at USC, was just so special to me. She taught me about leadership. She taught me the importance of leading by example, of never taking a play off. Some people tell people what to do, leaders show them. That was her mentality and it stuck with me. I love her for her honesty and passion to win. It was contagious.

How could I forget about my BFF, Karleen Thompson. She was my teammate at USC, my coach for the Sparks and my best friend for 21 years and counting. No one could understand what it’s like being in the spotlight striving to be your best every day on and off court like she did. When we lost in the finals in Detroit and I refused to change my outfit for three days, she was there. Whether it was raising trophies or crying in defeat, she was there. She knows everything about me. Kar has always been there and I thank God for her friendship and loyalty.

I wouldn’t be here without the support of guys like James Worthy, Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper. I loved the Showtime Lakers. What I’m most thankful to Magic for is letting me play with the guys. They were bigger and stronger, so I had to out-think them. Magic would have me playing with men, running off screens for jumpers. The game was so much faster, and Magic knew it would make me play harder. I always loved playing with the fellas at the gym. I’m so thankful to Magic (and Chris Mullen and other guys) who let me play. Sorry for all those points I dropped on you guys. Couldn’t help it.

Big Game James was a scorer — and I wanted to be a scorer. I felt like he could never miss.

Magic was Magic — the greatest point guard ever! But on the court I admired my role model, James Worthy. Big Game James. Big Game was a scorer — and I wanted to be a scorer. I mean, as a kid I felt like he could never miss. His 17-18 foot jumper was money, his baseline spin move was epic. I would say to myself, That’s the kind of player I want to be. I want to be the go-to player. Big Game James was not boisterous. He was just so even-keeled. So consistent — never too high, never too low.

I’m also so indebted to Coop. Michael Cooper. Coop-a-loop. When Coop was my coach in LA, he would meet me at 5:30 in the morning, four times a week, at the practice facility. Some days he had a big smile, other days he was all business. You could never predict. He was always strategic in finding ways to keep me motivated and on my toes. He’d ask me, “Smooth, what do you wanna work on today?” He called me Smooth because he knew I wanted to play like James Worthy. Each season, I would tell him three moves that I wanted to work on. Coop was always on time and always ready to teach. He made me a better player and he’s become a great friend. I love Coop because he told me the truth and pushed me every day to give my best.

I want to thank Adam Friedman, of Advanced Athletics — my trainer for 13 years in the WNBA. I worked out with Adam every day after practicing with Coop. Sometimes athletes forget to take care of their bodies, but that wasn’t the case for me because I had Adam. So I want to thank Adam for all the early morning days on the track and his constant focus on keeping me 100 percent healthy. A secret to my success was icing my knees after every practice or taking eight-minute ice baths, and weekly massages. It’s not a coincidence that I never had a major injury or surgery.

I’m so thankful to the Sparks and all of my fans. I’m thankful to the late Dr. Buss and the Buss family for all the love and support that they’ve given me and the Sparks. I’m very thankful to the NBA and the WNBA — David Stern, Adam Silver and Renee Brown and all of our presidents past and present. They played a huge part in getting a platform for me to be able to use my voice and be a role model.

And I’m especially thankful to Nike. I’ve been a part of the Nike family for over 25 years now. It’s not just about having great gear, but the relationship that I have there with Sue Levin and Raye Pond — and for the last 10 years, Ilene Hauser. I treasure these women because they have fought for women to have a voice at Nike and a platform on the world’s biggest stages. They always believed that women are just as fierce — and stylish — as men. Thanks for giving us the support to show the world how strong and beautiful we are.

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And I want to say thank you to sports media. I’m really thankful to ESPN and all of our television sponsors over the years because we don’t survive without the television deals that we’ve had — without Tina Thornton and Carol Stiff and others fighting for us to be seen.

Last but not least, my husband has played an essential part of my life on and off the court. He’s my best friend, business partner and boyfriend. My mom used to say, “I want you to have a husband that can go to all your games and be there to rub your feet after the game.” And I used to laugh and think, If he’s at all my games then he clearly doesn’t have a job. But it’s funny how life works. It turns out that husband is an airline pilot, so he can fly for free and he actually came to all of my games over the last four years.

People may not know this detail, but every game I ever played, I took pride in dressing up before the game, wearing my makeup and doing my hair. If young girls out there could only see me play one time, I figured, I wanted them to see a professional female athlete and think, I could do that. I could be like her. I didn’t want a young girl to think that athleticism and beauty were separate things. That’s part of why I feel it is my duty to pass the torch. I wanted to make the point that being a female athlete isn’t odd or different. It’s beautiful.

Now, don’t get me wrong. When I’d suit up and get out onto the court, I wasn’t trying to be pretty. I was going to go right at you. Hence the name of my book, Don’t Let the Lipstick Fool You. I came to win, whether it was practice or a game.

But at the end of the day, I didn’t get here alone.

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Lisa Leslie shies away from labels, but she was the face of the league. She fundamentally changed the game of basketball for women. There will never be another Lisa Leslie.

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